Management / Why women make better CEOs in the 21st century

Why women make better CEOs in the 21st century

Chief executives are giving more weight to qualities traditionally associated with women, such as collaboration and listening. The old top-down, command-and-control structure does not work any more as companies become more porous and fluid.


In 2015 companies are not hermetically-sealed bubbles. Apple, for example, has
45,000 employees worldwide but another 180,000 people outside the company who earn their living developing apps for iOS. They are not going to be told what to do.

“Because of these fluid boundaries, you’re no longer king of the hill, you’re more of an orchestrator,” says Colin Price, chairman of consultancy Co Company and visiting fellow on leadership at Oxford University. “A highly macho, power-oriented structure is not going to get you very far.”

Tim Morris (below), professor of business studies at Saïd Business School, says that the chief executives he has interviewed tend to suggest that women are better suited to run large organisations because of their skillset.

Morris interviewed 152 CEOs worldwide for a recently published report, co-written with leadership consultancy Heidrick & Struggles.

Thirty years ago leadership books were in-your-face macho tomes, such as those written by Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca and General Electric CEO Jack Welch – archetypes of the male-leadership cult conquering hero.

“Male qualities such as strength, decisiveness and telling people what to do need to be complemented by more female qualities such as collaboration,” says Dr Bernd Vogel, associate professor of leadership and organisational behaviour at the Henley Centre for Engaging Leadership.

Says Price: “The evidence is pretty clear. Organisations with more women in higher roles outperform organisations that don’t.” Indeed, the pyramid command-and-control structure is a western concept that is not found in other regions – China, India and the Middle East all favour a more collaborative approach, for different reasons.

Simon Sinek, author of the bestseller Start With Why, says: “It’s not that we need more female leaders. What we need are more leaders with female qualities such as empathy and humanity. Aggression and self-interest are the qualities of bad leadership.

“There was a generation of female leaders who came up in the Eighties by acting more like men than women. That time has long gone. They don’t need to wear pantsuits and wear their hair short anymore.”

Leadership is important because it can make a dramatic difference to how your company performs. Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School, says that the difference between good and bad leadership is about 40 per cent in terms of performance.

Price goes further: good leadership can as much as double company performance.

Says Price: “Leadership is not a peripheral thing. The difference between good and bad leadership is about a 50 per cent return over five years.”

The report also found that 71 per cent of business leaders doubt themselves.

CEOs should not consider doubt to be a weakness, says Sinek. In fact, moments of doubt invite collaboration and engage your staff.

Sinek says: “Good leadership is about communicating a vision of something that doesn’t exist yet. The worst scenario is a leader who keeps a tight grip on things, but has no vision. That’s the worst. Hitting revenue milestones is not having a vision.”

Steve Jobs was a leader whose vision was of a company that helps everybody by simply harnessing the power of technology. That was why design and simple interfaces were so crucial to Apple, says Sinek. What Apple was not about was hitting market-share milestones.

Indeed, one of the tenets of good leadership is “the vision thing” – communicating why a company is in business to its increasingly highly skilled and mobile workforce, giving them a reason why they want to stay loyal.

“Think of leadership as a fire that needs to catch across a company. You need to
think about spreading leadership across the organisation, not just keeping it contained at the top.” says Price.

For Vogel, leadership means knowing your limitations and how to complement other people.

“That’s a key piece. Just because you know your weaknesses doesn’t mean you won’t win.”


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