Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship
London Business School

Women on top

In general, CEOs seem just like normal people. Some of them are nice, some of them unpleasant; some of them are modest, others are nauseatingly self-obsessed; some of them are bright, others more mentally challenged; some of them are helpful, others are cynically egotistic (and I could give you examples of each of these). Most of them are quite rich though… And most of them are men.

Yet, over the years, I have also interviewed quite a few female CEOs. Barbara Cassani when she, way back when, was the CEO of Go Airlines (later acquired by Easyjet), Sly Bailey, when she was still CEO of IPC Media (now she is the CEO of the newspaper group Trinity Mirror), Gail Rebuck, CEO of the book publisher Random House (who confirmed the famous story that she signed a big contract when she was in a hospital bed giving birth) and, very recently, Stevie Spring, CEO of magazine publisher Future, and Ruby McGregor-Smith, CEO of the large property services company MITIE. And they are all so nice…!

I mean really. Not nice as in bringing me cookies and pinching my cheek but nice as in helpful, realistic, sympathetic and down-to-earth. And bright. I have never met a dumb female CEO.

And I wonder why that is. I mean, it’s just not normal.

My guess is the following: Ascending to the position of CEO is a bit of a Darwinian process; many people start at the bottom of the corporate ladder; very few reach the highest step. Climbing the ladder, as a woman, you still need something extra – especially when heading a public company, having to deal with “The City”* – at every step. And I guess that something extra is brains and tact (a fairly rare combination, also among professors by the way). Without brains or tact (or both), men can apparently still navigate and survive the corporate jungle. But women without brains or tact get “selected out” quite quickly. Therefore, when you see a woman step up, she is bound to be quite good!

Don’t get me wrong, I have also met male CEOs who are “nice”, as in helpful, realistic, sympathetic and down-to-earth. And pretty much all female CEOs whom I interviewed displayed the attitude “stop whining about it being so difficult for women; just get on with it”, but they also confirmed that they did feel that they needed something extra at every step of the way. It is also not that I am advocating that we should make it easier for women to reach the top and become CEOs, because that would mean that we’d get more CEOs who are unpleasant, nauseatingly self-obsessed, mentally challenged and cynically egotistic. It is just that, in corporate life, we should treat men more like we treat women. That would be quite “nice”.

* “The City” is London’s financial district

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