Companies are grooming more women for the corner office.
With a growing pool of highly qualified women and intensified investor pressure on boards to diversify corporate management teams, companies "are hiring more high-potential women who could be CEO," says Judith von Seldeneck, head of Diversified Search, a Philadelphia executive-recruitment firm.
The ranks of female chief executives remain thin—with women in the top spot at just 35 Fortune 1000 companies. But the pipeline is promising, says Maggie Wilderotter, CEO of Frontier Communications Corp., adding that she's noticed a number of "women in waiting" at Xerox Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co., where she is a board member.
The next wave of women who will command major U.S. corporations likely are senior managers today. "Some phenomenally well-qualified women" hold top operational jobs, says Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont Co. A study conducted by McKinsey & Co. for The Wall Street Journal to be released Monday found that 24% of senior vice presidents at 58 big companies are now women.
Here are 10 female executives whose operational expertise and track record make them likely picks to lead a Fortune 1000 company within five years. The lineup was compiled from an informal Wall Street Journal poll of 15 U.S. search firms, executive coaches and women's organizations. Human Capital News, a newswire owned by market research firm HSZ Media, also surveyed 75 human-resources executives for the Journal.
Kelly Eggers of FINS talks about the next 10 female CEOs.
The 10 top choices received support from at least two nominating groups. Of the 10, seven already have outside directorships. And of the nine in the group who have children, many have husbands who abandoned the fast track to support their wives' careers.
Charlene Begley, General Electric Co.
Charlene Begley saw her star rise fast at General Electric Co. It's still rising.
Hired out of college, she became GE's youngest corporate officer at age 32 in 1999 when she was named vice president of its corporate-audit staff. Four years later, she became the first woman to lead a major business unit at the conglomerate when she took charge of GE Transportation.
Her early exposure to senior execs such as former Chief Executive Jack Welch "taught me to connect the dots and see the big picture,'' recalls Ms. Begley, now 45 years old. Ambitious managerial women should "go for the stretch roles,'' she says.
Ms. Begley currently wears three GE hats. She's president of Home & Business Solutions, a unit with almost $9 billion in annual revenue, as well as chief information officer and a senior vice president of the parent company.
She thinks she could someday lead a Fortune 1000 company although "I am not saying I want to do that immediately," she cautions. Ms. Begley "definitely would be on the shortlist for CEO at GE" someday, says Judith von Seldeneck, head of recruiters Diversified Search. "People walk on coals for her."
Gail Boudreaux, United Health Group
A seasoned health insurance industry veteran, Ms. Boudreaux spent 20 years at Aetna, Inc. before defecting to Health Care Service Corporation in 2002, where she stayed through 2008. She was jointly hired as an executive vice president and as president of UnitedHealthcare that year before being promoted to chief executive of that business in 2011.
Ms. Boudreaux, 51, was a competitive athlete at Dartmouth College, where her records in women's basketball still stand. Athletic competition, she says, "taught me so much that's applicable in business – from how to compete and how to overcome obstacles to how to adapt to often changing environments."
Her on-the-court accomplishments prepared her for success at the behemoth that is UnitedHealthcare. Composed of four of UnitedHealth Group's insurance businesses, UnitedHealthcare raked in $95.3 billion in revenue last year. Compare that to $101.9 billion, the total annual revenue of its parent, and it's clear she's responsible for the bulk of the company's business.
Does she want to run her own company? "I feel fortunate that, in a way, I'm already getting exposure to experiences that would be typical for a CEO of a Fortune 1000 company," Ms. Boudreaux says. She adds that her business of 50,000 employees serving more than 38 million Americans would be the largest woman-run company in the U.S. if it were a stand-alone company.
Rosalind Brewer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Rosalind Brewer knows plenty about tough challenges.
Ms. Brewer, an African-American executive who recently took charge of Sam's Club at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., was, along with her siblings, the first generation of her family to graduate from college.
After earning a chemistry degree from Spelman College, Ms. Brewer joined Kimberly-Clark Corp. as a scientist and soon moved into management, later becoming president of the professional fabrics unit where she was "instrumental in helping expand [its] global reach," according to her corporate biography.
Wal-Mart recruited Ms. Brewer as a regional vice president in 2006. She advanced quickly at the huge retailer long known for homegrown management talent. Last year, she took charge of Wal-Mart's namesake stores in the U.S. Northeast, overseeing more than 500,000 employees.
She tried to make stores more attractive to female customers by getting them to arrange merchandise "in ways that were more inviting for customers to purchase,'' says Veronica J. Biggins, head of the corporate board practice at Diversified Search.
This winter, the 49-year-old Ms. Brewer became the first woman to lead a major Wal-Mart unit when the company appointed her president of Sam's Club. It accounted for about 12% of the nearly $444 billion in total 2011 revenue.
Juliana Chugg, General Mills Inc.
A native Australian, Ms. Chugg, 44, has a "strong track record of commercial success growing global brands," at General Mills, where her career has steadily grown, said an executive at one search firm. In 2004 she moved from Australia to become president of the baking products division in the U.S., a decision she calls difficult. "It ended up being right for me both professionally and personally," she says.
She is credited with turning around the $2 billion Pillsbury division when she led the division in 2006, and the Meals division she now heads had $2.1 billion in annual net sales last year, which totaled 13% of the entire company's net sales.
Ms. Chugg said she has succeeded by doing what's right by the business and right by its people: "In my experience, if you take care of the business and the people that you lead, the rest tends to take care of itself." While still living in Australia, she spent a lot of time worrying about fitting in with her male peers. "Today I am surrounded by so many capable women at General Mills who represent their authentic self," she says.
Does she want to be a Fortune 1000 CEO? "I want to be in a role in the next five years where I feel I can have a positive impact and make a difference," she says. "I am not as hung up on the title."
Virginia "Gina" Drosos, Procter & Gamble Co.
"Gina" Drosos earned the nickname "Steel Magnolia" from co-workers at Procter & Gamble Co., where she has overseen more than 20 global beauty and personal-care brands since 2011. "I am the velvet hammer,'' explains Ms. Drosos, a native of Macon, Ga., who has an M.B.A. degree from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
She has helped revive several classic beauty brands for P&G, including transforming Olay into a global product, according to one recruiter. The 49-year-old executive started her P&G career as an assistant brand manager in 1987 and a marketing mistake a few years later taught her how to develop global brands.
She tried to promote Camay soap in the U.S. based on its fragrance because the pitch worked well overseas. It didn't work. Fragrance "wasn't relevant to enough U.S. women,'' she recollects.
In 2009, Ms. Drosos applied those lessons to Olay, asking a woman at home in a rural Indian village why she didn't buy the skin-care product. The brand "is only available in expensive bottles and in big cities,'' the woman replied. Ms. Drosos soon launched small, inexpensive sachets aimed at rural Indian women. Since the sachets' 2010 introduction, she says, "we have had really good business success" with Olay in India.
"I definitely want to be a CEO" of a Fortune 1000 company someday, Ms. Drosos continues.
Jan Fields, McDonald's Corp.
As Ms. Fields can attest, a successful career really can begin behind a fast-food counter.
Working part-time at a McDonald's in Dayton, Ohio in 1978, she rose to manage regional divisions of the fast-food chain, including becoming regional vice president of the Pittsburgh region, senior vice president in its former Southeast division, and senior vice president of its Central division. Before becoming CEO of the hamburger chain's U.S. operations, Ms. Fields, now 56, served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of the unit.
Each of the 14,000 stores Ms. Fields oversees generates average sales of $2.5 million. The U.S. division of the fast-food giant is "the heart and soul of our company, and it's where I've built my career," she says.
Vell Executive Search said Ms. Fields is a CEO prospect because of her "strong P&L experience" and "good breadth of functional experience." Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup Co. and an acquaintance of Ms. Fields, said that while her ideas are aggressive, her personality isn't. "She is able to get people to do spectacular things because of that."
Ms. Fields wouldn't speculate on whether or not she sees a CEO role in her future. "I always tell people who ask me this that it isn't a matter of thinking about the next job, but rather doing your current job really, really well," she says.
Michelle Gass, Starbucks Corp.
When Ms. Gass, 44, started at Starbucks in 1996, the Seattle-based coffee chain had less than 1000 stores. Today, Starbucks has more than 17,000 shops in 58 countries.
Her roles at Starbucks have sparked decisions such as changing straws from red to green, introducing the caramel-flavored Frappuccino and spearheading the company's social media initiatives. Now running the Europe, Middle East and Africa division, Ms. Gass says some of her biggest challenges are translating successful products in the U.S. to meet expectations of customers in other countries. She got the EMEA role after being appointed to a special team in 2008 that assisted then-CEO Howard Schultz with turning Starbucks around.
"I didn't imagine a year ago that I would be living in London," Ms. Gass says of her career progression, but she is "extraordinarily happy" to be in the position she's in right now, she says. "I always do something that mirrors my own values and that I am passionate about. For me that is Starbucks right now."
Melanie Healey, Procter & Gamble Co.
Melanie Healey faces difficult tasks as the first woman to run North America for Procter & Gamble Co., a unit that contributes 41% of total revenue. The big consumer-products maker depends heavily on the U.S., its largest market. Consumer fears about the weak recovery have caused P&G to closely monitor spending recently.
Rocky times are nothing new to Ms. Healey, a 51-year-old native of Brazil who joined P&G in 1990 after Brazilian stints with two other U.S. concerns. She held P&G management posts in Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela during periods of heavy economic volatility. "I remember one month in Brazil where inflation was 80%," she says.
The P&G executive made a strong mark as global president of feminine-hygiene products, a post she assumed in 2005 after leading the unit in Latin America and North America. She pushed to develop products that "women would actually want to wear as opposed to have to wear,'' a Healey spokeswoman says.
Her next move? Becoming a CEO "is a natural progression for many folks at my level,'' Ms. Healey agrees. But "it is not an easy job.''
Marissa Mayer, Google Inc.
Ms. Mayer, 36, joined Google in 1999 as the company's 20th employee and first female software engineer after getting her B.S. in symbolic systems and a master's degree in computer science from Stanford University. She was the vice president of search products at Google for more than 10 years before she was appointed to her current role as vice president of product management for local, maps and location services, overseeing the technical aspects of services like Google Maps, Streetview and Zagat, in October 2010.
She has seen the company grow to more than 30,000 employees, and she says she's "loved each and every stage of the company." Ms. Mayer is credited with helping design Google's first search interface, the site's expansion into more than 100 languages, and adding over 100 new products and features and creating a more efficient search product.
Ms. Mayer spoke publicly recently on her stance that there is "no such thing" as burnout, admitting that at points in her career, she slept and showered in the office. She was a member of former chief Eric Schmidt's "Operating Committee," or OC, a select group of executives who advise the CEO.
While she is reportedly not a member of the advisory group for the company's current CEO, Larry Page, "her role has remained unchanged" under Mr. Page, said a person familiar with the company.
Anne Sweeney, Walt Disney Co.
Anne Sweeney, a fan of hawking expeditions, sees parallels between those fighter birds and her willingness to take risks.
"The hawk is iconic for me in many ways,'' says Ms. Sweeney, a 54-year-old executive at Walt Disney Co. They "are able to see great distances,'' she says, while remaining "extremely focused.''
The president of Disney-ABC Television Group believes she has flourished by focusing on identifying viewers' needs before they do -- and bringing TV into the digital age.
In January, she helped renew a deal for Comcast Corp. to carry Disney-owned TV channels such as ABC and ESPN on its cable systems and stream them live on the Web only to cable subscribers, people familiar with the situation have said. Ms. Sweeney says the deal "is risky because we will be streaming Disney Channel on the iPad.''
The one-time ABC page has broken ground before. In fall 2005, Ms. Sweeney shook up the TV business with a decision to sell TV show episodes on Apple's iTunes store. She later led the field by streaming shows on ABC's website.
Ms. Sweeney also is co-chairman of Media Networks, which contributed about 46% of Disney's overall revenue in the year ended Oct. 1. She says her strongest internal champion has long been Disney CEO Robert Iger. "Bob has been the person who constantly challenged me,'' she recollects. "He threw me into the deep end.''
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