Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman.” Whether you agreed with her politics or not, Mrs. Thatcher was certainly a woman who knew how to get things done, and in her own way.
Women in the labor force has increased by 27 percent since 1978. Today, women hold about half of all management and professional positions, but when you look at senior leadership the ratio is very different – and women fill only about four percent of CEO positions in the S&P 500. With so few women at the highest levels of leadership, we ask, “Why aren’t there more?” Are there things male leaders are doing – outside of simply being men and knowing the secret handshake – that women need to know about?
When he addressed a group of senior women leaders as part of the Women in Insurance Leadership Conference, Matthew McCreight, senior partner at Schaffer Consulting, was asked to speak on the topic “What can women learn from effective male leaders.” Tasked with that provocative subject, he was fully prepared to duck behind the podium to avoid an onslaught of rotten tomatoes. Matthew prepared for his talk by interviewing 31 women in senior leadership roles, and came away with some thoughtful insights. No tomatoes were thrown.
That question of course, was not meant to imply that men were inherently superior, or that women needed to learn from them. Rather, it was meant to explore the differences between how men and women lead, and what characteristics might help propel more women into those highest C-level positions. “The question is,” said Matthew, “How do women remain authentic, but also push themselves outside of their comfort zones and say, ‘what does it take for me to be seen as effective by people who are making the decisions?’”
It’s business, it’s not personal
After his interviews with female leaders, Matthew found that women do tend to be harder on themselves than do men. “If a man fails, or gets rejected, certainly some of them take it hard. But the impression is that most shrug it off and don’t let it define them.” Once again, we look to the Godfather, the epic tale of male dominance, for an example, and nowhere is this sentiment more evident than the scene where Salvatore “Sally” Tessio suddenly realizes he is about to be whacked for his double-cross. He says to consigliere Tom Hagen, “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.” To which Hagen replies, “He understands that.” Even as he is being led to his death, Tessio doesn’t let his failed coup define him.
When Matthew interviewed the female leaders, one of the comments he received was, “Take the feedback, take it seriously, but don’t let it make you despondent. You’re going to experience mistakes and failures over the course of your business and life. The question is, how do you learn from it, but not let it define you?”
“Take criticism seriously, but not personally. If there is truth or merit in the criticism, try to learn from it. Otherwise, let it roll right off you.” – Hillary Clinton
Business is just high school with suits
One of the most insightful answers to Matthew’s question came not from any of the senior women leaders, but from a young woman behind the desk at the hotel, the night before his talk. “The best answer I got was when I checked into the hotel the night before the talk. The young woman behind the counter was asking a lot of questions and when I told her, she thought for a minute, and she said, ‘Good male leaders hire women.’ And I thought, that’s a good answer.”
We have an inherent tendency to surround ourselves by people who are like us. We see that early on in high school, where we clique ourselves off into the band geeks, the jocks, the goths, and the math nerds, and when we get into even the highest rankings of the corporate world, it’s really no different. The corporate world is really, in many ways, just like high school with a suit and tie and a better lunch. “The nature of a hierarchy where one group dominates, is they tend to look for people like them, in an unconscious bias at least,” said Matthew.
“The notion is, how do you look at things differently, and not think they’re bad? One thing leaders do is reach out and say, ‘how do I get different points of view?’ It’s vital to the success of a business to have different points of view, different skills.” How do we get around the tendency to groupthink at the corporate hiring level? Yes, we want to hire the manager who looks like us, went to the same fraternity and knows the secret handshake. But then, you have a company with a single-mindedness that simply does not consider other points of view that may ultimately benefit the organization.
Matthew recommends to his clients when they are looking for diversity, to make the hiring process one done by groups rather than just one leader and the head of HR. “We have a team of people to hire them, so we don’t just have a myopic view of whether I like somebody. We look for people who are different, and bring them in and mentor them and help them along. It really makes a difference.”
Matthew relates a story one of the female panelists told at the conference: “A woman was in a senior role in a company. The CEO had staff meetings every Monday at 8 am, so she had to bring her nanny to her house every Sunday night so that she could get out of the house and get to that meeting. So finally after a number of years, she was asked how it was going, and she said, ‘This thing is killing me! It’s costing me a lot of money, and having an 8 am meeting is really hard on me!’ So the CEO said, ‘Why don’t we move it to 10?’” Until then, she hadn’t thought to ask, and he hadn’t thought to offer, and they were both missing an opportunity.
What can men learn from women?
I asked Matthew to flip the question around – what can men learn from effective female leaders? Are there things men can learn? What would have happened if the godfather was the godmother?
“Most assuredly,” he said. “A couple of things are teamwork, more empathy, and more concern for the wellbeing of their people. I think women juggle an immense range of challenges between business and home, so I think there’s a lot to learn.”
“I’m tough, I’m ambitious, and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, okay.” – Madonna
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