Real Leaders

How Men and Women Can Co-Create Unexpected Value

Tonight I’m giving a speech to a group of senior executives on the strategic advantage of men and women working together. This is new territory, and new thinking for most male leaders. The current drive to elevate more women into leadership is largely driven by the pressure to be politically correct.  It is, after all, the right thing to do. What’s both sad and bad about that kind of thinking is that it simply marginalizes women’s potential contribution to success.

In a survey project I’m just starting it seems that many, many women in the workplace feel either invisible or patronized…but not valued.

The deeper problem is that simply telling men they should  value women as leaders only adds energy to the stereotype that women need ‘special’ help because they are the weaker sex.  This kind of thinking is not confined to the ‘Mad Men’ era.
It’s the unspoken bias that stubbornly persists.

I call it the cycle of “Bitchiness.”  It works like this.

Psychological research reveals that feeling powerless or under-appreciated leads to feelings of frustration and anger that produce either aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior.
Passive-aggressiveness is usually played out in behaviors such as complaining, blaming, silence, gossip and acting like a victim.  Low-power people tended to be passive-aggressive because it’s one way of maintaining psychological strength.
For instance it’s common for teenagers to be passive aggressive. (I have raised 6 teenagers so I am an expert in responding to passive aggressive strategies.)

Sociologists tell us that when a whole class of people, in this case women, try to effectively operate with low-power in organizations that favor high-power, that class will tend to perpetuate passive-aggressive behavior.  This of course produces the evidence that confirms the common male bias that women are too emotional, sensitive and indirect to be senior leaders.

So when I give speeches on this subject I point out that a working culture that subtly de-values the ideas, work ethic, and contributions of women will continually produce the superficial evidence to justify the dysfunction of the culture.

I take great care not to be a man basher. It’s not that men have ill-will toward women.  They just need a change of mindset. Here’s what I mean.

Men and women literally see the world differently.  Psychological research confirms that men and women regularly look at the same set of facts and see different opportunities and different threats. This is true with men and women with the same IQ, the same education, and similar work experiences. Men and women will notice different things and assign greater importance to them.

These differences offer tremendous new opportunities in both innovation and execution. Research reported in the Strategic Management Journal (September 2014) uncovered that organizations that have the most women in senior leadership positions grow faster because they produce more innovations that creates customer value. (High value innovations have higher profit margins.)

We believe that this is no accident. Neurological research confirms that male brains are wired for linear thinking.  This kind of thinking is ideal for creating consistent, incremental improvements in efficiency.  Many, many companies today make data-driven decisions to reduce costs by increasing labor and process-efficiency. This has proven to be very valuable. Male dominant skills of goal-setting and relentless accountability have been essential to building big, efficient enterprises.  However, what if being efficiency-focused is now actually getting in the way bigger bolder success?

Linear thinking tends to confine a leader’s thinking about innovation for product or service improvements.  Linear thinkers often get very excited when they can combine product and service enhancements with the mistaken notion that it represents an innovation breakthrough. Many companies are so busy working on process-efficiency they have to hire strategy consultants to come up with product or service improvements.  The problem is your competitors are hiring consultants with the same mindsets and data that your consultants have, so creating unique value becomes almost impossible. This level of innovation leads to slow growth and shrinking margins, which puts more pressure on operating efficiency. It’s very difficult to break out of this vicious and slow death cycle.

This is where women can make a big difference. For me, this is not theoretical as I’ve seen it time and again in my own leadership practice. It works like this.  Most women’s brains are wired for ‘practical empathy.’  This is also known as ‘social intelligence.’ Unlike linear thinking it is holistic, which enables people with this kind of brain design to both feel and understand what other people are feeling and experiencing.  (About 30% of men also have ‘practical empathy’ brain design. Few however rise to high levels in an organization because they are viewed as too “soft.”)

Leaders with practical empathy more naturally understand what ‘invisible needs’ their current customers and potential new customers have.  They are also more likely to come up with unexpected solutions that no one else has seemed to think of.

men and women

A great current example of this is Elizabeth Holmes the founder of Theranos.  You may have heard of her.  She is a 30-year-old Stanford dropout who developed a revolutionary way to do extremely cheap blood tests that can predict a wide spectrum of life-threatening diseases.  This is a really good idea. It’s estimated that she has a nearly $5 billion net worth.  She is described as “Steve Job’s with a big heart,” meaning that she is brilliant but driven to save lives and reduce misery for literally billions of people who otherwise would not get, or could not get their blood tested.

A major driver of her innovations is that one of the primary reasons people don’t get blood tests, even when they’re prescribed, is that they hate the pain of a blood draw.  Her test requires only a few drops of blood from a simple pinprick rather than being hooked up to a scary looking tube being jammed into your vein.

Here’s what I want to emphasize. Holmes’s motivation to innovate wasn’t because a market analysis showed that inexpensive blood testing was a multibillion-dollar market, but rather that there was a critical human problem that stood in the way of implementing our existing medical knowledge to immediately save millions of lives.

In my experience Elizabeth Holmes is not the exception when it comes to the thinking that women bring to generate high-value innovation.  When I run innovation workshops I make sure that at least half the participants are women.  I begin by asking the question, “If you look at our company’s total capabilities, how much good can we do?  How much value can we create to improve the quality of life for our current and potential customers?”  And what I see is that the people with the highest social intelligence and genuine practical empathy come up with the most astonishing and executable ideas.  And most of those people turn out to be women.

When I work with HR leaders on their struggles to attract, develop and retain talent I frame the challenge as this opportunity…“If you need to vastly improve employee talent quality, engagement, creativity, collaboration and productivity within your existing budget, what should you do?” Again, I find their social intelligence to be a volcano of unexpected solutions in spite of existing constraints.

I am a big believer in rapid, revolutionary change. We have entered the “Age of Relationships.” The value that we create is increasingly due to the quality of the relationships we are nurturing.  Relationships with customers, with employees, with society, and with the unborn. When I was working with Stephen Covey we called it “Synergy.”  One plus one equals three…or sometimes thirty.

I’m not suggesting that men are wrong and that women are right.  I am only pointing out that women are simply not valued in the essential way they bring value.  We need the synergy of  both efficiency and empathy.

Now is the time for true synergy between men and women in the quest to create a world of sustainable abundance.

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