Ricky Robinson

Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO)

Athena Rising: Female Leadership

Athena Rising: Female Leadership to the Fore

Why Businesses – and the World – Need Female Leadership Behaviours

The pandemic crisis has highlighted required leadership qualities for a new, next normal. Most are female-oriented – and we need to embrace them, now.

Imagine you’re a judge in a fiendishly complicated case – not only the issue, but all the surrounding circumstances, and the implications, for generations ahead, of your judgement. You would hope for wisdom, wouldn’t you? And for courage, clarity of thought, negotiation skill. You might wish for the powers of the ancient Greek goddess, Athena.

In their 2013 book The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future, John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio make a compelling case not just for the necessity of empowering women, but for the wholesale adoption of many of the attributes and intrinsic behaviours of women. In other words, men, too, should seek to understand the advantages these bring to businesses and societies, and cultivate their traits to match. This will improve all-round leadership and performance, adding exponential value to the organisation.

Performance excellence

Some of the most conclusive evidence that female leadership delivers is in a 5-year tracking by leading equity trading and finance company, MSCI.

Having three female directors is a tipping point towards better results: a median improvement of 10% in Return-on-Equity (ROE) and 37% in Earnings-per-Share (EPS) – scores which were significantly better than companies without women on their boards. MSCI’s managing director for research, Lind-Eling Lee, summarises the situation: “Such superior performance from companies with at least three female board members may derive from better decision-making by a more diverse group of directors, as some studies hypothesise. But outperformance may also be tied to greater gender diversity among senior leadership and the rest of the workforce, which has been correlated with reduced turnover and higher employee engagement.”

In a meta-analysis of 200 companies and a series of follow-up studies synthesising further academic research, McKinsey probed for specific leadership behaviours which drove organisational excellence. Nine were identified, including participative, or individualistic, decision making; being a role model; developing people; formulating clear expectations and rewards; and control and corrective action.

Here’s the interesting part: statistically, McKinsey’s study shows that women apply five of these nine behaviors more frequently than men.

“In particular, developing people, expectation and rewards, and being a role model were found to be special strengths of female leaders.”

Like MSCI, McKinsey concluded that having women in leadership positions is vital – and if they comprise at least 30% of the board, the impact will be transformational.

Seeing things differently

McKinsey’s research is just over a decade old. But the pandemic provides fresh insights: a current study by Zenger/Folkman concludes, simply, that “women are better leaders during a crisis.” The evidence also points to areas where women are unequivocally superior, overall: relationship-building, pivoting for new skills, nuanced decision-making, inspiration – these are better demonstrated by female leaders, crisis or not.

These conclusions echo The Athena Doctrine, which had its own pithy yet seismic statistical conclusion. Of the 64,000 people surveyed in Gerzema’s and D’Antonio’s research, two-thirds thought the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.

This has fundamental implications for how companies are led and managed in the imminent, next normal.

The world’s problems are complex

From short-term goals to long-term ambitions – and beyond: there is a growing realisation that what really counts in business is to forge a legacy. Leading global business consultant Jim Collins talks about leaders who serve, those who go to extraordinary lengths to build a company with a cause-centred vision. The notion itself is rooted in the role of a nurturer, a feminine trait.

“And the attributes which will fulfil the vision are female-biased: long-term thinking, patience, caring, humility and kindness.”

Indra Nooyi broke America’s corporate glass ceiling when she became PepsiCo’s CEO in 2006. She was one of the first major company leaders to embrace sustainability and, in PepsiCo’s pledge, Performance with Purpose, to equate profits with purpose, not to see them as trade-offs. Many of the company’s goals seem standard today, but fifteen years ago her mission to reduce production and packaging waste, and to migrate PepsiCo brands towards healthier options, among other initiatives, was progressive, even trailblazing. “I wanted to make sure that PepsiCo was not only delivering top-tier financial returns but doing so in a way that was responsive to the needs of the world around us,” Nooyi said a decade after the pledge’s commencement.

She’s updated her views, too, in a recent virtual conference that “if 80% of our products are bought by women because they were the gatekeepers at home, or make all the purchases, why don’t we have a large number of women represented in our ranks?”

The power of imperfections

“A vital leadership quality in these extraordinary times is the courage to admit to vulnerability.”

The willingness to say, “I don’t know.” Men are more likely to be conditioned to do the opposite.

Acknowledging weakness can transform it to a strength. In 2008, German virologist Dr. Ijad Madisch, struggling to make headway in his research, had an epiphany: if failures were shared, learnings would be gleaned and the same mistakes wouldn’t be repeated, making the entire medical research sector more streamlined and effective. From his acceptance of vulnerability – and voicing it to colleagues – was born ResearchGate, which now has 20 million members and has contributed to the collaborative reshaping of scientific (and other) research – perhaps too, to the speed with which coronavirus vaccines have been formulated.

“Doubt is the father of invention,” said Galileo Galilei, the father of astronomy and scientific method. There’s a case for admitting doubt, for whisperings one’s feelings. Like intuition, these are renowned female qualities.

Aggression versus consideration

Some of the biggest recent corporate disasters, such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill and, in SA, the R250bn Steinhoff fraud, have stemmed from aggressive, fast-tracked decisions, minimal attention to detail, and corporate over-reach. “Greed is good,” says Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, in the 1987 movie Wall Street. Then came the 2008-9 financial crisis, rising inequality, and the Occupy Wall Street protest.

“The growing consensus, today, is that capitalism needs to find a gentler, wiser balance.”

I think we could do a lot…if we had patient, non-speculative capital invested in…productive returns,” said Katrina vanden Heuwel, editor of the progressive US publication Nation, in a 2019 debate.

Perhaps, if business were to heed her by embracing a more patient, feminine approach, corporations would gain greater societal trust, and contribute incrementally towards solving some of the world’s major problems.

Nurturing trust – and power

How should we evaluate trust – a function of integrity, authenticity and acceptance of responsibility – across the genders? There’s proof, from a significant dataset and empirical cross-cultural 2019 study, that women display more integrity than men – by a 9% point margin.

But women also bring forceful – even combative – qualities to leadership, which they are entitled to do. After all, even when they’ve made it to the top table, women are questioned and doubted more than men. Kim Foxx, the state attorney in Illinois and a friend of US vice-president Kamala Harris, noted wryly that, “There is a celebration of what it means to break the ceiling, and not nearly enough conversation of what the cuts to your head look like.”

The #MeToo movement illustrates how women are augmenting their anger with technological and networking smarts. The massive, global coalition against sexual harassment, together with #BlackLivesMatter – founded eight years ago by three women, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi – has unleashed perhaps the deepest social revolution of the past quarter-century.

The shift in the acceptance of female rage has been seismic and sudden,” Elizabeth Day writes in How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong. But she also warns that “we’re in danger of replacing one female archetype – the nurturing accommodator of other people’s needs – with another: the furious avenger who is angry at everything just because she can be.

“For true progress to be made, women need to be allowed to be many different things all at once. The same goes for men.”

Athena wasn’t all gentleness. In persuading the vengeful goddesses, the Furies, to accept a judgement and to adopt a different, protective role of the citizens of Athens, she reminded them that she could access Zeus’s thunderbolts. Her clever combination of carrot and stick, benevolent actions and veiled threats – and real power – triumphed.

“Thanks for sharing”

Until fairly recently it would have been difficult to imagine that business meetings would be peppered by this phrase.

Women are better at talking about their feelings and thoughts. Let’s pause on this: sharing isn’t always appropriate. Sometimes, keeping confidences or playing cards close to one’s chest is a prudent strategy – even a vital one, when the competitive stakes are high.

However, as we transition from our Information Age, and knowledge becomes more easily accessible, the question is: ‘What do we do with it?’ The next part of this century, as we enter a time of dematerialisation, intangibles, inclusivity, and creativity, is earmarked as the Imagination Age. This is a context better suited to female attributes such as intuition, networking, mutual support, and willingness to trust in collaboration and outsourcing.

Thoughtful leaders

Not ‘soft skills.’ Instead, deep skills”, writes the economist Jed Kolko.

"Emotional intelligence, curiosity or inquisitiveness, openness, flexibility: the value of these ‘deep’ skills is recognised as prerequisites for the Imagination Age."

(And, as yet, they’re not replicable by artificial intelligence.) Irrespective of gender, we all have the capacity to improve these skills. But the evidence shows that women have a more natural gearing in these areas, an openness to unfamiliar concepts.

We don’t need another hero

Looking for something / We can rely on / There’s gotta be something better out there / Love and compassion / Their day is coming / All else are castles built in the air.

Tina Turner was prescient. It’s clear that the complexities of business will extrapolate. The superhero CEOs of the past – experienced, all-knowing, iconic leaders like Jack Welch and Steve Jobs – remain inspirational, not least because they demonstrated qualities which are timeless: curiosity, candour, judgement, and picking the right people.

But it’s interesting to note the shift in the last decade. In IBM’s CEO Study reports, the 2010 document already tracked the importance of qualities such as fairness, humility, openness, and a focus on sustainability – but at low ratings, just above 10%; the key attribute for the five years ahead was deemed to be creativity. The latest, 2021 report highlights the paramount need for CEOs to lead with purpose and mission, and to engage employees.

Netflix and its CEO Reed Hastings might point to the importance of both – a focus on creativity and purpose – as key to their extraordinary success over the past fifteen years. And Netflix may attribute at least some of its phenomenal success – 2020 revenues at $25 billion – to a strategy of diversity, including at leadership level. Nine of its 22 directors or senior leadership are women; some occupy perhaps the most crucial roles for continuing global expansion and growth: programming is led by Bela Bajaria as Head of Global TV, and Maria Ferreras is the company’s Global Head of Partnerships.

Bajaria, in particular, has driven a deliberate ‘inclusion lens’ in its production commissioning, and an insistence on gender equality in lead roles. Interestingly, women also occupy leadership roles in driving content and regional franchises at Viacom, Disney, Amazon Studios and HBO. Netflix may be a forerunner, but there’s a trend here:

“The streaming giants have realised the importance of content that reflects the people watching it – and that women understand this better than men.”

Considered approach

Are women less likely to grandstand, and less prone to groupthink? Women may be better at asking new questions and flexing their thinking, instead of continuing to try to answer existing ones. In welcoming dissenting voices, handling disputes – being generally more intuitive than men – they may make better negotiators across a wider stakeholder spectrum. This helps in validating others and growing their self-belief.

“People thrive in the brightest light and the richest soil.”

Women,” says Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox and the first Black female leader of a Fortune 500 company, “are still largely responsible for the nurturing of their families. It’s part of our genetic structure. That means we take responsibility for nurturing people to feel included, to feel valued.

The glass ceiling is cracking – too slowly

Unfortunately, in South Africa only 6% of JSE-listed companies are led by women. Although up from 3.3% in the financial year 2019, there is a clear under-representation of women in executive-level leadership positions.

Similarly, during the first quarter of 2021, women headed only 41 Fortune 500 companies. That’s just 8% – although the figure has crept up from 24 in 2018, and 33 in 2019.

There is progress in other avenues. In February 2020 leading investment banking firm Goldman Sachs announced it would underwrite US and European initial public offerings (IPOs) only if the company’s board is diverse. And boardroom gender diversity is mandated for California-domiciled listed companies, in terms of the landmark 2018 ‘Women on Boards’ law requiring all public company boards to include at least one woman.

The future

What fundamental challenges will business face in the next decade? Are female leadership behaviors better suited to meeting these? Or are male behavioural strengths – identified particularly in McKinsey’s dimensions of coordination and control, and external orientation – more suited to the path ahead?

The answer may vary marginally between industries and companies. However, common to all businesses around the globe is the need to inspire and motivate its talent, to inculcate a culture of knowledge-building and curiosity, and to widen collaboration towards innovation.

As supply chains evolve to value webs, hierarchies to ecosystems, and disruption becomes pervasive, it’s clear that businesses will need increasing levels of intuitive creativity, reflexive collaboration, and 360-degree agility.

As multiple studies confirm, these requirements correlate closely to female leadership strengths and behaviours.

Systemic change requires effort

A belief in the primacy and ascendancy of female behaviours doesn’t mean they will gain traction. Work needs to be done – by men and women. Empowerment initiatives, educational programs, networks, support for social movements, employer programs to allow for flexibility in recognition of women’s wider roles – these are all important.

But as we better understand the psychology of leadership, and marry the needs of business today with the demands of all stakeholders, so the expectations of what a leader should do and how they should behave will, I believe, swing further towards Athena.

“By bringing the powers of Athena’s legend to life we will better lead and future proof our organisations.”

Inspirational women

“I’m not afraid. I was born to do this,” said Joan of Arc in 1428. She was making her case to France’s crown prince Charles, requesting permission to lead an army to install him as the French king by defeating the occupying English forces at Orléans. She had no military training, but she succeeded. History records her as a French heroine, a symbol of unity and freedom. She was 16.

In 2018, Greta Thunberg, aged fifteen, stood up to fight for the protection of the planet. Starting alone, with a banner protesting global warming outside the Swedish parliament, a year later she was voted Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

“Two leaders - one fabled in history, one of our present time. Young women. Leaders.”

The hope, the argument of this blog, is that women like these will soon not stand out as exceptions. At LRMG we are conscious of the urgent need to adopt empowerment, inclusivity, and leadership programs aimed at women – Black women in particular. Currently, women comprise half our Board, and thirteen of our twenty-seven member senior leadership team.

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