Sally Helgesen Signs “The Female Vision”
June 19, 4 - 7 p.m
Sally Helgesen , an internationally acclaimed author, speaker, and consultant, is one of the world’s brand-name experts on women’s leadership. Her latest book, The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work, co-authored with executive coach Julie Johnson, explores the strategic nature of women’s power. Just published, it has already shot to #2 on Amazon.com’s business and leadership list. Helgesen is also the author of the best-selling The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, hailed as “the classic work” on women’s leadership style, translated into 12 languages, and continually in print for twenty years. An earlier book, The Web of Inclusion: A New Architecture for Building Great Organizations, was cited in The Wall Street Journal as one of the best books on leadership of all time. She will read from and sign her new book at The Chatham Bookstore on Saturday. Helgesen was interviewed for Rural Intelligence by her friend and Chatham neighbor, fellow-author Edward Tivnan.
ET: What is the “Female Vision”?
SH: It’s the distinctive way women have of seeing—what they notice, value, and how they make sense of what they see.
ET: And what, specifically, is so distinctive about this female way of seeing in the organizational/corporate context?
SH: Women notice a lot of things simultaneously. They tend to pick up clues broadly from the environment—emotional clues, other people’s reactions—instead of the laser-like narrow band focus that men often have. We have interesting scientific research in the book showing this is true, that it is characteristic of how our brains work. This faculty of broad-spectrum notice often provides information that is not valued in traditional organizations. For example, after a meeting, a woman might say, “Did you notice that Joe seemed very disengaged, not present?” What we’ve seen in our work is that kind of observation is devalued. It’s seen as beside the point. The emotional tenor in the room may be key to the marketing effort, but organizations are often structured not to notice.
ET: So organizations are not structured to value the kinds of things women executives seem to be inclined to notice?
SH: That is exactly the reason we wrote this book. I work with organizations all around the world, and what women see and value is not always in sync. And the consequences of this are many—for organizations and for women. Organizations lose a lot of valuable information, which is considered not germane, beside the point. And after years or decades of having their best insights devalued or ignored, women lose touch with that power and begin to doubt themselves.
ET: How does this play into the fact that women now make up more than half the MBA students but they are only a fraction of CEOs?
SH: Often the best-qualified women lose energy; they walk away. Fifteen or twenty years ago, the explanation for why women were not in the top jobs was that there were not enough women in the pipeline, not enough women in grad school, not enough women MBAs. In 2010, that’s no longer true. Not only are women highly represented in the graduate and professional schools, they now have an enormously broad range of experience. When they opt out of big companies, many leave to start their own businesses, smaller companies with more flexibility; or choose to take “individual contributor” status, stepping off the leadership track. We were trying to look at the underlying reasons that this happens. And what we were hearing from senior women who had stepped off the leadership track was, “It’s just not worth it.”
ET: The work, the crazy hours, playing the numbers game was not worth the big compensation packages and the prestige of the top jobs? Do women not value those things as much as men?
SH: There are exceptions, of course, but women do not generally value money and perks and position enough to want to pursue a job that they perceive as making the texture and the quality of their daily life miserable. They are not motivated to stay in a job that they do not like solely because of the perks and high compensation. For this book, we ran a database survey that showed this was true. It’s something I had thought about for a long time. In my book The Female Advantage, published 20 years ago, I wrote that women placed a high value on the quality of daily life at work. I found that they are less motivated by abstract rewards. I got a call from Henry Mintzberg, an academic who had written the classic work on senior male executives [The Nature of Managerial Work, 1973]; he told me that when he was studying male executives, if there was one thing they were not in touch with it was the quality of their daily work life. He found that they were so invested in numerical measures that they were able to completely ignore everything else. When you think about that, you realize that organizations are structured at leadership level to expect senior people to value perk, position, and compensation above quality of life.
That’s not true for most women, and these days it works for a narrower segment of the male population, as well. The grand bargain of the modern workplace is that you will be compensated to the extent that you will give up the possibility of enjoying your private life. What we’re saying in The Female Vision is with that attitude you only end up attracting the people who are most avid for financial reward—and will lose a lot of talented people, particularly women.
ET: You and your collaborator have years of experience in the corporate world. In your research for this book, what was your most surprising finding?
SH: How much women value the texture of their lives at work in the present, rather than continually focusing on what a job will lead to. We were also struck by how much women want to bring private aspects of themselves to the workplace. Most workplaces are structured to enforce a compartmentalized life, but I would argue that work is changing in ways that do not support that. Organizations need to recognize this and get on board.
ET: One buzzword of corporate life is “teamwork.” CEO’s are always claiming that they’re looking for “team players.” It sounds like women are natural team players.
SH: Numerous studies have shown that women are particularly skilled at being team players. But I would argue that at the senior leadership level you hear a lot less about “teamwork ” as a competency.
ET: Or that “teamwork” is interpreted in terms of more competition?
SH: Yes, teams are often viewed in a competitive context—with a big emphasis on scoring wins. While this may be suitable in athletics, winning at any cost can often undermine an organization’s long-term goals. And we found in our data survey that women are less likely to be motivated by competing against others, more likely to measure achievements in terms of their own goals.
ET: In the financial crisis of 2008-09, we saw a lot of bad behavior: banks were marketing predatory loans to subprime borrowers; very smart people on Wall Street were inventing synthetic derivatives so complicated that not even Alan Greenspan or the CEOs of their own companies understood them; ratings agencies were getting higher fees for higher ratings on what turned out to be toxic securities. If women ran Wall Street, what would change?
SH: The reasons women were underrepresented at the hedge funds and investment banks were often the same reasons those organizations ran into trouble: the culture virtually assured that the only people who would be promoted were those most motivated by financial gain. Many of the same factors that led to the meltdown also helped drive women out of senior leadership roles. That’s why there was often a serious attrition problem among women at the same organizations that later ran into trouble.
ET: Are women more ethically sensitive than men?
SH: I wouldn’t say “more ethically sensitive.” Women are more accustomed to looking at the larger social impact of decisions. Women will often put decisions in larger social contexts, how it may affect morale, the community. That tendency to think of social implications of decisions is a gift that women bring to organizations. And it is something that organizations seriously under-use.
ET: We hear a lot from the business community about “corporate responsibility,” “social responsibility, “corporate philanthropy.” But the Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman—the icon of the free-marketeers—famously declared that “The social responsibility of business is to make profit.” Can women boost company earnings with their female vision?
SH: If Friedman was talking about making money in the next two quarters, that attitude leads to one kind of behavior. If he’s talking about the corporation’s real market value over time, then there’s a different kind of behavior. Over the last 20 years, organizations have been forced by the marketplace to look more and more to the short-term, which often has the effect of hollowing out their value. Years ago, Royal Dutch Shell did a study as part of their strategic planning on companies that were able to survive over 100 years. Their research showed that companies die when managers focus too much on short-term numbers. In the recent crisis, we saw an extraordinary number of decisions that didn’t make much long-term sense, but seemed to be justified by complicated math. We are now in a position to recognize the wreckage that results from the notion that the only business of business is short-term profit. If you adopt this point of view, there isn’t much room for the female vision. But if your goal is to have marketplace value over time, women’s perspective can be a huge asset.
ET: If women are not in top positions, if they aren’t the leaders of companies, how do they promote the Female Vision?
SH: One of the things we tried to do in this book is provide ways in which women can articulate their point of view and advocate for the value of what they notice in a way that has an impact all the way up the chain of command. If women can become stronger at articulating the value of what they see for the organization, they can begin to carve out a more energized leadership path for themselves. They can also help make changes in their organization at a grassroots level in a way that makes them more hospitable places for other women. Most of the women leaders I’ve studied have gone through a wilderness period, where they were unpopular, outside the mainstream. But the ones who are good at advocating their own point of view are able to shift the organization’s culture—usually when it’s at a point of crisis.
ET: Do you see men coming around to the Female Vision?
SH: Our survey and Generation Y and Generation Z business surveys have shown more similarity in terms of many of the goals for integrating work and home, being actively involved parents, etc. in the younger generation of men. Among the younger generation, there seem to be fewer and less stark differences between men and women than in past. This makes sense because men and women’s lives today are much more similar. The junior executive in the mid-50s, in the era of the “Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” strikes us now as almost another species. In those days, men and women lived on different planets. Men were at the office, women were at home—they used different language, different tools. Now we all speak the same language and use the same digital tools, which has an impact on how we see the world. Also, women are more active outside home and men inside home. That change is one of the things we try to address in this book.