The Women's Foodservice Forum (WFF) leadership development organization and the Kenexa employee research and workforce performance firm have released the findings of a year-long research study that identifies the factors influencing women's success in the highest levels of leadership. The study, "A Roadmap to the C-Suite: Advancing Women in Foodservice," reveals five key factors most critical to women's career advancement:

1. Delivering results through individual performance, and then through others.
2. Financial and operational understanding of the business.
3. Building internal work networks and finding senior level advocates.
4. Learning and exposure through cross-functional and stretch work assignments.
5. Career development planning to guide aspirations.

Currently, only 17 percent of directors and 14 percent of C-Suite executives at Fortune 500 companies are women.

"Given the significant importance we place on the advancement of female leaders within our own organization, sponsorship of this study to enhance career development for women across our industry is a natural fit," says Bill Gisel, president/CEO of Rich Products Corp., which provided a significant grant to fund the research. "We are proud to serve as the lead sponsor of this important research and look forward to leveraging the findings to enhance our current career development strategies at Rich's, while accelerating the critical advancement of more women into executive roles across our industry."

In addition to the five identified factors, the WFF study shows that more than half of C-level respondents emerged as a leader in their organization while holding a job in operations. Finance and accounting jobs also provide a similar initial trajectory.

Beyond early recognition in particular job functions, it is an overall broad experience base that leads to career progression and women who transition from operations or accounting into other roles including finance, HR, marketing and sales are gaining business acumen and skills that make them more appealing for C-Suite consideration, the research indicates.

"As we strive to advance women leaders, we needed to understand in depth the characteristics and competencies of those who have achieved C-level roles," says WFF Chair Laurie Burns, who is also senior vice president for SRG Strategic Platform & Development at Darden Restaurants. "The findings of our study will directly impact the content we will offer to our members at all levels of their careers."

Ambition and Risk-Taking Influence Success
Women leaders who started planning their career goals earlier and followed a career development plan are more likely to become C-level executives, the research suggests. Starting a plan as early as during college can have a direct impact on rising through the ranks.

Those who are in C-Suite positions also took greater risks earlier in their careers, including volunteering for stretch assignments and taking on assignments they did not feel fully prepared for. Many top women leaders feel regret about not taking more risks earlier in their careers when they look back on their professional decisions.

As women move upwards within organizations, having a personal network and advocates also becomes more important as stepping stones for career advancement.

Skill Building and Personality Traits Set Leaders Apart
The study also focused on the characteristics of women in top leadership roles and identified differences at four different career stages: Emerging Leader, Emerging Executive, Executive, and C-Suite.

Skills relating to initiative, a drive for results and the building of networks are critical when women are at the Emerging Leader level of their career. At the Emerging Executive level, team leadership and business leadership are more important, and mark a shift from individual performance characteristics. High-level leadership skill development was cited for those in Executive roles, while C-level leaders also need to gain savvy around business climate understanding to help effectively lead their organization.

Additionally, Women in the C-Suite are more likely to have particular personality traits. Those in top positions ranked high when it comes to having a greater sense or urgency, confidence in their own abilities, being resilient under pressure, and enjoying new experiences.

The WFF says it will continue its research over the next two years. A study covering organizational practices and influencers on advancement, salary, and job scope will be conducted next and will be followed by a career roadmap and tracking tool assessment to identify resources to accelerate C-Suite advancement.

"WFF and Kenexa have conducted this study to ultimately provide the industry a career progression roadmap to enable our Emerging Leaders to hasten their advancement," says Burns. "Rich Products is making a contribution that will have a lasting impact on the industry."

The study findings are based on a broad survey of WFF members, who were asked to identify the factors that led to their success at different levels of their career.