Lots has been written lately about the difference between men and women in business — from their leadership styles to the amount of VC financing they attract (less than 10% of all venture capital funding.)
Margaret Heffernan’s new book, “How She Does It: How Women Entrepreneurs are Changing the Rules of Business Success” adds an interesting observation to the conversation.
Women, she says, are increasingly successful in business because they’re hard-wired to capture the zeitgeist. Speaking at a breakfast meeting at the Cornell Club in Manhattan last week, Heffernan, who has been the CEO of five different businesses in the US and the UK, said that women have a unique ability “to connect the dots,” to see patterns in masses of information.
“Women’s brains are like street sweepers,” she says. Every day, women are out there canvassing their environment, from the office to the school to the mall to the kitchen to the church to the supermarket, and on and on, taking in information, often in a commercial context. The extent of women’s purchasing power has been well documented, of course: 88% of all retail purchases, 89% of bank accounts, more than 50% of credit card use, etc. While they’re shopping, they’re also sucking up dust balls of data, like some crazed Roomba of the marketplace.
That makes women “deeply and often chaotically informed,” Heffernan says. It also enables them to understand the market on a visceral level, as they notice new products, trends, tastes, and failures. And, it enables the savvy ones to see market opportunities.
Eileen Fisher did just that when she noticed that women’s lives were getting more complex, and they wanted clothes that would work well for the different parts of their lives.
Carol Latham, a physical chemist, noticed many years ago that the thing that prevented computers from getting smaller was the problem of heat build-up. Her bosses pooh poohed her insight. So she left to form her own company, Thermagon, to make polymer semiconductors. Soon, Intel was on the phone, asking if they could use some of her company’s products to help with the heat issue on the Pentium chip.
Calling this ability ‘women’s intuition’ degrades how important it can be in a business context. Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, analyzed research on hundreds of top executives at fifteen global companies. The one cognitive ability that distinguished star performers from their less accomplished peers was their knack for pattern recognition, he says. That’s women’s intuition in a Hugo Boss suit.
“It’s the ‘big picture’ thinking that allows leaders to pick out the meaningful trends from the welter of information around them, and to think far into the future,” he says.
This should not be confused with market research, Heffernan says, which is always historical. Capturing the zeitgeist is about the future, an inexact – but invaluable – ability to sense where the world is going before it gets there.
No woman business owner would tell you that intuition trumps discipline, focus, and hard work. But leaven those business necessities with a dash of old fashioned intuition, and you’ve got a potentially powerful engine for innovation.