Women Leaders: The Hard Truth About Soft Skills

Collaboration, team-building, and inclusiveness are increasingly important as companies break down silos and remove layers of management

Sometime last summer, as the recession continued to reduce the ranks of the employed, the demographics of American business shifted dramatically, and for the first time women found themselves making up a majority of the U.S. workforce.

Heralded by some as a long-overdue organizational sea change that will change the face of business and create new opportunities for women, the shift nonetheless highlights the huge gap that most organizations still face when it comes to putting women in senior leadership roles. Women head up fewer than 3% of the Fortune 1,000 companies. The lower you go down the organizational ranks, the better the situation gets—but not that much. According to our Best Companies for Leadership survey, the top 20 organizations are almost twice as likely as the other 1,000-plus companies surveyed to have a high proportion of women in senior leadership positions.

So what should those lagging organizations do to improve the balance? Certainly they should adopt some other best practices of the top companies surveyed, such as creating cultures the foster leadership—cultures that closely manage succession planning and provide growth and development opportunities.

Altering the Equation

But according to Mary Fontaine, global head of Hay Group's leadership and talent practice, organizations should also be exploring how women change the leadership equation, both in terms of the strengths they bring to an organization and the barriers they still face.

Fontaine points to a Hay Group study of 45 outstanding women executives from large multinationals, including IBM (IBM), PepsiCo (PEP), and Unilever (UN). The women were selected based on such metrics as sales and profitability as well as the climates they created for their teams.

When compared with a peer group, selected by participating organizations, of effective male executives and less effective women, the Hay Group found that the 45 women used a broader, more effective range of leadership styles to motivate and engage people.

"The outstanding women," Fontaine notes, "used a better blend of what we think of as traditional masculine styles—being directive, authoritative, and leading by example and as well as feminine ones. They also knew when to be more nurturing, inclusive, and collaborative."

The men surveyed, and the less effective women, tended to rely primarily on the masculine styles.

Fostering Collaboration

Similar results, Fontaine says, were obtained in another leadership diversity study Hay Group recently completed in partnership with one of the top 20 organizations in the BusinessWeek/Hay Group study. In that study, the company's female executives were significantly more likely than their male counterparts to coach and develop others and to create more committed, collaborative, inclusive—and ultimately more effective—teams. The study also found that while women tended to foster genuine collaboration, male executives were far more likely to view negotiations and other business transactions as zero-sum games.

The need for collaboration, inclusiveness, and building trust and relationships, Fontaine says, is becoming increasingly important as organizations continue to remove entire layers of old command-and-control management jobs and replace them with more matrixed leadership roles.

"It's as if someone took an eraser to the organizational chart, wiping out a big chucks of boxes and replacing straight, solid lines with a web of fuzzy, dotted ones," Fontaine observes. These new roles, she says, carry even more accountability than traditional leadership roles, but with far less direct authority.

"When you're operating out in the vast white space of today's organization with just a handful of direct reports, you can coerce and demand until the cows come home, but no one will pay any attention," Fontaine says. "If you're going to be successful, you have to know how to influence, collaborate, and subtly gain the trust of others—skills women may inherently be better at than men."

Fontaine is quick to point out, however, that for men and women alike, good, effective leadership is not genetic but an ability acquired and developed through experience and training. The problem, she says, is that in many organizations, women still don't have the opportunities that men have to develop and practice those skills.

Some organizations are trying to create such opportunities. IBM, for example, has made a major commitment over the past decade to understanding and reducing barriers women faced in reaching positions of higher responsibility. The company is reviewing its leadership program to identify specific types of development experiences that should be provided to women.

Those organizations that lag behind in accepting women as senior leaders, especially at the senior level, are only going to hurt themselves and their shareholders. "Ultimately it's about business performance," Fontaine says. "And given the research and what we're seeing with clients, I believe that in the future, the best companies in terms of performance will be those that truly embrace diversity [by] hiring, developing, and promoting women to key leadership roles."

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