Defining Leadership by Gender, Generations and Geographies

A new report by Egon Zehnder explores how women and men at various leadership stages view diversity, great leadership and how they prioritize their work/life balances. Let’s go inside this new study.

April 1, 2019 – Traditional gender stereotypes about men’s and women’s roles in the workplace and at home have helped to create overarching assumptions about what truly matters to each gender when it comes to careers, how to define great leadership, and expectations about diversity in the workplace.

Many of us have also been quick to define entire generations by their stereotypical and cultural traits. Millennials are often characterized in two ways — either as an entitled and lazy generation or as idealistic and tech-savvy. The same can be said for Baby Boomers; competing narratives include the out-of-touch person who struggles to adapt in digital times or the loyal and hardworking executive.

How many of these gender and generational stereotypes are true? And does where we live in the world impact our views? As part of Egon Zehnder’s Leaders & Daughters initiative, which convenes both experienced and emerging female leaders to explore the professional opportunities, challenges, successes and obstacles they face, the firm sought to find out just how differently genders, generations, and geographies define success and leadership.

Egon Zehnder surveyed more than 2,500 women and men with a range of leadership experience across seven countries — Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, the U.K., and the U.S.  The firm asked how they defined great leadership, the importance of a diverse organization, and how they prioritize and balance their professional and personal lives.

The findings challenged traditional assumptions by showing that when it comes to leadership, we are much more closely aligned than most would believe. Men and women often had similar views, with greater distinctions between generations, geographies and experience level. The generational findings also underscored the growing need for businesses to evolve workplace processes and policies to adapt to the changing professional and personal priorities of younger leaders.

Defining Leadership

One of the most unexpected results of Egon Zehnder’s report was that women and men had such similar perspectives on leadership. At the same time, however, the study found distinct differences between generations.

What are the most important characteristics that a great leader must role model? (Respondents were asked to select the top three most important characteristics.)

Source: Egon Zehnder

Egon Zehnder found that across genders, geographies and generations, respondents wanted ethical leaders who are driven by strong beliefs and values (45 percent), strategic leaders who have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish and how to do it (45 percent), and humble leaders who are able to admit when they’ve made a mistake (43 percent).

The report also found that younger generations expect their leaders to be humble. Millennials rated humility much higher than any other generation (48 percent), compared with the global average (43 percent). Male Millennials in particular were more likely to say humility was important (55 percent), compared with male Boomers (32 percent). Boomers were more likely to prize resilience as a key leadership quality (35 percent), compared with Millennials (21 percent).

In your view, what qualities help leaders to create the strongest organizational cultures? (Respondents ranked their choices from most to least important.)

Source: Egon Zehnder

While Millennials said they gave humility great value, Egon Zehnder found that they were less concerned about integrity and honesty. Honest leadership was less important to those under 45 years old — only 21 percent selected this as the top leadership quality — compared to those over 45, 30 percent of whom said this was the most important quality.

The report also found that Millennials were much more likely than other generations to say their leaders always exhibit the key leadership qualities they expected (38 percent), while only 22 percent of Boomers and 26 percent of Gen Xers concurred. Male Boomers were the least likely to agree that their leaders demonstrated these positive qualities, with only 25 percent saying their leadership never or only occasionally demonstrated these important qualities.

Defining Diversity

Egon Zehnder’s survey found that a diverse workplace was more important to younger generations. The search firm asked respondents to rank the significance of a diverse workplace on a four point scale, from very important to unimportant. Millennials (65 percent) and Gen Xers (61 percent) said it was very important, compared with Boomers (51 percent). Male Boomers in particular were not as focused on the value of diversity in the workplace, with nearly a quarter (23 percent) saying it was not important to them. Geographically, a diverse and inclusive workplace was more important to respondents in China (78 percent said it was very important) compared to those in Germany (44 percent said it was very important).

Related: Reaping the Benefits of Female Leadership

When it came to equal opportunities at work, a majority (61 percent) believed there were equal opportunities for all, though female Gen Xers were the least likely to believe that they had equal access to equal opportunities (57 percent said they did) compared to female millennials (63 percent said they did). This underscored the need for today’s leaders to ensure that there is a pipeline for men and women to advance within organizations.


Search Firms Step Up Diversity Recruiting Initiatives
Organizations that unleash the potential of diverse talent innovate faster and see better business results. Executive search firms are no different and have been stepping up their own efforts in diversity. Let’s examine recent initiatives underway at Caldwell, Korn Ferry and Heidrick & Struggles.


Egon Zehnder also found that a high number of respondents also believed that their organizations valued diversity of thought, with 69 percent overall saying their companies genuinely believed in different ways of thinking and unique approaches to solving problems. There were no significant differences between genders, but younger generations tended to believe this slightly more than older ones, with 71 percent of those under 35 agreeing, compared with 68 percent of those 55 and older.

Defining Career Success

While there were some differences between men and women in how they defined their highest career goals, there were far greater differences between generations, geographies and job titles — as has been the predominant trend in this study.

First, an important finding was that C-suite aspirations have nearly evened out between men and women, with 27 percent of women looking to reach the C-suite compared with 31 percent of men. It’s worth noting, however, that women have a more difficult path ahead. Egon Zehnder’s global board diversity tracker shows women make up just 3.7 percent of CEOs and 12.2 percent of CFOs globally. Millennials were the most aspirational group, with 33 percent hoping to reach the C-suite compared with 13 percent of Boomers (the global average was 29 percent).

Related: On International Women’s Day, Steep Hills Still to Climb

Brazil had the highest number of respondents seeking a top organizational role (41 percent), followed by India (40 percent) and China (32 percent). The U.S. (25 percent), the U.K. (21 percent) and Germany (9 percent) had the fewest respondents aspiring to reach the C-suite. These statistics echo Egon Zehnder’s 2017 study in which Brazil, China and India took the top spots for C-suite aspirations.

Egon Zehnder found some compelling results emerge when looking at statistics by organizational level. Just over half of current senior leaders said they aim to reach the C-suite (51 percent), while the numbers for junior leaders (14 percent) and mid-level leaders (20 percent) are significantly lower, a surprising result for people so early in their careers. Perhaps some of these leaders cannot see a clear path to advancement or they simply do not want to be at the top levels of their organization.

Regardless of motivation — or the lack of motivation — Egon Zehnder said this waning ambition could lead to heightened employee turnover and a dearth of leaders with institutional knowledge of their organizations. Another revealing finding was that respondents who had children (33 percent) were more likely to have C-suite ambitions than those without children (22 percent).

Chief Motivations

Egon Zehnder also asked respondents to rank their motivations for working. Boomers were the most concerned about being able to provide for themselves and their families — 45 percent ranked this as their primary motivator. Male Boomers were particularly motivated by this factor — 51 percent ranked it first — compared with 34 percent of female Boomers. It was significantly less important to millennials (24 percent), perhaps because they may not have families to think about yet, and somewhat less important to Gen Xers (32 percent).


Baby Boomers, Millennials and the Value of Mentorship
Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers in the U.S. as the largest living generation. Defined as those born roughly between 1983 and 2000, Millennials are poised to make up a majority of the global workforce by 2020. One result has been increased mentoring between Millennials and Baby Boomers, which many see as an effective way to impart knowledge from one generation to the next.


On the whole, Egon Zehnder found that having power and influence and public recognition and status were the least motivating factors, with only seven percent of global respondents ranking these as top motivators. Millennials were slightly more motivated by power and influence and public recognition, with nine percent ranking power and influence their top motivator and nine percent selecting public recognition as their No. 1 influence. Only five percent of Boomers selected power and influence first and two percent named public recognition their main goal.

Barriers to Success

The vast majority of respondents (86 percent) said they have experienced some type of barrier during their career journeys. While barriers are often assumed to be experienced more acutely by women, 67 percent of male Boomers said they experienced barriers during the course of their careers (72 percent of female Boomers said the same). Egon Zehnder said that this is perhaps because there’s more awareness about career barriers than in the past, younger generations were more likely to have said they experienced them. Ninety percent of male and female Millennials and 85 percent of male Gen Xers and 86 percent of female Gen Xers reported such setbacks.

Related: What Do Millennials Value Most?

Egon Zehnder found that the barriers manifest differently based on generation, geographic location and job title. Significantly, 38 percent of C-suiters believed conscious or unconscious bias from peers has been a barrier. The highest reports of bias came from China and India (40 percent), with the lowest in the U.K. (26 percent). Generationally, Millennials were more likely to have said that conscious or unconscious bias has been a barrier (36 percent), compared with Boomers (26 percent). Gen X was in the middle, with 32 percent citing this as a barrier.

Millennials also showed a strong desire for mentoring and sponsorship. When Egon Zehnder asked about factors that have limited their opportunities at work, more than twice as many millennials (35 percent) as Boomers (17 percent) said that a lack of mentors or sponsors has been a barrier to their own career success.

Yet for all of the struggles with bias, Egon Zehnder said that the news was better when the firm asked about balancing work and life. Most respondents (82 percent) said they always or frequently were able to strike the right balance between personal and professional responsibilities. Millennials were more likely to say their work and life demands were in balance (87 percent) than Gen Xers (80 percent) or Boomers (78 percent). Egon Zehnder said that this sentiment may fuel younger generations’ more inclusive approach to blending their personal and professional lives, which allows them greater flexibility in pursuing what matters to them.

Related: How to Accommodate Millennials as Workplace Demographics Shift

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Andrew W. Mitchell, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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