09 Mar 2017 17:05 IST

Why women make great leaders

Women’s Day is a good time to remind ourselves how much further we still have to travel

One of the biggest changes that will take place in the future will be having more women at the helm of companies and organisations across the world. Today, there are so many women leaders as role-model who have already kick-started that trend. But we need more — many more.

A few well-known examples, however, shadow the fact that women still struggle more than men, be it to get promoted, to be given the same breadth of responsibility or to be considered equals in the workplace (from equal roles to equal pay). This is not just a blow to diversity but also failure at a chance to be better led, because very often, women bring their own unique and nuanced style of leadership that all organisations could benefit from.

Here are a few thoughts on why I think so.

One caveat: for all the points listed below, there are always exceptions — there are men who get the feminine side of their leadership right and women who miss out on using strengths that are natural to their gender.

Heart and head

Men in leadership roles focus more on logic, and downplay emotion. This often leads to them being blind to the powerful role that emotions and feelings play in situations. Women leaders seem to be better at placing facts in their emotional context and therefore, make more mature interpretations of scenarios.

Men also tend to give tasks and results a higher weightage than relationships. Women, on the other hand, are more natural at creating and nurturing relationships, while still getting tasks and results.

Nestle CMD, Suresh Narayanan writes about his first woman boss in a recent article written for a business publication. “My current boss, Wan (Wan Martello) is my first woman boss and a source of great inspiration for me. She has enormous courage — it takes a lot of guts to unsettle a person in one place and put him into this situation (Referring to her decision to uproot him from the Philippines and return to India to deal with the Maggi crisis).

“She is very trusting of people, but at the same time has what I teasingly call a feminine instinct — she is very perceptive and the kind of person who values people very much. Conversations with her begin with questions about my family and only then turn to work — with my other bosses, it was the other way around.”

Women generally tend to be better listeners, of not just verbal but also non-verbal communication. They are more sensitive to signals from tone and body language, and are therefore able to hear the unsaid messages and include them in their assessment of and response to a situation.

At this year’s Oscar presentations, last year’s Best Supporting Actor Mark Rylance highlighted another strength of women when he said, “Sometimes, the most supportive thing is to oppose. Something women seem to be better at than men is opposing without hatred.”

I found this true with many of the women leaders I worked with — they could disagree without holding a grudge and without getting their ego involved. Arundhati Bhattacharya, the chairperson of SBI, is a great example. Tulsi Tanti, chairman, Suzlon Energy says about her: “She is focused and plain-speaking without any ego.”

The broader and longer view

Women tend to hold off reactions a little longer than men. That gives them time to move from reaction to response, to consider another angle, to weigh a pro or con and thereby take a broader, longer view.

Indra Nooyi is a good example at Pepsi, where she got the organisation to change gears and recognise the need to move from high-sugar, unhealthy beverages to healthier options. As a mother and a daughter, she incorporates the priorities of today’s families into how she runs her organisation, without compromising on the quest for results and growth.

In an interview with McKinsey, Dan McCarthy, President and CEO of Frontier Communications, narrates a board discussion scenario: “At one point, we were reviewing a strategic direction around opportunities for products to bring to a market. The management was in favour of moving (ahead)… The women on the board challenged the management the most by drawing on their understanding of how more than half the country would feel about these new products. It really changed the entire direction of the discussion. Ultimately, we scrapped that idea and didn’t move forward with it.”

Women leaders also are generally more patient. This helps them suit up for the long term and be willing to wait for rewards — of a strategy, a colleague’s performance or a transformation programme. Even where investments and money are concerned, they are able to wait it out and reap the rewards of the longer term. It’s no accident that eight of the top 10 banks in India are headed by women CEOs.

Going the extra bit

Women are so used to being judged differently in the workplace that going the extra mile is a habit. They try harder, bounce back faster from tough times and raise the bar. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw is a good example of someone who proved critics wrong by succeeding in a male-dominated industry.

I remember at some client meetings, male consulting leaders would have a summary analysis and action presentation ready by the next day. A lady consulting colleague of mine who actively participated in the client discussions and brainstorming (and therefore would apparently have had no time to prepare a presentation) stunned the group with a detailed presentation, analysis and action plan by the end of the same day!

Women achieve their success judged by a harsher standard and in the midst of more gruelling circumstances. No wonder they build their leadership muscles faster and stronger than many of their male counterparts.

Women’s Day is a good time to celebrate women’s leadership and remind ourselves how much further we still have to travel, until the time no such day is ever required again.

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