Leadership Code Meets Gender Science: part IV of 4 parts

How does it play out when women are finally at the point when they could “make it” – break through to the executive ranks?  We all know that at that point, it is much less about smarts and experience – everyone has that – it is more about “fitting in.”  That is the sum total of a lot of things, but surely in large measure about this whole gender thing.  Says Michael Gurian of women at this critical point: “They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  If she has spent her career trying to be more like a man,


How does it play out when women are finally at the point when they could “make it” – break through to the executive ranks?  We all know that at that point, it is much less about smarts and experience – everyone has that – it is more about “fitting in.”  That is the sum total of a lot of things, but surely in large measure about this whole gender thing.  Says Michael Gurian of women at this critical point: “They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  If she has spent her career trying to be more like a man, the men view her as inauthentic [and ultimately don’t want her in the club.]  If she has tried to stay authentic to herself, then you start hearing things like ‘she’s too emotional, she goes on too long, she’s too much into relationships.”  If we want to get women into higher levels in organizations, says Gurian, “We need to get both males and females to understand that the female style, however it manifests itself, is very valuable.”


I interviewed Michael a week or so ago to understand more of what he sees as the necessary shift. I also wanted to get his take on how women and men together fit into Leadership Code. 

Michael: “It is really about moving forward out of the traditionalist frame AND the feminist frame.  The traditionalist frame says, basically, that men ought to run companies and women run homes, not companies.”

Kate:     “Let me stop you there and ask the traditionalist’s question.  Haven’t men been running large corporations for many years?  Some of them do remarkably well with a vastly male majority at the top.  GE comes to mind.”

M:          “Some do, of course, but many don’t and/or could do a lot better.   You can’t confuse the rare genius who can make it work with the vast majority of firms that are sub-optimizing or even failing with only the male model at the top.  How many failures have we had, even before the most recent crash?   We need balance, including gender balance.   Lots of women do extremely well in starting their own organizations when they flee the corporate world, so clearly a lot of talent is being lost.  It has been amply proven that business is not just a man’s game.”

K:            “OK, I see that we don’t want the traditionalist frame.  How about the feminist frame? What’s wrong with that?”

M:          “The feminist frame  tends to assert that men and women are the same (or very very close) in terms of leadership style because there is the  worry that admitting biological differences will play against women.  This piece of the feminist approach has been disproven by brain science, and the work that I and others are doing in corporations to teach brain-based male/female leadership styles is bringing powerful results, so we now have success data that can put to rest the idea that if we prove males and females to have naturally different leadership styles it will hurt women.  As more and more feminists and traditionalists understand that brain/leadership differences are here to stay, they will become better able to help women climb to the top, AND help companies be more successful.”


K:            “So the answer is working together in the ways that you work best?”

M:          “Exactly. Women will bring the male organization incredible strengths—in organization, negotiation, communication, relationship management, product design, marketing, and leadership–gains that are not available unless the genders co-lead.    Male assets truly cannot fully exist dissociated from female assets. And vice versa.  They need one another.”

K:            “Let’s try pulling these ideas into a frame with which I am very familiar: the Leadership Code.  Let’s see the extent to which these two models can inform each other about gender and leadership.  We’ll start with Strategy.  Strategists answer the question “where are we going?” and make sure that those around them understand the direction as well.  They not only envision a future, but can create it. They figure out where the organization needs to go to succeed, they test these ideas pragmatically against current resources (money, people, organizational capabilities), and they work with others to figure out how to get from the present to the desired future.”

M:          “Yes.  I love what you are saying.  A Strategy team is a place where we really want gender balance.  Men will often favor getting to a solution quickly.  Women may favor taking more time, hearing more opinions, gathering more detail.   Both ways of doing business are needed.  For instance, a woman might say, ‘I have an intuition that  I’d like to test it by talking with some more people.’  Men may have a similar instinct but want to test it against data.  Right there, in those two impulses, you can see how both are better together.  They will find different, equally valid ways to gather information to test their hypotheses. The key thing is not to invalidate either approach.”

K:            “Okay, let’s move on to the Executor dimension of the Leadership Code.   The Executor dimension of the leader focuses on the question “How will we make sure we get to where we are going?”   Executors translate strategy into action by understanding how to make change happen, how to assign accountability, how to know which key decisions to take and which to delegate.  They make sure that teams work well together, keeping promises to multiple stakeholders.  Executors make things happen, and put the systems in place for others to do the same.”

M:          “Again, I love what you are saying.  Both men and women can be really good as execution team leaders, and gender differences can appear.  Who might be better depends on the issues facing that team. In LEADERSHIP AND THE SEXES, we tell the story of Pam Gomez-Gil.  Her leadership role in a troubled manufacturing team was to help the men (this was in the high-tech/engineering field) to do the “process” better—collect details, write up reports, lubricate the manufacturing system with clarity so that execution could occur.  Pam is an example of where a smart executive saw that the “process” piece was missing, and hired a qualified woman, Pam, in respect for her natural leadership ability.   By the same token, we have worked with execution teams in which women say, “I’m on a team with ten women.  We’re not getting enough done!”  They are saying, “We have too much process here!”  One woman told me, “I would much rather work for a man than a woman.  Men don’t take as much time to get from A to B.”  These examples are not trying to say that “men” or “women” are better leaders than the other:  we are saying, “Gender is complex, and a lot of the tensions you have in execution (as well as failures) can be dealt with by paying close attention to assets in both the male and female leadership styles.”


K:            “Our third dimension is Talent.   Leaders who optimize talent answer the question ‘Who goes with us on our business journey?’  Talent managers know how to identify, build and engage talent to get results now.  Talent managers identify what skills are required, draw talent to their organizations, develop people, engage them, and ensure that employees turn in their best efforts. Gifted Talent managers generate intense personal, professional and organizational loyalty.”

M:          “This is another crucial area for gender focus.  I don’t believe any company will fully master the Talent dimension of leadership unless and until they fully engage on the gender issue.  Men and women need to understand each other.  It’s not a sound bite thing, or a one day sensitivity workshop.  Corporations really need to understand how to work together as men and women. The great companies who have really advanced in this area – Ernst & Young, Procter & Gamble, IBM – focused on this issue systematically and deeply for many years. IBM, for example, insisted that their executives reach out personally into the talent of IBM to ask their help in the issue. The firm instituted a system in which executives specifically mentored individuals in career advancement and work/life balance. They quite deliberately acted as role models and mentors.  The results were impressive.  By paying attention to female talent especially, they really increased their bottom line.”

K:            “As I understand the story, IBM as well as the others you mention in the book have also been very successful in Human Capital Development — answering the question, “who stays and sustains the organization for the next generation?”  Human Capital Developers ensure that the organization has the longer-term competencies required for future strategic success.  Just as good parents invest in helping their children succeed, human capital developers help future leaders be successful.  Human capital developers throughout the organization build a workforce plan focused on future talent, understand how to develop the future talent, and help employees see their future careers within the company. Human capital developers ensure that the organization will outlive any single individual.”

M:        “Yes.  The family is the right metaphor for gender focus.  Good parents are not just raising ‘kids,’ but boys and girls.  Good parents read the signals of their boy and their girl and give back to their children what they need.  They help develop not only the talent of their “child,” but of their boy and their girl.  A lot of this is unconsciously done until we as parents focus on the gender of our child (in pre-puberty) and really focus on male/female.  Well, the same is true of the workplace, from a gender viewpoint.  At a certain point, the leader realizes that employees are not just “people,” but women and men with personal and group assets related to gender.  The Catalyst research makes very clear that organizations that understand female capital and know how to work with it do better. To continue with IBM as an example: in 2005, IBM reached the proud milestone of having 1,000 female executives globally.  In 1995, they had had only 185.”

K:       “At the heart of the Leadership Code – literally and figuratively – is Personal Proficiency.  Effective leaders cannot be reduced to what they know and do.  Who they are as human beings has everything to do with how much they can accomplish with and through other people.” 

M:     “The gender work we are doing helps to make people even more into human beings.  This science-based approach allows both men and women to more fully tap into their own humanity.”



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