Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better?

Marissa Mayer speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Dinner New York City at Hudson Room at the Time Warner Center on May 24, 2011 in New York City.

Now that Yahoo has hired Google executive Marissa Mayer to be its next CEO, the subject of feminine leadership is topical.  Maker, 37,  is extraordinary by any standards. She was one of Google’s earliest employees who began her career at Google in 1999 after getting her master’s degree in computer science from Stanford. Fred Amoroso, Yahoo’s chairman, says the board was drawn to Mayer’s “unparalleled track record in technology, design, and product execution.” Among Mayer’s list of talents and accomplishments, she is a math whiz with a photographic memory. In her time at Google, she led teams that produced many of the company’s most recognizable products, including the development of its flagship search product and the iconic Google homepage. She managed the launch of more than 100 features and products including Google News, and Gmail and is credited with overseeing the creation of much of the clean, uncluttered “look and feel” of many Google products.

Do Women Really Make Better Leaders?

Articles over the years have claimed that women make better managers than men, including this article by Forbes. According to Forbes, research shows that “strong market growth among European companies is most likely to occur where there is a higher proportion of women in senior management teams.” It shows that firms with more women on their boards “outperform their rivals with a 42% higher return on sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity.”

Other research cited in Harvard business review found that teams which involve women are more intelligent than teams made up of men alone.  Professors Woolley and Malone, along with Christopher Chabris, Sandy Pentland, and Nada Hashmi, gave subjects aged 18 to 60 standard intelligence tests and assigned them randomly to teams. Each team was asked to complete several tasks—including brainstorming, decision making, and visual puzzles—and to solve one complex problem, and the teams were given intelligence scores based on their performance. Surprisingly, the teams that had members with higher IQs didn’t earn much higher scores, but those that had more women did. According to the researchers:

Malone: It’s a preliminary finding—and not a conventional one. The standard argument is that diversity is good and you should have both men and women in a group. But so far, the data show, the more women, the better.

Woolley: We have early evidence that performance may flatten out at the extreme end—that there should be a little gender diversity rather than all women.

But does this mean that women are inherently better managers than men? I’ll provide the answer to that question at the end of this article.

Smarter Work Groups

The study cited above found that women tend to make a group work better. Here are the key findings:

Smarter Groups Listen and Share Better: The study saw no strong correlation with individual IQs. Although 10 of the smartest people could make the smartest group, it wouldn’t necessarily be the most effective. What great groups share is not that the members are all very smart but that they listen to each other, share criticism constructively, have open minds, and aren’t autocratic. In fact the study showed that  groups that had smart people dominating the conversation were not very intelligent groups.

Smarter Groups Are Moderately Diverse: The research also finds that extremely homogeneous or extremely diverse groups aren’t as intelligent – a moderate level of cognitive diversity is most effective.

Collective Intelligence can be Designed: Although you can change an individual’s intelligence only so much, the study’s authors believe that it’s completely possible to markedly change a group’s intelligence. You could increase it by changing members or incentives for collaboration, for instance. There is evidence to suggest that collective intelligence exists at the organizational level, too. Companies that do well at scanning the environment and setting targets also excel at managing internal operations and mentoring employees—and have better financial performance. Consistent performance across disparate areas of functioning suggests an organizational collective intelligence, which could be used to predict company performance.

5 Feminine Leadership Secrets

So what are the successful qualities that tend to be more highly developed in women? Forbes put together a list of 5. I took 4 of theirs, and added a 5th of my own:

1. Communication: Harvard Business School professor Nitin Nohria, who writes that great leaders “spend the bulk of their time communicating.” Women are thought to be better at verbalizing what they think.

2. Perspective: It is important to have diverse viewpoints, and the best way to do this is to bring in people who understand those viewpoints intimately. Chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Financial Services (NSAFS), Sylvian Perrins, writes in the Financial Times, that she believes that women look at problems differently and provide a complementary point of view:

They are well placed to understand their customers and stakeholders and ensure the industry benefits from fresh perspectives, new ideas and broader experiences. It is always good to see things from different perspectives and if women are not represented on boards their point of view and a large proportion of the general population’s view wouldn’t be heard. Consequently, having different genders and ethnicities brings a tangible added value to the business. The best teams are made up of a different mixture of skills and backgrounds which bring spark and innovation to organisations.

3. Empathy: According to a white paper published by the Center for Creative Leadership, the ability to understand what others are feeling — to detect if they are overworked or struggling — is a skill that “clearly contributes to effective leadership,”

4. Risk Aware, Long-term Thinking 

Halla Tomasdottir and Kristin Petursdottir

The tendency to think long term  has come to be seen as a feminine trait. In particular, according to investment firm CEO Halla Tomadottir: “We [are] very careful, and very risk-aware – risk-aware, not risk-averse. Women are risk-aware, men are risk takers.

Halla Tomasdottir and Kristin Petursdottir, set up investment firm Audur Capital in Iceland in 2007, with Kristin as CEO, believing that the male-female balance matters because each bring different values to the table. Women, in particular, they believe Says Halla, the Audur chairman:

Women tend to bring a lot to the table. They think more long-term, they think about the team, and not only themselves. They think more about people, and they see other business opportunities than men.

There is another, crucial difference, they find: “Women are willing to ask stupid questions. We want to understand. We won’t take risks we don’t understand, so we ask: what is sub-prime? Who’ll pay these loans back?”

Prioritizing Corporate Governance: Part of being risk-aware is greater emphasis on corporate governance. Halla says:

You do need people that put ethics and corporate governance high on the agenda. I have learnt through years in personnel management that women tend to put these values higher on the agenda. They’re also interested in a wider definition of what’s a good return.

Results Speak Louder Than Words: Kristin and Halla are convinced that their results prove them right:

Our values got us through the crisis. We tripled out wealth management business when everyone else was losing business. We achieved this through trust, and the things we stand for. And straight talking. We told our clients things that they would not have been told elsewhere. We believe in being authentic to our clients, that’s in our DNA.

5. Work Life Balance

In my personal experience, organizations where there was a greater representation of women among management placed greater emphasis on work life balance. As women still tend to be the caregivers at the home, these organizations were more open to flexible work arrangements, including flexible work schedules and telecommuting. Undoubtedly, female management has had a positive influence on corporate culture in this area.

“Feminine” Leadership Qualities

study by Bain and Company of female leaders found that female interviewees felt that women were advantaged in six of 10 leadership characteristics identified.  These include the ability to empower others and to be a listener. The women interviewed felt that some of their traditionally feminine traits are an advantage, particularly in forming relationships with clients and colleagues. Examples these women leaders cited include:

  • Building relationships: “Women are generally calm and don’t possess a huge amount of ego upfront, which is helpful for building relationships with Main Street CEOs.”
  • Investing in others: “Women are better at consensus building and care more about people and how they are feeling about their roles.”
  • Reading people: “Women tend to be more empathetic and better listeners than their male counterparts, which makes them better at reading people.”

Bottom Line: Sensibilities, Not Gender, Determine Leadership Style

So are women really better managers than men? Anecdotal claims make for a compelling narrative and an empowering myth, but, in fact, the most reliable research reveals that leadership style is independent of gender:

Those contending that leadership competencies are largely the domain of the female gender are as guilty of stereotyping as those who would equate effective leadership with male characteristics.

Woolley states:

Many studies have shown that women tend to score higher on tests of social sensitivity than men do. So what is really important is to have people who are high in social sensitivity, whether they are men or women.

The fact is, it isn’t accurate to identify the leadership qualities typically enumerated as female leadership qualities as male or female., or engage in gender stereotyping.

The good news for both genders is that the qualities that society traditionally associates with women are  possessed by men as well.

3 Takeaways: The important takeaways are these:

  • Certain qualities that society associates with “the feminine” make for good management skills. These are qualities that leaders of either gender can tap into.
  • Diversity improves organizational effectiveness.
  • Work life balance makes for a better work environment

As leaders, we should be open to new learning. If qualities that are traditionally associated with feminine behavior appear to make for improved leadership, we should be prepared to embrace them. Gender equality and parity is not only a basic human right, but adds perspective, balance and improves organizational results.

Snap! principle of successful “feminine” leadership qualities:

Be as much in touch with “feminine” as “masculine” leadership qualities.