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PSFK: Why Women Make Better Business Leaders

In anticipation of the PSFK 2014 conference in a couple of weeks, I participated in an interview about the leadership qualities that are valued in modern business, the media, and the political landscape alike.

What inspired you to write the Athena Doctrine?

My reasoning for writing the book was twofold. The first motivator was a personal one. I have a young daughter who is just now coming of age in a new era for women. I wanted to encourage businesses and society to take part in making strides toward gender parity for the next generation of girls because families and society will be better off if they thrive. Moreover, my research revealed that a cultural tide is shifting. I was able to empirically corroborate what we were seeing in culture and give credence to feminine skills and competencies that are fast becoming imperatives for both men and women to innovate and effectively run their businesses. We conducted research in thirteen nations and among 64,000 people. And the traits of the “ideal modern leader” were seen as feminine. These were traits like selflessness, collaboration, empathy and emotiveness. The least correlated traits were aggression, independence and pride (and seen masculine).

What are the larger factors underlying the shift? Why now?

Several factors are contributing to the trends we observed in The Athena Doctrine. In light of the interdependency caused by globalization and the greater transparency precipitated by technological innovation, individuals and companies more highly prioritize flexibility, collaboration and openness. Our data revealed that 79% of people feel that their personal success is tied to collaboration and sharing credit with others. The same amount of people felt their country’s leaders cared less about its citizens than it used to. However, amidst this disillusionment with old methods of command-and-control leadership and government inefficacy, some leaders get it.

We interviewed over one hundred and fifty leaders and innovators in eighteen countries, including The President of Israel, Shimon Peres, who said “We are in a new world with many old minds. The task of a leader is to adapt yourself….Leaders are here to serve”. As a result of this current of change and reprioritization of values, companies need to combat growing distrust by championing feminine skills and competencies from the inside-out and employing them in their leadership styles. This integral integration of Athena qualities will have a ripple effect whereby they allow companies to appear authentic by being more in sync with the social attitudes of the times. We will start to see an increase in values-led companies that recognize the importance of being accountable to society as a whole, rather than just to their shareholders. In fact, in our data 69% of Millennials said they would work for less money at a company whose culture and values they admired.

What was the most surprising insight you uncovered?

That what is perceived as “soft skills” like openness, collaboration, vulnerability, patience and empathy––drive hard-edge business results. These traits are not often lauded in upper management circles. But they can improve your business’s bottom line and lead to greater innovation and sustainability over time.

We were with leaders all over the world who were challenged with very dynamic and difficult situations: We spent time in Colombia with NGO’s repatriating rebel soldiers back into society and the government of Medellin trying to combat violence among its youth. We were with the Iceland Government as they tried to restore trust and stem panic after the collapse of their economy. We interviewed Army generals, EU Commissioners, start-up founders in Nairobi and tech incubators in The West Bank. None of what they were doing was a walk in the park. But they utilized feminine traits as currency to connect with people and get them to rally around their cause.

How do companies incorporate this thinking into their hiring practices?

The skills and competencies of The Athena Doctrine are readily applicable to recruitment efforts. We’ve started a company 21CL (Twenty First Century Leadership) which maps out ideal skills for human resources departments to mine for as they begin to rethink that which constitutes a potential leader. Because the skills a leader often needs to get to the top are not the same ones you need to stay there. Instead, the name of the game is ‘engagement’: We help identify more effective leaders and managers through surveying and screening which can reveal flexibility, expressiveness, long-term planning and intuition.

We believe these (and more) will be the optimal qualities for the next generation of leaders. So we audit companies to champion these skill sets and build them into teams. And our results show that companies who employ feminine values have less turnover, greater innovation and higher loyalty from their colleagues and teams.

How have these lessons changes the way you approach your work and relationships?

I’m proud that two-thirds of our employees and managers are women, which has had an incredible impact on our culture and our performance. I also try to empathize an ‘always learning’ ethos that goes across all levels of the firm. We have an open floor plan that rotates on a quarterly basis to break down silos, encourage collaboration and create a physically level playing field. I sit amidst analysts and consultants who are recent college graduates. They’ve got me interested in Airbnb, but I draw the line at Tinder. I also recently created an youth board of directors comprised of analysts who are serving as my trusted advisors and vocalizing which issues we need to confront as a company and suggesting how to constructively do so.