What does it take to be successful in business? A tough work ethic, being task-oriented, a willingness to put in long hours, dedication to one’s career, and having the right connections are a few characteristics that immediately come to mind. However, research shows that the small number of women who have risen to top positions in business often possess leadership traits quite different from those associated with successful men.
Traditionally, in the business world, men have been given what social psychologists describe as broad “stylistic latitude” to operate as leaders using formal power, position and authority. Think of the post-World War II U.S. corporation, where virtually all business executives were men. Corporations of that era were characterized by top-down, command-and-control organizational cultures, and lines of reporting authority strongly mirrored those of the military. It was the era of “the man in the gray flannel suit.” Women, when present in the workplace at all, were secretaries, typists and members of the night cleaning crew.
Today, of course, command-and-control corporate cultures are in decline (and disrepute), workforces are increasingly diverse, and a growing number of women are entering the workforce every year. They also are scaling the corporate ladder in many corporations, though men still significantly outnumber women in leadership positions.
That said, when we think of leaders today, many images that come to mind remain distinctly male in nature. Our language is replete with phrases that reinforce the maleness of power and leadership. We speak of a company’s manpower requirements, the need of a leader to “command the troops” and to do battle with the business competition. A courageous leader is described as someone who “has balls.” An ethos of masculinity still permeates corporate organizational structures too. One speaks of the corporate “chain of command” and the “leadership line.” And business divisions sound eerily like the corporate equivalent of military units.
Moreover, our society still evaluates men and women through different lenses. The male leader who acts decisively is described as no-nonsense, bold or visionary. A woman who demonstrates decisiveness, however, often endures perceptions that she is overly ambitious, brusque, imperious — and a bitch.
Given this reality, women leaders today face dual challenges of being true to themselves and of navigating shifting gender expectations, social roles and evolving perceptions of what true leadership actually is.
Through our research and experience, we’ve found that successful professional women do this by bridging the expectations we have of them as women and the expectations we have of them as leaders. They understand the “need” to balance assertiveness, ambition and drive with the display of certain other characteristics, including empathy, inclusiveness and a willingness to share power and the spotlight.
Fostering Inclusive Leadership
Successful women leaders display confidence and an orientation toward results. At the same time, though, they engage others in their quests and see themselves as “first among equals” rather than the alpha dog.
Successful female executives understand that success is usually the result of effective teamwork, borne of the efforts of many people working together to accomplish a common goal. Consequently, female leaders often downplay their personal contributions to the success of a team and focus more on the contributions of others. They also focus on including and engaging the voices of many as they facilitate discussions and drive collective decision-making. And while they can and do assert formal authority when necessary to “lead from the front of the room,” research shows they are more inclined to view leadership as a shared effort for which many people deserve credit.
They appear to view confidence in the same light. When asked to describe their roles as leaders of teams, female leaders frequently talk less about their own contributions and leadership significance and more about the confidence they have in their team and organization.
During our research we spoke with the female CEO of a growing midsize company. She was the principal driver behind securing Wall Street backing for a major new business initiative her company decided to undertake. But when asked to describe the part she personally played in securing this backing, she spoke not of her role, but that of others. “We put together a plan we believed in so much that it was easy for us to go out there and market it,” she said. “To my team’s credit, we got the backing.”
This CEO’s focus on inclusive leadership isn’t lost on the people she leads. One of her direct reports described her as a generous, self-effacing leader. “Our success was her success,” she said. “She didn’t need to personally claim credit. She took a holistic view and talked about ‘how our group did this.’ I think what makes her and other women bosses I’ve had great is their lack of ego.”
Executive women often express distaste for hierarchy and command-and-control organizational cultures. Consequently, they downplay hierarchy and their own formal positional power. They focus instead on distributing their authority to others and empowering direct reports, building tighter team engagement and alignment as a result.
Many female leaders share power with the intention of engaging and empowering their teams. However, Teri Kelly, president and CEO of W.L. Gore and Associates, sees distribution of power as a strategic business necessity, as well. When she emphasizes the need to maintain a culture of innovation in her company, she often asks leaders: “Are you willing to give up power to get results?” She takes the position that unless a leader (of any gender) displays trust and allows others to own and lead initiatives, an organization can’t successfully sustain a culture of innovation.
Our research shows that just as female leaders often share power with others, they also share the credit for jobs well done. Take the case of one senior vice president of marketing for a major manufacturing firm who had only been in her job eight months when an opportunity came along to take over a failing business unit.
“I was dealing with a real mess,” she said. “The business was in trouble and losing money.” She wanted to take on the challenge of turning the unit’s operation around and saw it as a test of her leadership abilities. Of course, it also fed her ambition to get ahead in the organization, but she knew she couldn’t do it by herself.
This woman eventually did turn the unit’s profitability around, but she didn’t claim credit all for herself. Instead, she pointed out to her boss and other stakeholders the major accomplishments of every person on her team. “Yes, I was the leader of the team, but I had a great group of people working on this,” she said. “We were fortunate in being able to turn it around, and it required hard work from all of us.”
Engaging Team Members
Through research conducted by Talent Strategy Partners, we’ve found the most successful female executives take a highly collaborative approach to working with others. To this end, they engage direct reports with the goal of helping everyone feel like they are a true owner of projects, initiatives and enterprises. Female leaders also typically place a high priority on bringing a diverse range of views and perspectives to team discussions and group decision-making. They embrace an open and free-flowing communication style within teams that helps elicit optimal engagement from others and builds strong team consensus.
By sharing power with others, collaborative female leaders create a “climate of alignment” to support optimal team engagement and results. Fostering what author Sally Helgesen describes as a “web of inclusion,” female leaders set the table for vigorous team decision-making and the robust vetting of alternative points of view. They also positively impact an organization’s culture by flattening hierarchies, building bridges across traditional functional silos, fostering trust, and creating informal as well as formal networks of collaboration and communication among people.
Using Empathy to Influence Others
We often observe successful female leaders using empathy to influence others, ease tension, understand what others are feeling and build trust and rapport. We spoke with a female CEO of a biological sciences company who recalled a time when she convinced a smaller company to license its product (a drug) to her company. She discovered that the inventor of the drug had developed it for personal reasons and therefore was reluctant to turn over control to others. She also knew the company would not enter an agreement without the inventor’s approval.
“I knew that if we talked with the inventor, helped him to understand what our company was about, and why we were the right partner, we’d be able to move discussions forward,” she said. So she flew across the country to meet personally with the inventor. She learned that he’d developed the drug to treat his son’s rare disease. She said to him, “This drug is your baby, and I want you to know that this would be our baby too. Unlike a very large company, we will treat this as our big product.” By putting herself in the shoes of the drug’s inventor, she won him over.
Keeping the Big Picture in Mind
Successful female leaders often take a holistic view to planning for the future. They see trends in vast amounts of data and recognize relationships and connections among seemingly unrelated facts.
In her books “The Female Advantage” and “The Female Vision,” Helgesen contends that women have a broader, longer-term view compared with many men. Consequently, they may be uniquely suited at “getting on the balcony” — to use a term popularized by Ronald Heifetz, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government — to see new problems and challenges coming before others do. Helgesen cites examples of women who saw the early signs of the 2008-09 financial crisis before others did, but they weren’t listened to because everyone was focusing on short-term profits.
Cultivate Influence by Reading Cues and Nuances of Organizational Culture
One female coachee we worked with, the executive vice president of a major manufacturing company, was suddenly promoted into a new job that required her to supervise a business division with which she’d had no previous experience. Complicating matters, her predecessor had been booted from the job after only nine months after alienating a wide network of business stakeholders.
As part of her coaching work, she took a full nine months to onboard herself into her new job. She went on an in-depth listening tour to fully understand her division’s business operations, to meet customers and to begin the process of articulating a new business strategy for her unit. But she only did this after gathering extensive input from a wide variety of stakeholders and developing a set of actionable insights.
This woman took time to fully immerse herself in her new business role, connect with others, foster trust and build critical social capital with many people. Now three years into her job, she’s built an organization characterized by high levels of team morale, employee engagement and strategic departmental alignment.
Perhaps because they’ve often experienced exclusion by others, women who make it to the top of organizations have a keen sense for how others perceive them. The most successful women seem able to then to adjust their interactions or personal presentation to best connect with others.
One senior vice president of a technology company explained it this way: “I’ve learned that I sometimes intimidate people with my enthusiasm and my ‘just-go-for-it’ attitude. So I pay particular attention to how people respond to me. If I determine I’m blowing them away, I dial it back so they don’t shut down and they can hear what I’m saying to them.”
Putting Others at Ease
Ranking in importance with empathy, women who lead successfully have the ability to be nonintimidating and relatable despite their professional mastery, formal position and aggressive pursuit of goals. They make their work colleagues feel smart with them rather than intimidated by them. They assume people can keep up with them, and by doing so, they avoid any air of superiority. In essence, they work to make others comfortable.
Women who are masterful at putting others at ease use humor, emotional intelligence and “interpersonal versatility” to work through conflicts and to create friendly, supportive situations among colleagues, and even rivals, in their workplace.
One CEO we know says humor is her most important asset for successfully leading her organization. Another CEO focuses on making visiting executives feel like guests in her home. She makes sure there are refreshments and a comfortable space before launching into heavy-duty negotiations that can get tense and stall.
One senior COO travels constantly, keeping tabs on overseas operations. “I’m the big boss when I arrive on the scene, so people naturally feel a bit uptight,” she said. “I am direct, but I always try to ‘massage’ things so people don’t clam up.” She cites a trip to her company’s operations in India where problems had occurred. While there, she vigorously inquired about what had gone wrong and what was being done to fix things. However, she said, “I also acknowledged my employees’ embarrassment and regret that they hadn’t gotten the job done. I did that because I wanted them to know I understood how they felt. It was one of those situations that required me to exercise emotional intelligence.”
Critical Leadership Qualities for All
While the leadership attributes we’ve identified are characteristic of the most successful female leaders in business today, we’d argue that they actually transcend gender and should be the focus of cultivation by male and female leaders alike.
The reasons are clear: Business leaders today lead highly diverse multigenerational teams and workforces. The markets for their products are equally diverse. Developing empathy, intuition, strong relational skills and a high degree of emotional intelligence are thus critical leadership qualities for individuals to possess in exercising clear leadership vision and maximizing their influence with direct reports, colleagues, customers or other stakeholders.
Additionally, leaders today are faced with a plethora of adaptive leadership challenges — problems that haven’t been encountered before. Addressing such issues requires agile, adaptable and imaginative leaders who can exercise personal influence and impact through other people — often people unlike themselves. This is most effectively accomplished by executives who are visionary and inclusive, who can see business issues from a variety of perspectives, who foster wide-ranging dialogue as part of team decision-making, and who optimize trust and engagement of others by encouraging all voices around the table, regardless of gender, to speak and contribute.
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