Leadership advice for women is often about things we should start doing – lean in, speak up, etc. Or it focuses on “the challenges” of overcoming existing biases in our male bosses and peers or other hurdles, such as lack of childcare support.
What if becoming a great leader as a woman is actually about “do more of”?
And what if we told you that a whole book was already written about this “female advantage” 25 years ago? And a sequel in 2008? And that everything they realized then is even more relevant now? It is all true.
The book in question, is titled “The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership” and was first published in 1990. It was written by Sally Helgesen, based on diary studies of 4 exemplary leaders who were women. In summary, Helgesen described the female advantage as their skill in building relationships, their aptitude for direct communication, their comfort with diversity, their preference for leading from the center rather than from the top, and their long-term approach to negotiation. In 2008, Sally Helgesen collaborated with Julia Johnson, a top executive coach, to write a sequel, which honed in on one particular aspect of the female advantage: women’s different observational style and its benefits. It is titled “The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work”.
It’s not about gender (but it is helpful)
Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA and Chairman and founding President of the Drucker Foundation, was one of the 4 leaders observed in the study for the “The Female Advantage”. Mrs. Hesselbein became the poster woman of the feminine leadership style described in The Female Advantage. However, when questioned on the topic, Mrs. Hesselbein, who is now 99, has always maintained that leadership is like money – it has no gender. In saying this Mrs. Hesseltein echoes the words of Peter Drucker: “Focus on tasks, not gender”. What they both meant is that leaders do what they do, not because of their gender, but because of the mission they are pursuing and the values they have.
Moreover, Mrs. Hesselbein has often said that she feels it is unhelpful to place women in a special category of gender.
Mrs. Hesselbein therefore actively refrains from using terms such a “female leader” and “woman leader”. In her view this otherwise causes barriers, as it conjures up old assumptions, practices, and language that can be hurdles to equal access.
For example, Mrs. Hesselbein, when asked about her own success, does not stake it on the fact that she is a woman, but because of two personal characteristics: Her ability to listen and punctuality.
We very much agree with Mrs. Hesselbein.
However, many of the qualities that enabled Mrs. Hesselbein and the other 3 women in the study to be such exemplary leaders, are qualities that are more stereotypically found in women. Moreover, 25 years later, in our now increasingly international, interconnected world, these are the exact qualities that companies need to adept to survive. So being a woman seems to come with some useful advantages if you are a woman in leadership today.
Let’s take a closer look at what they are, why they matter even more today then back in 1990, and how to put them to use.
Female advantage no.1: Women tend to have “broad spectrum notice“
Women have a different observation style. Sally Helgesen and Julia Johnson use the metaphor of a radar compared to a laser.
Women’s attention operates like radar, picking up many environmental cues whilst listening or looking at or working on something. Men tend to be typically more laser-focused, not paying attention to or noticing any environmental cues.
As a result of this, women perceive the world differently from men. And there is true value in that. For example, one key benefit of what Sally Helgesen termed women’s “broad spectrum notice” is that women are more apt to notice possible interdependencies, consequences or side effects of certain actions or decisions. And what they see or perceive, truly matters, because, as Sally & Julia point out, in today’s global environment actions have consequences that can reverberate unexpectedly in far corners of the world. Dismiss them at your own peril.
A good but harsh example of this was the financial crises of 2008. Helgesen and Johnson detail the actions of Sheila Bair, chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and Brooksley Born, former chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Both of them foresaw the impending dangers of respectively subprime lending and unregulated derivatives contracts. As each of them tried to actively raise awareness of the impending crises, they were mocked and dismissed. Most poignantly, Adam Greenspan, Federal Reserve chair at the time, dismissed Brooksley Born as a “plodding bureaucrat, hostile to entrepreneurial effort and too stuck in the past to appreciate the potential benefits of financial innovation.”
Bair and Born were both right and later received the JFK Profile in Courage award for their efforts. However, that was after the fact. Helgesen and Johnson compare their treatment as that of a modern Cassandra, the Greek prophetess. Cassandra had the gift of foretelling disaster, but was cursed by Apollo to never have her prophesies believed, rendering her prophesying skills powerless to avert disaster.
How to leverage your broad spectrum notice
Helgesen and Johnson point out that women have a role to play in helping their bosses and peers and colleagues value what women see.
Women, when sharing their unique perspectives, have to learn to clearly and proactively link their views to the “bottom-line” and “mission” of the company. In other words, women have to translate how their perspective is meaningful in helping to attain the “bottom line” or mission.
Women have to own why their observations matter strategically.
In the book, Sally and Julia describe a great example of Johnna Torsone, EVP and CHRO at Pitney Bowes, who foresaw the potential negative impact on executive behavior of making proposed changes in its executive compensation program. Johnna voiced her concerns and clearly outlined how the changes in behavior might compromise the company’s performance and reputation in the long term. Because of Johnna’s strong advocacy the senior leadership decided to test the waters by just making the changes for the executives in one small part of the business. Johnna’s predictions proved right and Pitney Bowes decided against rolling out the changes to executives in the rest of the company.
This is a great example of a woman in leadership who trusted and used here broad spectrum notice, linked it to the bottom line and the mission of her company, and thereby made a valuable contribution to Pitney Bowes future performance.
Female advantage no.2: Women tend to be more relationship-centric
In today’s business environment relationships, previously derogatorily referred to as “the soft stuff”, play a much more important role then before, as organizations have had to become customer-centric, be responsive to the wider community, and pursue innovation that requires cross-functional relationships.
Though women don’t have an exclusive on relationship skills, women are more likely to be relationship-centric – i.e. they tend to prioritize them more than men.
Sally Helgesen observed that each of her four exemplary leaders had relationship-driven styles, which drew on “the strategy of the web” in which authority results from strengthening interconnections and drawing others close. As a result, each of these four women built organizational structures that were circular, with the leader in the middle, rather than a hierarchical pyramid with the leader at the top.
The strategy of the web is based on “the female view that one strengthens oneself by strengthening others,” rather than by winning over others, the traditional competitive approach associated with male leadership.
“Each of their leadership styles was relationship-based and stressed “empowerment and human development rather than subordination to the chain of command”
This approach contrasts with the traditional strategy of the hierarchy, which is preoccupied with targeting position, knocking out the competition and playing factions against each other and manipulating the chain of command. An approach, which has been typically associated with the masculine style of leadership
How to leverage your relationship skills
Be the bridge or the glue that brings functions together to innovate. Leverage your intuition for what constitutes a good relationship to inform customer services or community building.
Also, don’t just “tend & friend”, but actually leverage your relationships to build allies in a conscious and deliberate way, so you can draw on their support when necessary, to achieve specific ends. All leaders need allies at times to succeed.
However, the authors point out that “women often hesitate to ask colleagues for support because they fear being perceived as using others for their own purposes”, whilst men have no such qualms with the quid pro quo implicit in collegial relationships.
Last but not least, champion the true value of relationship skills to the organization by seeking ways to make practicing empathy and being collaborative measurable so it can be valued as part of people’s performance. Think of the corollary in basketball, where a player is also “rated” on the number of “assists”, i.e. the number of times a player passes the ball to a teammate in a way that leads to a score by field goal, meaning that he or she was “assisting” in the basket. Remember, what gets measured, gets done.
Female advantage no.3: Women tend to be good listeners
Helgesen observed in her first book that each of her exemplary leaders used “listening both as a tool to gather information that had bearing on managerial decisions, and as a way of making the people feel that their ideas and beliefs were of value.”
The fact that women tend to be good listeners is a reflection of both nurture & nature. On the one hand listening is closely tied to female characteristics such as empathy and attentiveness, whilst neuro-scientific research has also shown that women’s brain are literally wired for better listening than men.
Listening is probably one of the most overlooked but critical leadership skills. Culturally, we tend to associate leadership with extroversion. However, any astute leader knows there is far more to be gained by surrendering the floor than by dominating it.
Kouzes and Posner, in their Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model, identified actively listening and asking questions (which requires listening to the answers) as key leadership behaviors. Especially in todays complex environment, leaders main role is to gather input, information and ideas to be able to generate as an organization the best decisions and solutions.
How to leverage your listening skills
Turn up your listening skills to draw forward ideas, information beyond the numbers, and unspoken concerns. As a result the people in your team or organization will not only feel much more engaged but will actually make better decisions, be more innovative, and more able to respond in time to the fast-changing environment.
So the fact that you are a woman means that you have a real edge as a leader if you have one or more of these qualities OVER AND ABOVE the other qualities typically required to be a leader.
Don’t write your attentiveness, empathy, listening and relationship skills off as soft skills that you just use at home and with friends. Take them to work! Tune into them and use them to everyone’s benefit.
Having said that, it is important to stress that this doesn’t mean male leadership qualities aren’t valuable anymore. In today’s world we need them both and thus any organization’s leadership will be stronger if we make room for and appreciate both.
One last thing
The above blog post reflects some key insights we gained from reading “The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership” by Sally Helgesen and “The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work” by Sally Helgesen & Julia Johnson.
We highly recommend reading both books cover-to-cover as they provide so many more valuable insights and kernels of wisdom.