Changing the Game Board:
Wisdom is having things right in your life; And knowing
Everyone on the fast track makes tremendous personal sacrifices, but men receive far greater professional rewards for their efforts than women. Many experts theorize that the discrepancy occurs because work environments place more value on the leadership qualities typically attributed to men than on those associated with women.
Some women will elect to participate in the scramble for the corner office; others will strike out on their own and build an organization from a blank slate. Women who don't want to play the game by the current rules will challenge the traditional assumptions about leadership and redesign the game board.
Women's preference for relationships over competition - an asset that's traditionally been seen as a liability - uniquely qualifies them to act as agents of change. To turn visions of success into action, women must radically restructure three key dimensions: mindset, skill set, and heart set.
The Case for Change
A recent article in Fast Company asked the question, "Where are the Women? Not in the Corner Office, Even after all these Years. Not Now, Maybe Not Ever."1 The article went on to cite some sobering statistics about the number of women holding the top jobs in major companies and the dim prospects of getting there in the first place.
Most women are familiar with the pattern. Across the professions - in business, law, medicine, academia, and elsewhere - the early-career hazing rituals are daunting. Working 60- to 70-hour weeks. Living out of suitcases while traveling across time zones. Juggling the demands of jobs and relationships. Living apart from significant others for extended periods of time. Personal life? A mirage.
Brenda Barnes, who famously walked away from the top job opportunity at PepsiCo, puts it this way: "When you talk about those big jobs, those CEO jobs, you just have to give them your life. You can't alter them to make them accommodate women any better than men. It's just the way it is."
While both men and women in the professional fast lane face the challenge Barnes describes, there is one major difference: the payoff at the end of the rainbow. A study conducted in 2003 by Catalyst, the nonprofit research and advisory organization working to advance women in business, shows that women make up a mere 16% of corporate officers. (This is on par with the number of women who are partners in law firms, also 16%, despite the fact that women accounted for 50% of the students enrolled in top law schools in 2000.) Optimistic projections expect this number to increase to around 20% over the next 15 to 20 years.
So while the path to success may be equally arduous for men and women, the payoff for women is not nearly so promising.
Theories of the Case
One school of thought on the reason the outcomes of the executive marathon are so lopsided focuses on the corporation as an arena of competition made of, by, and for men. Business culture is modeled on war, fashioned around machismo assumptions of how a company must function. Leaders are charismatic figures, standing alone, above the fray, with nerves of steel and raw courage. They command respect, inspire, shape, and direct their followers. In this scenario, leading a company is a man's game that few men, let alone women, are up to playing. And the role of women? Those who can't out-macho the men need not apply.
A second theory hypothesizes that women are simply not as competitive as men and therefore not prepared to make the sacrifices it takes to make it to the top.2 More often than not, the argument goes, women nearing the top usually conclude that the game isn't worth the trophy. They drop out of the race. In what's often dubbed the "little black dress" decision, women opt for the heat in their own kitchens, soccer games with the kids, and cocktail parties in support of their husband's (or partner's) career.
Mary Lou Quinlan, who stepped down as the CEO of ad agency N.W. Ayer, aptly explains a third theory: "The reason a lot of women are not shooting for the corner office is that they've seen it up close and it's not a pretty scene. It's not about talent, dedication, experience, or the ability to take the heat. Women simply say, 'I just don't like that kitchen.'"3
Reality is complex, and all three theories capture a good slice of it. But even if you assume, for the sake of argument, that none of these explanations is accurate, the data are still incontrovertible: women face four-to-one odds of making it to the corner office today and into the foreseeable future.
Three Choices for Women of Talent
Women who accept those data as reality have a few choices. First, they can ignore the data, jump on the fast track, and assume they'll beat the odds. After all, 16% of their peers have already succeeded in doing so, and women are nothing if not optimistic and tenacious.
Other women may opt for the second choice: refusing to play the odds from the get-go and pioneering their own venture alone (think Oprah and Martha) or with a partner. This path has its attractions and its challenges.
The third and perhaps most viable choice for women is to join the game but change the board on which it's played. Women can leverage their unique capabilities to create a corporate culture based on servant leadership, moral purpose, and collaboration. This is a vision of business with an ethical compass, with not just one but multiple bottom lines accountable to all the interests of all the stakeholders.
To backtrack slightly, "unique capabilities" refer to those that have been clearly and consistently identified in gender differences research.4,5 , They include a preference for cooperation over competition in play, the choice of relationships over individual conquests, and the willingness to be team players over claiming sole credit for success.
There are exceptions to these general attributes, and women can choose to override "natural" tendencies. Indeed, women are often encouraged (by male and female mentors alike) to see these assets as liabilities, and to be as competitive, individualistic, and egocentric as the most macho man. The business section of any newspaper is full of famous (or, more accurately, infamous) examples of women who have chosen this route.
So if the alternative to playing by the current rules or establishing new rules altogether is to change the game board, the question, of course, is "how?"
A Framework for Action
Any student of strategy knows it's always a sound idea to leverage your competitive advantage. If you use what Charles Handy refers to as "upside-down thinking," women's competitive advantage is quickly apparent: their natural strong suite is their capacity for building relationships and fostering collaboration. 6 Far from being a liability, this leadership quality flows from a distinct competency - not an innate drive to be the isolated genius at the center of command.
Women's visions of success typically encompass not only professional achievement, but also the service they provide to society and the lives they've improved. Interaction Associates has developed a framework through which women can turn their visions into action.
A recent and heartening convergence of theory and practice indicates that the vision of a new workplace is not simply some utopian ideal. 7 It does, however, insist that the vision is three-dimensional: women can think their way out of the maze together (mindset) with disciplined competence (skill set) and passionate commitment (heart set).
Reinventing the Game Board - Mindset: Know What
A mindset is a cognitive framework, theory, assumption, or paradigm. Women reinventing the game board and creating the new workplace must adopt five assumptions about leadership:
Skill Set: Know How
Nothing undermines the rhetoric of leadership faster than an incompetent practitioner. Leaders must be doers, models of the behaviors they expect from others. Women can't change the game board if they assume they can outsource behavioral change to their subordinates and not put in the sweat equity themselves. As Gandhi advised, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
Women must master six collaborative leadership skills:
People often assume that leaders are born, not made. While some leaders certainly have more talent than others, even the most gifted among them won't inspire others without collaborative leadership skills.
Heart Set: Know Why
The current bias toward developing intellectual and competency-based solutions often neglects the spiritual, passionate side of human nature. This is a big mistake, since humans are uniquely spiritual beings.
Taking the following steps can help women identify the passion, beliefs, moral convictions, and values that drive their leadership practices:
1. Clarify your personal values and practice what you preach.
2. Clarify your moral purpose and brand it as a hallmark of your leadership.
3. Make character the currency of your leadership practice.
Survival Guidelines for Self Leadership
It's one thing to aspire to please and play by the rules. It's another thing altogether to aspire to shake things up and be an agent of change.
To effect change on a wide scale, women must leverage their resolve, their internal wisdom, their authentic voice. And that calls for a Credo of Self Leadership:
As the great German philosopher Goethe wrote in his essay, Until One is Committed:
Whatever you can do, Or dream you can, begin it.
1 Linda Tischler. "Where are the Women? Not in the Corner Office, Even after all These Years. Not Now, Maybe Not Ever." Fast Company, Feb. 2004 issue.
2 Farrell,Warren. The Myth of Male Power. New York, Penguin Books, 2001.
3 Linda Tischler, "Where are the Women? Not in the Corner Office, Even after all These Years. Not Now, Maybe Not Ever." Fast Company, Feb. 2004 issue.
4 Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
5 Wheatley, Margaret . "Why Work is a Spiritual Endeavor." Online conference, March 24, 2003.
6 Handy, Charles. Age of Unreason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1990.
7 Wheatley, Margaret . "Why Work is a Spiritual Endeavor." Online conference, March 24, 2003.
8 Heifitz, Ronald A. and Linsky,Marty, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
9 David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, Collaborating for Change: Appreciative Inquiry, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2000.
10 Daniel Goleman,Working with Emotional Intelligence, New York: Bantham Books, 1998.
Hesselbein, F., Goldsmith, M., Becker, R. The Leader of the Future. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.
Quinn, R.E. Change the World: How Ordinary People Can Accomplish Extraordinary Results. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
Fullan, M. Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.
De Gues, A. The Living Company. Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1997.
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Linda Dunkel is president and CEO of Interaction Associates, Inc. For the past 25 years, Linda has focused on designing and developing learning strategies for organizations and improving the effectiveness of their human assets. She has held senior positions in two start-up companies, and was vice president of a Fortune 100 company. In the 10 years Linda has spent at Interaction Associates, she's consulted with American Airlines, Frito-Lay, Reliant Energy, Centex Homes, General Motors, JDA Software, Shell Oil, and BMC Software. Visit http://www.interactionassociates.com for additional information.
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