Why Mary Barra Should Be the Norm, Not the Exception

Praise the little things, practice good listening, involve the whole gang–with collaborative management styles, are women the leaders we need more of?

Why Mary Barra Should Be the Norm, Not the Exception
[Image: Flickr user Subconsci Productions]

One issue has been largely over-looked in the discussions about women leadership: Do the traits of one gender have an advantage over the other in the boardroom?


Direct and self-promotional personalities have long been associated with leadership, and throughout the world men have been reinforced for taking charge, being focused on a goal, and directing people toward that end. In fact, a whole leadership model has been built around a command-and-control style. Women who competed with men to excel in this type of behavior were at a disadvantage.

Today, while there are still organizations where command-and-control is practiced, collaborative, team-oriented management has gained the upper hand. That style favors women who, as a group, have been reinforced from childhood for asking for advice, including others in decision making and recognizing and rewarding both behaviors and accomplishments.

It’s been reported that newly minted GM CEO Mary Barra practices a collaborative management style, which should bode well for her success and that of GM. It would be a great accomplishment for GM and the industry to manage in such a way that assembly-line employees actually feel involved in how cars are designed and made.

Involving others in how things are done is a behavior that is highly desired today in management and at the board level. According to the latest State of the American Workplace Report, 70% of U.S. workers don’t like their job, which is a sure sign of a disengaged workplace. Women’s ability to appreciate accomplishments, both large and small, and to create a collaborative culture can go a long way to improve workplace performance.

Of course, many men can and many excel at collaborative management style. But in companies where inclusion and engagement are important, women generally have a head start. That is, many women can do today what men have to learn to do.

The science of behavior has shown over and over that those who see and positively reinforce small changes in behavior get the fastest and most significant improvement. I can tell you from more than 40 years of working with leaders, there are still many men who have a very difficult time with that concept of change. They think that reinforcing far-reaching goals is better than reinforcing small changes, and they fail to realize that the small, incremental changes are what eventually lead to both quick and dramatic changes.


The fact that more women are being appointed to corporate boards and executive roles is good for organizations in ways that go beyond issues of equity and fairness. Women are also able to bring new energy to innovation, creativity, shareholder returns and corporate responsibility. And ultimately they are able to quickly create a workplace that brings out the best in people.

The following checklist offers some of the key leadership skills that are needed in any workplace. If you have them, use them every day; if you don’t, learn them and use them every day:

1. Involve others in the solution

When no one knows the solution, getting multiple suggestions always leads to a better solution. If it’s a problem you are working to resolve, go to those in the front of the house. Leadership, removed from the action, does not see how and who really gets things done.

2. Listen

Spend a portion of every day listening to what people have to say about their work. Ask engaging questions to hear how someone did something or why they believe a certain approach works better than another. Something most managers don’t know is that listening is teaching; talking is learning. Spend the better part of the day teaching (listening).

3. Specify the outcome clearly

When employees know the specific outcomes and the managers involve the front in figuring how to reach them, this is one of the best ways to increase feelings of engagement.

4. Look for and reinforce good work

Never miss an opportunity to value even a small improvement. Most organizations are focused on the mistakes or things that aren’t working. When you focus on what is working, more good will come.


5. Celebrate results

When you get input on how something should be accomplished and it works, let the person(s) know. Reinforce valuable behaviors when they occur, but celebrate results.

Women and men have different skills, and both are necessary. I suggest that we look at the behaviors that bring out the best in people and organizations and promote people who have them in their repertoires.

Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D., is founder and chairman emeritus of Aubrey Daniels International and The Aubrey Daniels Institute. He can be reached at He is the author of Bringing out the Best in People.