Wednesday, May 28, 2008

5/27 Discussion Summary - Women & Leadership

Thanks to everyone who came to last night’s discussion group meeting. It was a very engaged group and a lively, thought-provoking conversation ensued. We focused our conversation around several questions. I’ve done my best to try and summarize all of the comments and contributions below. For those of you who weren’t able to attend, please chime in and share your thoughts in the comments section.

Do women and men have different leadership styles?
Our consensus was yes this is the case. In this month’s article Women and Men, Work and Power, Sara Levinson, President of NFL Properties Inc., said that she asked her team that very question. They told her the mere fact that she had asked for their opinion answered that question. This example was in line with our thoughts. Women were seen as having better “soft skills” and communication skills. Their focus tends to be on team building and relationships. Men tend to be more direct and focus on the goal – winning at all costs.

What strengths do women bring to leadership roles?
- Relationship building
- Focus on consensus
- Team building
- Mentoring skills
- Work together to find solutions to find the best result for everyone
- Can be more empathetic

What challenges do women face in taking on leadership roles?
Ironically, the biggest challenge we identified was – other women. We all agreed that women tend to be harder on other women. Rather than supporting one another and being happy to see another woman succeed, we’ve all seen the tendency to tear one another down. Some of us at the meeting freely admitted to having higher standards for women.

What was more difficult for us to pinpoint was the reasons behind this behavior. Pat Heim explores some theories in her book In the Company of Women: Indirect Aggression Among Women: Why We Hurt Each Other and How to Stop. One premise is the “power dead even rule”. Girls growing up are socialized to focus on developing relationships. They play house while boys play sports. There are no winners or “best” house player. Elevating one girl above the others can cause imbalance in the relationships and the other girls try to bring her back down to their level.

Another theory we explored is that many women feel they have to work harder and out perform their male counterparts to achieve the same career success. Therefore we judge other women using these same lenses. When we evaluate women in leadership they don’t simply have to be good or competent in their performance, we expect them to be stellar. This can lead us to be hyper critical of our female colleagues.

We also discussed whether it’s easier to come in as an outsider hired into a leadership role or to be promoted from within. In some ways, we felt that being hired into a leadership role might be the preferred route. You don’t have history with the group and the fact that you were chosen for the role could confer some degree of credibility. However, depending on the organization, if you are hired in as a leader, you could have to deal with resentment from those who have a history with the organization and feel as though they deserved the promotion.

What do women need to do to earn credibility as a leader?
The list we compiled was somewhat daunting. Intelligence/intellect was the first quality mentioned. First and foremost a woman has to demonstrate that she has the intellectual capabilities for the role. Next on the list was the ability to build an effective network. This network should include technical experts, mentors, champions as well as strong ties to senior leaders. Being politically savvy is essential. The ability to build an effective team by utilizing the skills and abilities of others, and delegating effectively was also seen as critical. In addition to building an effective team, it was also important to recognize their efforts and make them feel appreciated. Other qualities on the list included negotiation skills, mentoring, and the ability to make tough decisions.

What are the skills needed to be an effective leader (woman or man)?
- Effective communication skills
- Listening skills
- Ability to address issues as the occur
- Delegation skills
- Hiring smart people and empowering them
- Modeling the behaviors you want your team to demonstrate
- Humanizing employees (seeing them as people and not just “resources”)
- Compassion
- Adapting your style to meet the needs of those who report to you
- Trustworthiness
- Vision
- Ability to implement strategies to accomplish goals
- Ability to teach/mentor others
- Setting your team up to be successful
- Sharing the credit for accomplishments with your team
- Recognizing accomplishments of others

Who are your role models for women in leadership?
Surprisingly, we struggled with this question. There were a few examples shared. One woman talked about the principal of her school. Another woman gave the example of a female director who was well respected by both employees as well as senior leadership in her company. Why was it so hard to come up with examples?

This led us to a discussion of Hillary Clinton. The consensus at the table was that she was not seen as a stellar example of a woman leader. I think the general sentiment was that while she is an intelligent woman, her success came as a result taking advantage of her husbands achievements rather than what she’d done on her own. She is a very polarizing figure. Any other thoughts out there?

By the end of the conversation we did come up with a few names – Meg Whitman (former CEO of eBay), Carly Fiorina (former CEO of Hewlett-Packard), and also Nancy Brinker (Susan G. Komen’s sister who founded Susan G. Komen for the Cure). Not much, but at least is was a start. Please add some more names to this list. We all need role models!

What can be done to mentor the next generation of women leaders?
Fortunately, we had a high school counselor join us at the meeting. Girls need opportunities to lead at young ages. They need role models and mentors who will encourage them, tell them that they can succeed, and help them to believe in themselves.

These are just some of the highlights from our 2+ hours of discussion. If I’ve omitted any key points I encourage those who attended to chime in and add to this summary. Even if you didn’t attend, please share your thoughts as well. Let’s keep the discussion going.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Timing and Leadership

At yesterday’s meeting, we ended up being a group of two. I was expecting a few more but understand how circumstances can sometimes foil the best of intentions. I wasn’t disappointed though and thoroughly enjoyed our one to one conversation. As typically happens at these meetings, our conversation strayed bit from the topic at hand. We talked about our families, the twists and turns our career paths had taken, our interests outside of work. We eventually did wind our way back to the planned topic of Leadership.

My companion shared with me that early in her career her priority was on her family. So, at that point in time she wasn’t interested in taking on the additional responsibilities that a leadership role would require. Now that her children are grown, she wonders if she’d be considered a viable candidate for a leadership role.

Our conversation reminded me of a discussion I had with a friend of mine who’s in HR. He said that in his company, that if you weren’t identified as a candidate for a leadership position before you were 40, then it was unlikely that you’d be moving very far up the career ladder. The way this company viewed it, they didn’t want it invest in someone with a limited number of years left in her career.

This seemed somewhat short sighted to me. (Speaking from the biased view of someone on the other side of 40.) But it does raise an interesting question. What impact does timing have with regard to moving into a leadership role? Is making your mark early in your career essential to future success? I’d be interested in your thoughts and opinions.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

How Is Leadership Defined?

I've been a bit less prolific this month and I can't blame it completely on a busy schedule. I'm always busy and yet I still make time to write. Upon reflection, I realize that I'm finding this topic more difficult than the others we've discussed previously, which has lead to a touch of writer's block.

It's a fact that women hold far fewer leadership positions than their male counterparts. There's lots of research and lots of theories as to why that is so. When women do make it into a leadership position, they seem to be more highly scrutinized. You need only to read media coverage about Hillary Clinton to know that's true. Women who try to act like "one of the guys" are typically not accepted. However employing a traditionally female style isn't always effective either.

I've done lots of reading on the topic this past month and it's resulted in more questions than answers. I think the answers all depend on how you define leadership. Does being a leader mean being the boss? Does it mean being an executive? Being the CEO does impart positional authority, but does it necessarily mean that you're a good leader?

How do you define leadership? What are the qualities you think are required to be a good leader? How should you demonstrate these qualities? Would you demonstrate them differently based on your gender? I'm looking forward to discussing this next week and look forward to hearing other's thoughts either in person or by posting your comments.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Thoughts on Women & Leadership

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on the premise of discussing leadership strategies for women. Most of the comments were along the lines of leadership skills and/or style should be independent of gender. I’d like to agree and in an ideal world, this would be true. However, we don’t live in an ideal world (or at least I don’t)

Okay, here come all the qualifiers. There is no one “best” leadership style. What is effective at one institution may be totally ineffective for another. You wouldn’t succeed with a participative style in the military for example. An effective leader will flex her style to mesh with both the culture as well as the needs of an organization. A start up will need different leadership skills than an established company. A different leadership style will be needed in a time of crisis than is needed when things are going well. I agree with all of that. Many leadership skills are independent of gender.

Why do I want to focus on leadership strategies and skills for women then? It’s because in my career, I’ve seen so many women fail when given leadership roles. I’ve spent the majority of my career working with scientists. We’re not known for having strong people skills. To compound the problem, people are often promoted into leadership roles not because they’re good leaders or managers but because of their technical abilities. This is a common issue across most technical fields. These also tend to be male dominated fields, so successful female role models are few and far between.

When I posted the question about leadership strategies for women on LinkedIn Susan Robertson sent me the reply below:

One of the biggest differences in men versus women is that women feel like they have to hide any characteristics that may appear to be classified as "weak" or "vulnerable." While men do this as well, for women it is more of a front of mind experience. The kind of characteristics I am talking about are: the more caring side, the relationship side, balancing the people with the logic. Many women have a natural quality of understanding relationship and yet because of fear of looking weak or "not logical" they will hide this quality and actually lose credibility because they are not using the strength of relationship orientation with logic and analytics.

So with women I am usually helping them to open up and become more of their innate strength and feminine power, whereas men, I have to teach them about the relationship and why it is important. Of course, I am generalizing and yet I see this over and over.

One interesting observation she shared is that she conducts a 5-day leadership program 23 times a year and the attendees are predominantly men.

Why focus on leadership strategies for women? Women’s challenges are different from men’s. A woman who tries to adopt a typically male style will not be accepted. While a man might be aggressive, a woman is pushy. A man might be insensitive, while a woman would be labeled insensitive. On the flip side, a typically female style might be seen as “soft”. Let’s talk about this. Where have you seen women fail, and what were the causes? What can we learn from this? Who are the successful women role models and what has made them successful. I’ll be conducting some interviews over the next few weeks and posting my findings, but I hope you’ll share your thoughts as well.