07 Oct 2015 16:37 IST

When men & women work as equals, organisations are profitable

Kate Sweetman, one of top business thinkers, speaks about what makes a good leader

Kate Sweetman, former editor of Harvard Business Review, is ranked among the world’s 50 best business thinkers. We recently interviewed her in Boston about leadership. I share with you the highlights of our conversation.

RM: You have co-authored a book called ‘Leadership Code — 5 Rules to Lead By’. What goes into making a good leader?

KS: Excellent leadership, the kind that inspires long-lasting enthusiasm and loyalty, has always had at its core, the ability to balance results and people. Excellent leaders build strong, enduring organisations that deliver outcomes while also honouring and developing people.

Consider Thomas Watson of IBM or Robert Wood Johnson of Johnson & Johnson. Both of them, generations ago, famously combined a strong desire to make money with a strong concern for their people; and created leadership cultures that set their companies on the path to greatness. They knew that profit today would lead to profit tomorrow, if they invested in both business and people.

What has changed over the years is the level of leadership skill required in most organisations — it has risen dramatically due to an increasingly intense and complex business environment, combined with a growing reliance on knowledge work — the kind of work whose outcomes depend more on enthusiasm and engagement of people than machines.

As a business moves up the value chain, the leader must orchestrate rather than direct, and motivate rather than dictate actions. This challenge requires alertness, not just to the business but also to the people.

Take Xerox for instance. When Ann Mulcahy took over the leadership role in 2001, she became responsible for redefining the way Xerox did business. Under her, innovation became the key driver, which necessitated a shift to working as a collaborative, networked organisation that systematically harnessed the strengths of a diverse workforce. Her leadership enabled Xerox’s recovery.

RM: How important is it to have women leaders? and What are the different leadership qualities that men and women bring to the table?

KS: The business case for including women at the top in sufficient numbers has been proven conclusively. Studies have shown that organisations that open their senior ranks to women and allow them to lead along with men, get better business results. Full stop. When men and women work together as equals in more or less balanced numbers, organisations are innovative and profitable.

Here’s the bottom line: According to current hard science, women typically take in larger amounts of information, using more of their senses. Women are more likely to integrate, make cross-connections, and consider more inputs when making a decision. They are more likely to attach emotion to information. Men tend to be more focused, action-oriented and inclined to simplify. They are less concerned with the subtleties.

For the inclusion of women to have an effect on the business results, they need to show up in at least 25-30 per cent of the senior-level seats — they can’t be isolated tokens. When women are in the extreme minority, their contributions are often dismissed: “She brings up irrelevant topics” or “She brings in emotion when we need facts.” When she is represented in sufficient numbers, however, she can bring her more nuanced perspectives to bear and be taken seriously.

RM: What can women do to be resilient and break the barrier to reach the top?

KS: I have met extraordinarily successful women leaders from whom we can take away the following lessons:

Keep your goals front and centre: You can endure a lot when you know your purpose. Take yourself seriously and you will make the preparations to succeed: education, career path and continuous learning.

Know yourself: The more you understand who you are and your own predispositions and reactions to the world, especially the male world, the better prepared you will be to keep your emotions and behaviours in check — a particular trap for many women.

Prepare for a stressful journey: Getting to the top is not easy for anyone, and is especially anxiety-causing for those who don’t fit in. Accept that this is the case, and you will understand your own reactions better. You will also find that your stress levels decrease.

Engage with the men: Don’t reject them. If you really want to enter the C-suite, you will have to meet the men more than halfway. Find out what their issues are. Where do your concerns overlap? How can you support their success? Who are the stakeholders in your success, and what do they need from you? Find a trusted male advisor who can give you guidance, and ask for feedback about how you are showing up. Nothing succeeds like having a powerful male sponsor.

Tend to your own character and integrity: Learning and being willing to change is one thing, but don’t give up who you truly are. However, be willing to grow.

Take care of yourself: Health and wellness, spending time with family and friends, and leaning on your network of supportive women is important. The more stress you are under, the more you need to take care of yourself in ways that are restorative to you.

You know how to do this well in India.

RM: Yes, we suggest meditation for 30 minutes a day to slow down the mind; and repetition of a mantra or holy word to break the mind’s conditioning and prevent it from speeding up again during the day.

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