• Curiosity is the single biggest determinant of career success.
  • The "masculine" model of leadership is outdated.
  • Leaders without purpose burn out more quickly.

It’s been more than a year since I was elected chairwoman of Egon Zehnder. Although I was an experienced professional before then, when I reflect on just how much I’ve learned in just a few short months about being a leader, I shake my head in wonder.

That doesn’t mean learning is easy – for myself or for anyone else. But being open to change – to shifts in our own identity – is the key to successful transitions in both life and work.

As I prepare to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, I’ve been reflecting on just how one becomes a leader, especially if it doesn’t come naturally. My experience working with companies and executives all over the world has led me to the belief that there are three key steps to follow.

1. Harness – or develop – your curiosity.

Curiosity is the one factor that 30 years of our own internal research suggests is the single biggest determinant of professional success.

We evaluate candidates based on what we call Potential, which is a combination of four factors: Insight, Determination, Engagement and Curiosity. Curiosity, in particular, predicts how highly executives score across several core leadership competencies: strategic orientation, understanding of the market and, contrary to popular belief, how well they drive improvement and results. Remaining open and curious, it turns out, is not the opposite of being able to focus and deliver.

In organizations where curiosity is modeled, researchers consistently find not only far more innovation but also significantly fewer decision-making errors, less group conflict and better team performance.

Highly curious people engage the world, situations, their teams and their colleagues differently. They assume less. They ask more, different and better questions. They value not only what people think, but also what they feel. And they listen to the answers. They're also – and this is hugely important – curious about themselves. Indeed, if you’re not curious about why you are the way you are, then you’ve put a cap on your own potential.

Let’s bring this example to life. One day, a global client came to us needing a new CEO. We assessed three of their divisional heads, who, on paper, all had a strong track record. All of them seemed like great candidates.

The first candidate did 90% of the talking in all his team meetings, and had fired several people who disagreed with him.

The second listened to everybody and read a lot. She was a deeply interested and curious person when she was working on developing the strategy. But when the time came to implement, she shut down all debate and, as a result, all learning.

The third candidate listened to the people around him, recognized where different perspectives could add value and actively sought out people with opposing views. He ran experiments. He watched the results to see what worked, and just as importantly, what didn’t.

You can guess who got the job. Becoming curious about your identity accelerates your ability and your willingness to learn and change.

2. Utilize the “feminine” side of leadership – no matter your gender.

Let’s start by getting rid of stereotypes about what that means. It does not mean being weak, overly emotional or passive – three adjectives that have been unfairly ascribed to women since the beginning of time.

Here’s what it does mean. In one study of 64,000 people conducted across 13 countries around the world, researchers found that being focused, driven, competitive, analytical and linear in thinking were universally viewed as more masculine-type qualities, while being adaptable, flexible, expressive, empathetic and intuitive were seen as feminine.

Feminine qualities include curiosity and empathy, both of which have transformational aspects and take into account others' perspectives.

In this era of confusion and rapid change, it's time for men and women alike to abandon the classic command-and-control model of leadership in favour of something more collaborative and humane. The “masculine” model alone is no longer enough.

3. Find your purpose.

Finally, I believe with all of my heart that leadership requires a true purpose to be successful. Of course we must deliver results, but we must also exhibit something more as leaders. Purpose is what motivates us – it's why we do what we do.

Research tells us people who understand their purpose are more resilient, suffer less burnout, are less prone to disease, are more satisfied and fulfilled in life and achieve results.

When under pressure to perform, people with a sense of purpose have a compass, while those without purpose suffer. And yet, research suggests that 80% of us do not know our purpose.

Here’s an example. Carl was an executive who loved the turnaround. Nothing excited him more than the idea of being the one to succeed in a no-win situation.

But at 45 years old, the time had come for him to become the coach, not the player.

He needed his team to believe in themselves, not to destroy their confidence. He needed to create the path for others to become the stars.

We worked with Carl on his purpose, and were eventually able to help him figure out where he was stuck, which helped him see himself differently. He realized his purpose was to believe in the underdog. Only after realizing his purpose was he able to see he could use that purpose to serve the needs of the business, of the people around him – rather than just himself.

Putting a great leader atop an organization has a waterfall effect – not only benefiting the executives who report to them but their teams, customers, shareholders and other stakeholders, including the families and communities connected to the organization. This perspective has guided me in my own leadership journey to chairwoman of the firm.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

How to find your purpose

If you're struggling to find your own purpose, ask yourself these three questions:

1. What qualities do other people value in you?

2. What am I doing when I feel most at ease and most certain I'm being of service?

3. What does my life want of me?

The answers may not be immediately clear – but by applying your curiosity and your feminine leadership qualities to the above, you, too, can find your purpose. Don’t give up. It is there, waiting for you.