There are many traits often associated with women that make for exceptional leadership: caring, nurturing, expressive and empathetic. Ironically, men are taught to reject these qualities in themselves at a young age. This is an old-school mentality that stunts the emotional growth and development of the male gender. I’ve spent a career working with and for women and I can tell you this: leadership in the 21st century requires men to take more cues from women and embrace the qualities that have traditionally (and ignorantly) been labeled as feminine. In celebration of International Women’s Day, I’m sharing three skills men can learn from women to elevate their leadership style and achieve even greater success in business.
I started working at Televerde, a demand generation company, in 1997 and never left. The why to this is simple: I love our business model. Since our inception, the overwhelming majority of our workforce has been female inmates at the Department of Corrections in Arizona and Indiana. We provide sales training, education and career opportunity while they’re in prison and after release. Over the past 25 years, 3,000 women have been through our program, with just 6% recidivism. Results like this are inspiring and it’s our purpose that keeps me firmly committed.
Leading with Empathy
Televerde is literally a female-led company, having hired our first female CEO in January (a milestone for a tech company). Women outnumber men in the c-suite, and our employee make up is 87% female (70%, as I mentioned, are in prison). For this model to work well, leading with empathy matters profoundly and it’s a trait that statistically women do better than men. My years of experience working with my female peers and staff have helped me really hone in on this trait and embrace it fully.
Having a population that’s incarcerated poses challenges unlike those associated with a conventional workforce. While the women of Televerde have an insatiable desire to learn, grow and change, most do not come from storybook pasts. They’re producing impressive sales results while simultaneously working on healing from the pains of their history that led them to prison in the first place. The more I make time to learn from and about them, the more I’m able to put myself into their shoes and empathize with why they think and behave as they do. Their choices also become easier to understand. I consider learning to lead with empathy to be one of my greatest lessons in business.
Historically, men haven’t been encouraged to show genuine empathy. We’ve been told that mental and physical toughness trump all. Perhaps this was an effective leadership style before globalization when the employee landscape looked the same and most came from similar backgrounds, but this isn’t what business looks like today. Leading with empathy is the single most important trait I believe strong leaders possess and men would be wise to start viewing it as a strength versus a weakness. In fact, research shows that when men embrace an empathetic style of leadership, they can increase employee retention, productivity and happiness at their companies.
Dalai Lama said, “When you speak, you repeat what you know. When you listen, you learn something new.” It’s been my experience that women tend to excel at effective listening (sorry, guys, but the stats show this too). I think this is in part because of their empathetic style, but also because they generally seem more comfortable than men in embracing the opinions of others and asking for help to solve problems when they arise. I’m dating myself but before GPS devices when people just drove, the thinking was this: when lost, women ask for directions, men find their way. I don’t have stats around this but there have been studies that show male leaders believe when they ask for help, they’re perceived as less competent. We need to get over this.
Listening is a soft skill that goes a long way in building trust and strengthening engagement with teams. When employees are inspired, encouraged and empowered to go to their leaders with ideas and feedback, it delivers better outcomes for the business. They feel heard, they feel important, and they feel like everyone is working together towards the same goal. It also breaks the silo that often exists between the c-suite and the rest of the company. Employees are craving opportunities to be heard by their leaders. Consider a recent IBM survey that found 83% of employees would participate in an employee listening program. Listening is clearly the secret sauce of strong leadership so let’s make it a genderless trait and commit to doing it well and doing it often.
Communicating with Emotion
A few years back, I read an article that women leaders were adopting more masculine traits to succeed in business. Everything from deepening their voices and changing the way they dress, to being less demonstrative and hiding their emotions. This doesn’t serve anyone well long-term. And to the ladies with whom I work, I say: never hold back who you are.
Twenty-five-years working with women in business, I’ve learned this: feeling emotions is a good thing; yes, even in the office. And when we can take our emotions and successfully transform them into higher levels of emotional intelligence (EQ), that’s a very good place to be because we strengthen the workplace. EQ refers to a person’s ability to recognize, understand, manage and reason with emotions. People with high EQ are more likely to listen, keep their cool under pressure, resolve conflicts more easily and have greater empathy. Is it any wonder that people with high EQ are more successful in business and that EQ in leaders is considered more important than IQ?
Feelings play such a big role in how we connect with one another. If you’re emotionless, you’re holding yourself back and weakening your culture and your employees’ ability to perform with excellence. Start communicating in a way that makes your employees actually feel something: your passion, your excitement, your joy, your energy. These types of feelings are infectious, and they strengthen morale, increase productivity, and are felt on the outside by your customers.
Well, guys, the results are in—female traits are good for business and make us better leaders. Men may be from Mars and women from Venus, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from one another and start embracing the traits that we know deliver better outcomes for our business and our customers. This International Women’s Day let’s give credit where credit is due and a high-five to femininity!