The world’s increasingly complex problems demand a wider repertoire of leadership styles. Women often already lead in a variety of circumstances – at home, in their community, and at work. But still their leadership skills tend to be undervalued.
Programme Director, Women Transforming Leadership
Everyone acknowledges that the challenges facing the world are becoming more complex, cross-functional and multi-layered. These ‘wicked problems’ are resistant to resolution because they have no stopping rule, and solving one part of the problem often creates difficulties elsewhere. So we need new kinds of solutions and different kinds of leaders to help us devise them. Most importantly, we need leaders who can collaborate, bringing together a range of diverse skills and perspectives to generate new ideas and approaches.
This is a very different leadership style from that of the traditional 'heroic' leader, who would appear on his (for heroic leaders were typically male) metaphorical white charger and, with a few swift decisions, save the day.
True, in some circumstances we still need leaders to be decisive, and to appear to ‘lead from the front’. But in other contexts those same leaders will be most effective through being comfortable with ambiguity, inviting dissent, and being prepared to experiment – doing a little bit more of what seems to work, and stopping doing what doesn’t.
The challenge for all leaders is to widen their repertoire of leadership styles, and this is a challenge that women are particularly well equipped to rise to because they often already lead in a variety of circumstances – at home, in their community, and at work. But they (and others) may not think of this as leadership and therefore may undervalue their skills.
The way things were
Working class women have always worked. Before the Industrial Revolution in Europe there were women working on farms and as domestic servants. They later worked in factories – work in cotton mills, for example, was quite evenly divided between the sexes. In developing countries today, women remain the backbone of the rural economy, working long hours in agriculture as well as carrying out unpaid family and domestic work. And in rural communities, women of all classes were and are still involved in voluntary work of all kinds, stepping in to solve crises or to provide regular and practical support.
But even as the new-style industrial economy was being hammered out in the west in the nineteenth century, there were few women in formal management or leadership positions. They were barred from the emerging professions (including fields that were newly professionalising) due to lack of education. The teaching profession remained open to them but the organisation of teaching (mostly as governesses or in small schools) did not leave them much room to establish or practise management or leadership skills in that context. In business, some women worked alongside their husbands, but were rarely seen as managers in their own right. And sometimes, as they became more prosperous, they would retreat from the business, employ their own domestic servants, and enjoy an upper-class-style leisure.
As a result, business organisations were developed around the assumption that people in formal managerial and leadership positions were men, with a woman at home to look after the household (including children and servants). There was a certain irony here, of course, in that these women were actually dealing with many managerial issues, including budgeting and staff supervision. But because it was at home, it didn’t count, and their skills were not viewed as formal managerial skills.
So the ideal of woman as home-maker was not just a construct of the 1950s. Cultural and class assumptions have too often painted a stereotyped view of women as less able or likely to take up management and leadership roles within organisations, as well as locking men into the role of domestic and organisational hero.
What do we need in order to change?
More insights from research and more innovative scholarly approaches
The research base is contradictory, western in focus and starting to be visibly out of date. Much current research continues to focus on the ‘traits’ of individual leaders, which has the effect of perpetuating traditional models. Fruitful areas of exploration might be those fields that consider leadership as a process rather than as a characteristic of individual leaders.
The media like personalities, and we all respond to stories about how individuals have become successful. The problem is that if we present people as ‘role models’, by filming their biographies or inviting them to business schools to speak about themselves, we are implicitly saying ‘being like this is the way to succeed’. The example takes insufficient account of context, and usually offers only one version of success. This is particularly troubling when it comes to considering women leaders as role models. Today’s women leaders have usually succeeded in ‘a man’s world’, so the behaviours they advocate are about continuing to do what they have done to get this far.
Room to experiment
While young people are often told that it’s OK to ‘fail’, and that, indeed, failing is an important part of the learning process, in reality there is very little allowance made for failure or not-quite-succeeding at any level in an organisation. Women who are flexing their leadership muscles for the first time, or trying out a new leadership identity, are very exposed. This is where women’s networks and women’s leadership programmes are useful: they provide a supportive environment in which to test different behaviours and receive feedback.
Time to talk
We know that there are numerous cultures and business contexts throughout the world, but, as we have found with the Women Transforming Leadership programme, whenever women leaders come together they find they are all facing substantially the same issues. If they have the time and space to talk, they can share strategies and solutions.
But probably not quotas
There are a number of arguments against quotas and other types of positive discrimination. Chief amongst them is the suggestion that any woman promoted into an area where she fulfils a quota may always question (or be questioned) if she was there on her own merits or simply to make up the numbers. Worse, if people are given quotas or targets, it is human nature that those targets will become the ceiling. The companies will fill them – and yet go no further. If a company is instructed to have 30% female Board members, for example, it will probably only ever have 30% female board members.
What can organisations do?
Focus on gender balance, not women
A better way of approaching the problem may be to focus less on having more women (and therefore fewer men) and more on having a better balance. And perhaps don’t place the weight entirely on Boards and top teams, where it’s a zero sum game. Look at what you can do to improve the gender balance lower down the organisation and in different areas. So don’t just say ‘we want more women in leadership roles’: think too about how you can attract more men into traditionally female-dominated areas such as HR or admin. Aim for diversity across the organisation.
It is important also to present family-friendly initiatives, such as flexible working and subsidised childcare, as equally available to both men and women. It will be easier for women to take advantage of leadership opportunities once everyone is able to work flexibly, so support men in taking paternity leave or applying for a job-share.
Measure outputs rather than presence
Despite the ability of technology to facilitate working whenever and wherever we want, most organisations still suffer from a debilitating culture of presenteeism. Companies value apparent ‘commitment’ over ability, and reward people for working long hours – never mind the correlation with low productivity or indeed the health consequences. Organisations have to change to accommodate working parents, especially as they can no longer assume that the mother is, or wants to be, a permanent fixture in the home. The emphasis has to shift towards valuing the output or achievements of a leader and their team, rather than on who can be seen at their desks late into the evening.
Unilever regularly tops ‘best employer’ lists with its agile working ethos, which enables employees to work flexibly not only in terms of their working hours but also their location. Employees are appraised on performance rather than attendance, using technology to stay in touch with colleagues around the world.
Glassdoor reviews suggest that in Unilever the employee experience generally matches what the organisation intends. Elsewhere, however, as one senior woman discussed with me, even when organisations have implemented the right policies, they still need to work on changing ‘mindsets’ and culture at all levels. In addition, focusing on outputs is one thing: identifying and implementing the processes to manage and measure them fairly is quite another. ‘There will always be a subset of staff who “play the system” and this can give the process a bad name,’ she said.
Dr Melissa Hungerford, VP Talent and Leadership Development at Coca-Cola Enterprises, also emphasised that policies alone are not enough: ‘To advance gender diversity, organisations must create a level playing field by setting a clear aspiration and by focusing on three areas simultaneously: company practices and policies; company culture, specifically behaviours and unconscious bias; and women's leadership development at critical junctures in their career, not just at senior levels.’
What can women do?
Think about ‘purpose’
Just as companies tend to be more successful when they focus on a higher ‘purpose’ than making money, so women make better leaders when they are not investing too much time in worrying about how to improve their status or about what sort of leader they are.
If you are driven by a strong sense of purpose, you direct your energies towards what you need to do and what you need to learn in order to achieve this larger goal. If it is important enough, your own likeability or even your credibility will hardly seem to matter – with the counterintuitive result that you will become a much more effective leader.
Develop your personal networks
Women often say that they find the idea of networking uncomfortable, because they feel inauthentic or as if they are ‘using’ people to further their own advancement.
However, there is more to networking than the traditional, rather transactional model. Think of it as connecting with people you can help, or who you can bring together to get things done. Again, if you have a strong purpose, you will find it easier to make connections that further your wider goal (and, incidentally, that may further your own career in the future).
Lead like yourself
Even the fantastically successful and powerful journalist Christiane Amanpour fell into the stereotyping trap when she spoke at Oxford Saïd in May 2016. ‘Negotiate like a man,’ she urged, which regrettably sounds only a small step away from Bic South Africa’s disastrous women’s day message in 2015: ‘Look like a girl; act like a lady; think like a man; work like a boss.’
One of the central tenets of the Women Transforming Leadership programme is that participants should be supported in identifying and being comfortable with their own leadership styles. Don’t try to be like a man; don’t try to be like another woman, even if it is Sheryl Sandberg: be confident in being yourself.
As a previous participant, Suzyo Ngandu from the Zambia National Commercial Bank, told us: ‘It had never dawned on me that being a quieter leader, one who is not so aggressive, is a style in itself. And now I know that it is my style, I can use it and adapt it. I do not have to try to be like the men.’
Use your influence
When designing the Women Transforming Leadership programme, one of our objectives was to avoid the problem of successful women who are believed to ‘pull the ladder up’ behind them, thinking that if they had to overcome obstacles to get to the top, then others should too. This belief is limiting to the success of the organisation, to other women, to men, and to the women who espouse it.
We want women not just to succeed in leadership roles themselves, but to help change attitudes to leadership so that we can start to address some of the wicked problems facing the world. If you are in a leadership position, it is important not just to accept the status quo, but to continue questioning and challenging bias at all levels.
Valerie Dias, Chief Officer, Risk & Compliance, Visa Europe, explained how she saw her role: ‘… my own experience is that the best way to create transformation is through a multi-layered engagement. For me it is a long-term commitment and a responsibility to build a rapport and to help support the right opportunities for women to develop, grow, and be able to fly – and at the same time provide a safety net if they should fall, so that their landing is not hard. Being there to pick them up, dust them off, and help them on their journey again is part of that engagement. Equally, being accessible, whether face to face or at the end of the phone, to listen, encourage, advise, connect with others or just being part of their overall network is an important aspect of this support.’
Sally Dewar, International Head of Regulatory Affairs, JPMorgan, agrees: ‘Women who are working to advance their careers don't just need mentors, they need sponsors. We all need someone who is willing to speak up on our behalf, to sponsor us, during those boardroom or management discussions.’
How long will it take?
Participants on our programmes are surprisingly optimistic about the future, many commenting that some of the issues they face inside organisations are likely to shift or even disappear over the next decade, as a new generation moves into leadership roles.
They argue – as the journalist and campaigner Josh Levs did, when he visited Oxford Saïd – that many of the world’s current CEOs (the majority of them men) were brought up on the myth of the heroic leader and got where they are today because they had supportive wives who stayed at home. They sometimes struggle to appreciate different models of leadership.
But younger generations, those who are currently just below the most senior levels in organisations and those millennials who are still at the beginning of their careers, are much more likely to seek a different relationship with work and welcome new and diverse types of leadership.
And that is a reason to be cheerful and continue to work at this important issue.
The Women Transforming Leadership programme gives women an opportunity to discuss and overcome personal or professional obstacles and build heightened self-awareness as they move through their careers