Successful Female Leaders
I was invited to speak on two consecutive Women’s Days to talk about Successful Female Leaders. One was simply not enough. My speech was focused on the research I carried out into the skills that propelled 80 CEOs to the top of their organisations. I decided to talk about the top women in my sample as well as couple of other global female leaders.
I started by commenting on the recent publication of Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women.
Forbes 100 Most Successful Female Leaders
Not unsurprisingly the vast majority of successful female leaders hailed from the US, women like Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama. Forbes is a US publication after all. However, it is clear that the rest of the world lags behind in terms of successful female leaders.
Looking at the industries these successful female leaders dominated revealed more of a surprise.
Women in politics dominated this global list at 21%. Why? I think it’s because they are voted in by an electorate that comprises both men and women in equal measure so their advancement was not dependent on the sponsorship of senior groups of men. Politics now provides equal opportunities once women are selected by their parties to go in front of an electorate.
So what are the skills of successful leaders – especially Successful Female Leaders? I revealed my research into 80 CEOs, 25% women, in the UK and in the States and chose women leaders who were part of the survey and a few who were not to elucidate my points. I will declare the results in reverse order.
Skill Number 10 Be confident
Some of the CEO’s in our sample were born confident, for others it had to come with the job. While few were completely nerveless, virtually all rated their confidence as high. This seems to be an essential requirement since they need to speak up for themselves inside and outside the organization, to argue effectively with senior colleagues and to be the focus of attention in a range of business situations.
The most confident person in the whole group of 80 CEOs was Dawn Airey who started Channel 5. She knew her strengths and when asked in summery what her made her so successful she simply said ’I’m bloody good!’
Skill Number 9 Strike a deal
This skill relates to the ability to negotiate. Leaders need to achieve “win-win” outcomes with partners and providers. They require to have the creativity to construct a proposition from which everyone will gain, the toughness not to relinquish more than they can afford, and the charisma to steer the encounter to a successful conclusion.
Cherie Blair, the human rights lawyer, has negotiated many a tough case in the discrimination arena. She has won cases notably on the grounds of racial discrimination and that of sexual orientation. In addition she started a foundation dedicated to mentoring young entrepreneurial women in developing countries
Skill Number 8 Know Yourself
I was consistently impressed with the responses when I asked the directors what they saw as their strengths and weaknesses. Without hesitation they listed their talents, and then their failings. Their failings
were always less in number than their strengths. Confident self-knowledge is obviously the building block for progressing in business. Not for them false humility!
Barbara Cassani epitomises this self- knowledge. She has revealed herself to be a self- starter but not a finisher. She set up GO the low cost airline for British Airways. She increased profits form £25,000 to £374,000 in 3 years then sold out. She started the Olympic bid for London with two people and a mobile phone then handed the job over when successful.
Skill Number 7 Love Change
When I asked our sample of leaders whether they liked change, they told me that not only did they love change but saw their ability to initiate change as crucial to their success. Embracing change, and recognising that it is now a necessary part of business life, is an essential.
Dame Stella Rimington symbolises change like no other leader. The first woman to head up MI5 as Director General she told me that she certainly hadn’t planned this as a career move and like many other senior women in my sample were somewhat surprised when they were asked to lead. Now she not only has been a non –executive director with Marks and Spencer where I met her but is also an author of spy novels. Quite a lot of change for one person.
Skill Number 6 De-stress
Directors consistently give a high rating to their ability to cope with stress and recognize that managing stress is now a business essential. There are many approaches to stress management, but the key is awareness and prevention. In this, as in other aspects of business, successful people take control.
Never has there been anyone apart from Gandhi who has come to symbolise peaceful demonstration and calm in the face of adversity as Aung San Suu Kyi.
She has refused all offers of freedom in return for banishment from Burma and has been imprisoned off and on since 1989. She recently won the election but is still under house arrest.
She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Skill Number 5 Trust the team
Success is not achieved in isolation. Our directors knew that they had neither the time nor the ability to do everything themselves, and were highly dependent on finding and keeping the right team. Finding business partners and then trusting them is a key business skill.
Nicola Horlick of SG Asset Management, for example, said that she could not have achieved continuing business success without her team, especially when she experienced domestic tragedy. So reliant are leaders on their teams that they, like Nicola Horlick, take their existing teams with them when they move on to new organisations.
Skill Number 4 Relate
Our survey of leaders shows that they prize the ability to work with a wide variety of people. Leaders have learned to stay close to their customers and their employees. They take time to relate to other people and are empathetic, communicative and supportive. They also handle difficult people skilfully and value a happy domestic life.
Teresa Amabile, Professor at Harvard Business School asked 200 people from 7 organisations to record their daily activities and thoughts. The results are revealed in her book The Progress Principle. She discovered that when leaders provide positive feedback about projects their team members’ happiness increases and they have 1 to 11/2 days of creative ideas thereafter. This relationship with their team leader was crucial in determining intrinsic motivation. When that happened they didn’t require bonuses or monetary rewards in fact they recorded that they were insulted by these.
Interestingly when she asked the leaders what they thought was the most important skill to increase their teams’ performance they placed reward or as she calls it ‘the power of small wins’ at the bottom of the list.
Skill Number 3 Want to Win
Those at the top have a drive to become successful and see this as an objective in its own right. They enjoy winning for the sake of it and often think of business life as a game. Their secret is an understanding of the rules and a real desire to master them
A mistress of the drive to win is certainly Hilary Clinton. As First Lady of the United States, a US Senator, Secretary of State and now candidate for the US Presidency for the second time. This lady wants to win…and what a role model for other women. Whatever your politics you have got to admire her willpower and motivation.
Skill Number 2 Deliver the goods
Successful people know what has to be done, and they need to achieve results. The key is the development of a results focus in which the end point is clearly understood and there is a sense of urgency in striving to get there. Once there, of course, new goals are set and the process begins again.
Selma Hunter, a women in a man’s world of engineering, set up a Project Group for Jacobs Engineering- all men of course.
She exceeded the expectations of this new group in terms of performance and profitability by fours time the expectation. She was made Vice President.
Skill Number 1 Problem solve
The number one rated characteristic is the ability to solve problems in a crisis. Business success depends on being the person who stays constructive and creative when the going is tough. Leaders need to see that there is always a way through, even when those around you have given up.
Susan Avarde is head of Global Branding for CitiGroup.
She oversees the brand in 140 countries and her customer awards programme became known as the best in the industry.
She was recounting when I met her in New York that her team were taking an inordinate length of time to come up with a name for the Awards Programme. Names like Purple Frog, Blue Apple, The Lizard Programme were all put forward with varying degrees of confidence.( I’m probably making some of these up but you get my point). She remembers pausing, standing back from the boardroom table and saying ‘why don’t we call it Thank You?’ That’s what it was called and the success of the programme was assured.
So, successful female leaders don’t have to be in politics to make it to the top. There are abundant numbers of women who are skilled, talented leaders waiting for the opportunity to move into the ascendancy of business and public life. Perhaps the business case for gender diversity has still to be made to some but the evidence is accumulating.
- Reuters has revealed that companies with gender equality have outperformed rivals.
- McKinsey has shown a correlation between diversity and bottom line profitability.
- Davies report declared that women on boards signified 42% higher sales, 66% higher invested capital and 53% higher return on equity.
For young, future successful female leaders waiting in the wings for promotion, don’t wait. Get skilled, Get Confident, Get promoted!
Ros Taylor Company’s Women as Leaders Programme works with many companies, helping women reach promoted posts for the benefit of their organisations.