Today’s business environment demands new ways of working and leading, and, especially at this time, companies need leaders who focus all their attention on people, who are empathetic and who are committed to communication, collaboration and teamwork. These skills have become increasingly important in recent years, but the COVID-19 pandemic (along with the economic crisis and the uncertainty it has caused in companies around the world) has only served to highlight their value. Fortunately, there is a group of people who have the necessary qualities for this, who are already part of organizations and who are often not sufficiently taken into account when thinking about leadership: women.
A series of recent studies confirm what many people already know: that women tend to be very empathic and have a highly developed emotional intelligence. They tend to be better at practicing active listening and asking for ideas, collaborating, recognizing the merit of others and changing course when circumstances require it. It has been demonstrated in a revealing way that the collective intelligence of small groups increases when there are more women in them. In addition, companies with gender-parity management teams are more innovative than their competitors and have better financial results.
Of course, we are not taking it for granted that all women have the kind of skills we just named, nor will we analyze why they are more likely to have them, but for companies seeking the kind of managerial talent needed to succeed in today’s business environment, the underlying explanation is less important than the urgent need to work and lead with new principles and work philosophy. Companies can move forward more and faster by striving to attract, retain and nurture their reserves of female talent.
The operating model of most companies must change
The operating model of most organizations is evolving due to disruptions related to talent and technology. To succeed in that environment, we believe that organizations will need two fundamental sets of skills. The first is digital capabilities; many organizations are actively recruiting software developers, scientists and data analysts, customer experience designers and other profiles with advanced digital skills.
The second set of skills (which this article discusses) is equally important: skills that humans develop in areas such as communication, collaboration, inspiration, emotional intelligence, creativity and imagination. Although algorithms can execute standardised processes and make simple decisions much faster, cheaper and more accurately than people, other skills, those that only human beings possess, such as empathy, creativity and good judgement, are paramount to solving complex problems.
That’s why leaders of today’s Agile organizations don’t just give orders based on their own experience or knowledge, they identify a problem and support autonomous teams that will actually solve it and validate the solution with customers. This type of leadership involves accepting a certain vulnerability, as it consists of supporting people who know more about a given issue than their superiors and who are more likely to find the solution, which is likely to make many traditional leaders feel uncomfortable.
In a business environment with increasingly decoupled and independent multifunctional teams, leaders must be empathetic and able to empower others, inspire teams, build relationships and learn with humility.
Human” capabilities are as important as digital ones
These “human” skills are as important as digital capabilities to the success of any company, and while some such as empathy and relationship building may seem uncommon among candidates for leadership positions, most companies will find them in their own undiscovered pools of employees and managers.
There is growing evidence that demonstrates women’s unique ability to lead in innovative ways
Evidence shows that women are more likely to develop many of the key leadership skills. Take, for example, a recent study by the Harvard Business Review, which found that women in management positions scored better than their male counterparts on a number of key competencies, such as inspiring and motivating others, building relationships, and collaborating and working in teams (if this sounds exceptional, the authors conducted the original study in 2012 and updated it in 2019, where they obtained similar results).
Similarly, when studying more specific skills, the University of Leipzig researchers observed that, on average, women are better at accurately deciphering emotions from people’s faces. Another study revealed that they are clearly better at reading body language. A third study found that men detect subtle signs of emotions such as sadness in a face only 40% of the time, yet women can notice these barely discernible signs with 90% reliability.
In addition, a publication in the journal Science showed that the collective intelligence of small groups increased if there were more women in them. Women are more likely to recognize the merits of others, ask for opinions, listen actively, and take turns participating in conversations or tasks, rather than trying to dominate those situations. As a result, groups with more women were more collaborative and were able to make better use of the potential contributions of all participants.
The ability to listen and empathize is absolutely critical to creating a truly collaborative and innovative environment
The research results are consistent with actual experience shared by managers overseeing Agile transformations and other large-scale operational changes. For example, Jessica Järnbert, Head of Business Consulting Services at Amadeus IT Group in Spain, a leading provider of technology to the global tourism industry, has been working on an Agile transformation project for three years, and notes that during this time, communication and empathy have been critical.
“The ability to listen and empathize is absolutely essential to create an environment of trust where there is real collaboration,” says Järnbert. “However, there is another very important skill: that of defining, articulating and communicating strategy. Without this ability, you run the serious risk of rushing in, doing things wrong and ending up with results that are not what you really want. If people have a common vision, purpose and strategy, it is easier to promote collaboration to achieve those things.
Järnbert also believes that women are well suited to oversee such change-related initiatives, since assessing the well-being of a wider community rather than seeking personal gain is one of her strengths.
Janice Semper, Senior Advisor at BCG and former Senior Human Resources Executive at GE, stresses the growing need for persuasive and empathetic leadership: “When people are asked to give up old habits and change their behavior, it’s not enough to simply report and say that they need to change the way they think and act,” Semper explains. “Everyone will start from different starting points and their willingness to change will vary. Success requires dialogue and discussion throughout the organization so that it is possible to help people understand what it means to them and to develop a willingness to change. Emotional intelligence (EI) has become as important as IQ, if not more so.
Because of women’s great ability to manage social dynamics, Semper continues, they are able to bring people together and achieve better business results: “My experience is that female managers are often very good listeners,” she explains. “They have patience and humility, are able to deal with complexity and understand the relationships between emotions and actions. They get more involved and have more empathy, which is necessary to get everyone involved in this process.
We need leaders who have real interest and confidence in people
Finally, Teresa Graham, Head of Global Product Strategy at Roche, stresses the importance of bringing together different perspectives and viewpoints to make teams more creative and effective. “It’s about being able to find innovative approaches to challenges, either individually or collectively,” says Graham. “At Roche, we have focused heavily on empowering small, autonomous teams, and have eliminated those processes that slow us down. We need leaders who have a real interest and confidence in people, a high degree of cultural awareness, and who are able to convey ideas to the people they work with regardless of culture or geography, because if you really want your people to take responsibility, lead and collaborate in new ways, you have to trust them.
How can managers contribute to this change? “A lot of the creativity and collaboration comes from bringing different views and perspectives to the table based on diversity, whether it’s gender, age, geography or any other visible or invisible difference,” says Graham. “Another part comes from ensuring that everyone is heard and has the opportunity to contribute fully. She also adds that women often create learning networks that integrate and adopt different points of view more naturally. This means that “women can be great leaders and role models in fostering greater diversity of thought, encouraging communication and collaboration, and providing opportunities for those who do not fit the traditional pattern.
For organizations that understand the need to work and lead with new principles and philosophy of work and that diversity is good for business, the message is clear: companies need to identify people with these skills and assign them leadership positions. While this was true even before COVID-19, the pandemic has now highlighted the importance of empathetic and collaborative leadership that is agile in decision making and implementation. Companies that want to benefit from these skills will need to redouble their efforts to attract, retain and motivate women.
This report is available at Women Are the X-Factor in New Ways of Working