Lead with Purpose: How Women Can Connect

Considerable attention is devoted in the business press to the topic of women and leadership.  Whether it’s Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Marissa Mayer’s turnaround of Yahoo or the first woman to run a global automaker, Mary Barra, females in the C-suite seem to generate an almost inexplicable controversy.  

Women now lead such multinational behemoths as PepsiCo, IBM, Lockheed Martin, HP and DuPont. Despite these high-profile examples, they hold less than 5 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO jobs while occupying 50 percent of managerial positions. In Canada, women occupy even fewer top roles.

Having examined gender differences in style and performance in a variety of leadership roles over the course of four decades, I am left with the obvious question: Why the disconnect in these numbers?

According to a recent Pew Research study, women outscore men in all but one “leader characteristic” – decisiveness – yet only 6 percent of 2,250 adults surveyed believe women make better leaders. Even though women score equal or higher on over a dozen measures of leadership, men have the edge in the eyes of the public and doubtless too the gatekeepers who hire them.

In September 2013, the Harvard Business Review declared that “women need to create a leadership identity that negates gender bias.” It’s virtually impossible to comprehend leadership if you can’t identify what makes a leader great. So, arguably, women who aspire to lead need to resolve what, for them, constitutes their own distinctive leadership identity.

The issues confronting women aspiring to the C-suite are well documented. They include:

  • Questions about whether women possess the necessary desire to lead – it’s not about just wanting to lead, it must be a passion;
  • Gatekeeper attitudes that brand leader traits like assertiveness and self-confidence as being abrasive or even arrogant in women – stereotypes seem to work better for men when seeking executive posts;
  • The paucity of female role models, connected networks and supportive sponsors; and
  • The gender-orientation of typical CEO career paths where, for example, men tend to predominate in sales and overseas assignments.

Women view the world differently, process information differently and make decisions differently.  If you doubt that, you are unaware of basic science (ref. Pease & Pease, Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps). They tend to see their environment through the lens of opportunity rather than problems to be solved. They are usually more collaborative than competitive. They ask more questions, are open to new ideas (though with slightly greater skepticism than men) and, while desirous of facts, more reliant on their intuition.

Competitiveness in women may be more about seeking an identity that matters and a voice that is heard. Unlike men, successful female leaders don’t rely as much on favours; they seek to earn respect and genuinely believe they can influence their advancement by serving others. Consummate team players, they want to prove their value and self-worth by exceeding expectations.

So, how should women seeking ascendancy frame their leadership identity?  For starters, almost every decision in business today requires expertise in negotiating. It follows that women must become more aware of, better appreciate and therefore utilize their existing talents in this domain.

My own research and repeated observations over four decades confirm a long-held suspicion that women possess superior negotiating skills but generally lack confidence in their execution (ref. Murray, The Optimal Negotiator). Since the purpose of bargaining tactics is to induce stress, science again informs us. For most men, stress improves performance – under stress males typically tune out emotional cues whereas women, reacting differently to the dopamine surge, seek emotional support, become more risk averse and less decisive.  

The foundation of competence lies in our inner comfort and confidence.  Yet numerous studies tell us that 2.5 times more women than men say they feel “a great deal of apprehension” about negotiating. When asked to describe the process metaphorically, men view it as a “ball game” or “wrestling match.” Women choose phrases like “going to the dentist.” Which is why men initiate negotiations four times as often as women – everything is deemed as “negotiable.” (Babcock & Laschever. Women Don’t Ask).

Women are more pessimistic about what they can achieve via negotiations and thus typically ask for and get less – on average, about 30 percent less than men. One study calculated that women who consistently negotiate their salaries earn at least $1 million more during their careers than those who refuse to do so. Twenty per cent of women say they “never” negotiate even when they see it as appropriate or necessary.

Beyond developing this critical skill, here are further suggestions  aspiring female leaders might contemplate in closing the curious albeit enormous gap in the numbers of qualified women and men in the corner office:

  • Master self-promotion. Men are promoted on their potential; women on their track record. Speak up about accomplishments and what you can uniquely deliver. Make sure you get your due.
  • Overcome the stereotypes. Frame emotion as passion. Build and utilize alliances. Intelligently challenge those who don’t value your innate competencies.
  • Be strategic. Anticipate the unexpected. Know what cards to play and keenly calculate each move you make. Understand risk. Seek out sponsors.
  • And, finally, act with purpose. Ensure your high standards and unique skills are neither undermined nor misunderstood by gatekeepers. Become decisive – know what it takes to nurture high performance, especially during difficult times.

This article was written for and published in The Financial Post – March 13, 2014.