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.

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