A few months ago, I wrote a piece about the findings of our 10-year study on what makes great executives. One of the most common questions I’ve received was whether or not there were material differences between men and women.
Statistically, our research was not designed to reliably make such distinctions. But the number of questions we kept getting on this topic led my coauthor and me to go back and do a review of others’ research to see if, indeed, there were distinctions that correlated to our research.
We looked at five years of data regarding the differences between male and female leaders, such as Calipers Research and Dr. Helen Fisher. The four capabilities uncovered in our 10-year study closely correlate to the strengths of women leaders consistently identified in the gender difference research. Obviously not every female leader will be predisposed to excel in all of them, but in the aggregate, it makes a compelling case for female leadership – especially in light of research showing that the presence of female executives on corporate boards leads to greater profitability. According to the noted McKinsey study, companies with the highest gender diversity, as compared to the industry average, see a much higher return on equity (10%), a higher operating result (48%), and a stronger stock price growth (70%). In addition, having at least one woman on the board decreases bankruptcy by a full 20%.
I will own the disclaimer that, as a white male, my qualifications to make this assertion may be limited. But with the plethora of data documenting the abysmal representation of women in executive roles, perhaps it’s a white male who needs to be saying it. It’s also important to note that one of the explanations for why there are so few women in senior leadership roles is that women have to work harder to prove themselves and have to be more qualified to be hired or promoted. So it’s also possible that only the best women are being promoted, while the sample set of male leaders includes a wider range of competence levels. Susan Colantuono, CEO of Leading Women, in her TED Talk, reveals vital research done with more than 2,000 women that “when identifying high potential candidates for career advancement, executives and boards look for people with business and strategic acumen by a factor of nearly 2 to 1. This is significantly out of line with the advice that women are given about career success.” Most of what women are told about developing their careers has to do with cultivating their interpersonal prowess. Rarely are aspiring executives, men or women, told of the critical importance of deeply knowing their businesses.
My intent is not to make the blanket assertion that “women are always better executives than men” (though they often are). But it is patently clear they are far more capable than their representation in executive ranks would imply. With incontrovertible evidence of this, organizations not aggressively pursuing the cultivation of women executives are making the expressed, intentional choice to disregard evidence, severely undermining performance and compromising their organization’s potential.
Here are the four capabilities that research on women in leadership reveal as more represented in women leaders, and that closely correlate to our original research. With effort, any good executive can adopt them in order to become great.
1. Women see and pursue entrepreneurial opportunities. According to Zenger Folkman’s study of more than 16,000 leaders’ 360 feedback reports over a two-year period, women overall show more effectiveness at the executive levels of organizations where seeing opportunities for growth is most significant. Moreover, in the competencies of taking initiative, driving for results, and championing change, women outperformed men by statistically significant differences. Tenacious and persistent, the best women leaders can see beyond obstacles to push boundaries and get things done. They remain focused until objectives are achieved. They enjoy stretching their perspective to broaden their observations.
2. Women build strategic connections that strengthen organizations. According to Gallup’s survey of more than 11,000 people, women are far more effective at engaging and developing people. Further, they are more likely to build collaborative environments than their male executive counterparts. This allows them to strengthen the connections among various distributed capabilities that might otherwise remain siloed and disparate. The result is greater organizational breadth, where an organization’s seams are strategically linked and the organization functions more cohesively.
3. Women are holistic problem solvers. According to researcher Helen Fisher, “when women cogitate, they gather details somewhat differently than men. Women integrate more details faster and arrange these bits of data into more complex patterns. As they make decisions, women tend to weigh more variables, consider more options, and see a wider array of possible solutions to a problem. Women tend to generalize, to synthesize, to take a broader, more holistic, more contextual perspective of any issue.” Moreover, many women are particularly skilled at soliciting and listening to multiple, diverse voices. They are more inclined to integrate team contributions after encouraging everyone to participate. They will not decide until ideas have been heard, reflected, and tested. Further, their results orientation allows them to reach decision closure more efficiently and execute more effectively.
4. Women are relationship and network builders. According to the same research by Fisher, “Women have what scientists call “executive social skills.” [Their brains] have evolved a keener ability to pick up the nuances of posture and gesture, read complex emotions in faces, and hear slight changes in tone of voice.” Because of this, women are specialists at cultivating relationships of depth and trust . In both the McKinsey and Zenger Folkman research cited above, women substantially outperformed men in the area of people development.
According to Strategy& Research, there will be three billion women in the workplace by 2020. Companies that continue ignoring the importance and power of aggressively increasing gender diversity are consciously forfeiting significant advantages in the marketplace and workplace. Conversely, organizations intentionally pursuing the appointment of women to their top leadership ranks will be far better positioned to outperform competitors with both a powerhouse cadre of executives and intimate marketplace connections.
Ron Carucci is Managing Partner at Navalent and the author of eight books, including Rising to Power
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