These opportunities tend to have been available informally for men with other men, but not for their female colleagues.
Formal company mandated programmes overcome this.
Mentorship, in which individuals who are considerably more senior and who may well be outside the mentee’s own network provide support, is also key.
In the UK, the FTSE 100 Cross-Company Mentoring programme, which was established by Peninah Thompson in 2003, has achieved remarkable results.
The scheme asked FTSE 100 chairmen to mentor a senior woman from another company, and in return to nominate the most senior woman they could find in their own company to receive mentorship.
Of the approximately 250 mentees since 2003, 48 have joined FTSE 100 boards or executive committees as executive directors or members, and 69 have become non-executive directors of FTSE 100 companies.
Gaining these non-executive director appointments occurred partly as a result of the expert mentoring the women received, but it wasalso a function of them becoming networked with a group of chairmen who could vouch for them and provide references on them.
This network effect reduced any perceived risk in an individual whose background and experiences, as well astheir gender, might makethem a non-traditional board appointment.
There is no question that for aspiring female FTSE 100 chief executives, the most powerful career accelerator is take on a non-executive director role at the right time.
Of the current six, five gained non-executive director experience elsewhere before being promoted to the top job.
Gaining this board experience is a powerful equity card.
Many women in contention for chief executive roles in the near term may be at a stage of life when they also have extensive family responsibilities and partners who are also striving towards a breakthrough point in their own careers.
The range of experience gained in eight to 10 annual board and committee meetings as a non-executive director is a more efficient and pragmatic means for them to receive development than most other forms of executive education.
Of the current ‘FTSE six’, three chief executives came from outside the companies they lead, and three were internal appointments, which underlines the importance of the internal route to the top.
There are a number of things that companies need to do to maximise their chances of being able to appoint an internal successor to the chief executive.
The FTSE 100 companies that undertake chief executive succession planning do so over multiple years, not months.
Boards must be very clear on the specification for the future chief executive’s role – which will be shaped by the company’s future strategy and may be quite different from the specification for the current chief executive’s role – two to three years in advance of the event.