Female leadership: changing business for the better

Jan 17, 2008

The Christian Science Monitor, January 17, 2008

By Sally Helgesen

Chatham, N.Y. – Until a few months ago, Zoe Cruz and Sallie Krawcheck were the most powerful women on Wall Street. It was speculated that both would become CEOs of their Wall St. powerhouses – Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. Instead, in recent months, Ms. Cruz was ousted and Ms. Krawcheck demoted, leading to hand-wringing about how women seem be losing ground as leaders.

Perhaps because I’ve been studying female leadership for the last two decades, this narrative had a familiar ring for me – some variation of the “women are floundering” theme crops up every few years.

But while the progress women have made as leaders may not have been as rapid or smooth as some of us had hoped or expected, the impact women have had on what we perceive to be desirable in our leaders continues to grow.

The real story, it seems, is about influence rather than numbers. Women have brought to the workplace a comfort with direct communication, relationship-building, diversity, and more – and these are the skills best suited for leaders in today’s workplace.

Women: Talk football, play golf

When I published “The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership” in 1990, it was the first book to focus on what women had to contribute to organizations rather than how they needed to change or adapt.

At the time, women were being urged by a phalanx of experts to conform to a mainstream leadership style that was considered a fundamental requirement for anyone who hoped to exert authority in public life. Gurus of every variety advised women to start using football metaphors in meetings, take up golf even if they disliked it, and pull rank on subordinates in order to show their skill at keeping people in line.

“Play the game” was the message aimed at women seeking success in the male worlds of business, government, law, academia, and the military. Betty Harragan, author of the bestselling “Games Your Mother Never Taught You,” summed up the conventional wisdom of the day in her amusing and often helpful guide for women: She advised women to leave their values at home. You’re in the army now, was her message. So get with the program, and if it moves, salute it!

This conventional wisdom was based on three assumptions. First, organizations were not going to change simply because women had begun to enter them in substantial numbers.

Second, changes wrought by the networked technologies that were then evolving would not fundamentally change organizational structures or reshape people’s expectations of their leader

And third, women’s handicaps as leaders, the result of their age-old exclusion from the public world, would always outweigh whatever advantages they might confer.

What female leadership looks like

Having spent a lot of time working in a variety of companies, I was convinced that these assumptions were not necessarily true. On the contrary, it seemed obvious that organizations were beginning to undergo rapid and unpredictable changes as demographics, technology, and the economics of work shifted. It seemed that women might squander a historic opportunity to influence the public world if they were discouraged from honoring and developing their distinctive skills.

I decided to test this notion by spending time with some of America’s most talented and confident women leaders. My goals were: (1) to identify what women at their best could bring to a range of enterprises and (2) to bring to public awareness an appreciation of those qualities. My study included a highly diverse mix of women – entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and nonprofit leaders. Yet I found that they had certain characteristics in common.

These women placed a high value on relationships and judged the success of their organizations based on the quality of relationships within them.

They preferred direct communication to communication up and down a chain of command.

They were comfortable with diversity, having been outsiders themselves and knowing in their bones what kind of value fresh eyes could bring.

They were unwilling (as well as unable) to compartmentalize their lives and so could draw upon personal experience to bring private-sphere information and insights to their jobs.

They were skeptical of hierarchies and surprisingly disdainful of the kinds of perks and privileges that distinguish hierarchical leaders and establish their place in the pecking order.

They preferred leading from the center rather than the top and structured their organizations to reflect this.

Finally, they were willing to ask big-picture questions about the work they were doing and its value for the world.

New skills for a changing workplace

My book struck a chord, eliciting a response from women around the world and remaining in print for nearly two decades and counting. But what has been extraordinary for me is to watch how the skills exhibited by the women leaders I studied have become more appropriate – and desirable – in today’s workplace.

Networked technologies, the evolution of a knowledge economy, and the demographics of globalization all support precisely the skills, talents, and presumptions that women bring to organizations.

When “The Female Advantage” was published, relationship-building was considered a soft skill that a leader, who had to be tough, could not afford. Yet in recent years, as organizations have sought to connect more directly with customers and stakeholders and motivate valuable employees, an ability to nurture strong relationships has become essential.

Technology today not only facilitates but demands direct communication, an advantage for those who are comfortable doing so. Networked technologies also undermine hierarchies, a plus for those who enjoy leading from the center rather than the top.

In a global economy, comfort with diversity has become essential. As work and home become harder to separate in our 24/7 workplace, compartmentalizing becomes a liability.

No more Mr. Tough Guy

Twenty years ago, anyone attending a business conference was likely to hear a speaker observe – without irony – that “unless you’re the lead horse, the view never changes.” Today, no one would say this.

Twenty years ago, Fortune magazine featured “America’s Toughest Boss” in a recurring cover story. It lauded the leader who was tough enough to crack heads, which, of course, was presumed necessary to get things done. This kind of feature has long since been dropped.

The tough-guy approach to leadership is in disrepute these days, with successive tyrants and bullies having come in for censure. Even the most ruthless organizations today feel compelled to put out statements about how they value relationships and support diversity.

Companies compete to take a greener, more holistic approach. They recognize that the “get while the getting’s good” mentality that distinguished the industrial era is unsustainable in today’s more interconnected world. Leaders emphasize sustainability and contribution and they acknowledge the need to nurture the human spirit. Inclusive has become a buzzword, weblike a simple description of how things work.

And so female-leadership characteristics that just 18 years ago seemed far outside the mainstream are now seen as desirable.

In retrospect, it seems ridiculous that we could have imagined that one half of the human race, excluded from positions of leadership for most of human history, could enter the public sphere and begin to reach positions of real authority and influence without having a significant impact on how organizations were led.

As individuals, women may experience ups and downs over the course of their careers. But the influence they have had on which leadership qualities are valued has been nothing short of extraordinary.

Sally Helgesen is the author of five books, including “The Female Advantage” and “The Web of Inclusion.” A contributing editor to Strategy + Business magazine, she speaks at companies around the world on leadership and is a strategic communications adviser to senior executives and entrepreneurs.