Tanya Abbey was reluctant to take up the CEO title in her business: Here’s why

Tanya Abbey

Blackwolf Consulting Group chief Tanya Abbey.

This year may well be the year that changes the world, yet the latest global figures of women in senior management roles has stalled at last year’s rate of 29%.

It’s not all bad news. The 2019 figure was the highest ever recorded, and with the economic upheaval created by the coronavirus
pandemic, there will be new opportunities that arise from the fallout.

CEOs around the globe are charged with leading their enterprises forward at a time when leadership is paramount. Gender should hardly be an issue.

Yet, much is made of ‘girl bosses’ in the media and in boardrooms where the appointment of women to CEO roles is regarded as something of a statement.

In Australia, women hold 17% of CEO and heads-of-business roles.

In the US, women lead a record 33 of the Fortune 500 companies — or 6.6% — and in Europe, the figure is 8%.

Female business leadership drops to 2% in India but, incredibly, that remains higher than the figures for both Japan and
South Korea.

Could there be an issue with the CEO title itself?

Perhaps some women, me included, are reluctant to take on the mantle of those imposing three letters with their lofty connotations of superiority and distance.

Many women prefer to be ‘founders’ or ‘talent directors’ or the more comfortable ‘general managers’.

Although I have recently adopted the CEO title in my own business, I concede it was with some reluctance.

Many women see themselves as nurturers of the talent surrounding them and cultural leaders providing fertile conditions for others to flourish.

That should be a given for anyone in a business leadership role, but ‘CEO’ carries with it an air of unapproachability or apartness that maybe doesn’t sit well with many women.

Plus, CEOs have had a bad rap sheet of late.

There are the dizzying salaries, the unconscionable bonuses and the bad corporate behaviour some have presided over or turned a blind eye to — all while championing profits and share prices over people.

It seems the traditional CEO accepts little responsibility for the culture that exists under them.

Indeed, when they are swiftly replaced, boards believe they have excised their problem.

Research funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which has a stated “100×25” objective (the appointment of 100 female Fortune 500 CEOs by 2025), has found women CEOs tend to be slightly older than their male counterparts, reflecting the fact it takes them about 30% longer to reach the top.

The upside of that is they have generally worked in a greater number of roles, functions, companies and industries.

The study found a trait of women CEOs was their drive for a sense of purpose, an overarching belief their companies could make a positive impact on the community, their employees and the world around them.

Women CEOs also score higher in the humility stakes and are much more likely to attribute their successes to the teams around
them.

Tellingly, two-thirds said they never set out to be CEOs, rather focussed on hitting targets and challenging themselves. Many said it took a boss or mentor to encourage them to aim for the top job.

My own approach to taking on the CEO moniker has not seen a major shift in my approach to leadership.

I am still a nurturer which I believe is important, particularly in the recruitment and human resources arena that is the foundation of our business.

I am the cultural leader but I remain part of the team, rather than some figure of fear.

I strive for a humane and personal approach. My employees know I am a mother of young children and I let them see that I can have a bad day too sometimes.

My role, in fact, the essence of our business, is to champion people and support them. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

Now more than ever, we are looking to our CEOs for agility, leadership, inspiration and fostering teamwork and belonging in an uncertain world.

Those qualities are certainly not gender-specific.

‘Girl bosses’, far from being curiosities, have much to contribute and far to go — whether they be founders, talent directors, general managers or, yes, CEOs.

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