I believe we’re reaching an inflection point when it comes to corporate diversity in this country, and specifically women’s equity at the top.
Today, companies are moving from an institutional era to a human era, from competition to collaboration and from secrecy to transparency. Yet we expect these changes to be ushered in by leaders who look a lot like they did in the ’60s and ’70s. We see the need for “disruptive” leadership even as the number of women in C-suite jobs flatlines. But, to quote Albert Einstein, “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”
The modern business must value human leadership over institutional hierarchies. Empathy is the new expectation for business leaders. As Tony Schwartz, president, founder and CEO of The Energy Project, recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review blog: “An effective modern leader requires a blend of intellectual qualities … and emotional ones, including self-awareness, empathy and humility … I meet far more women with this blend of qualities than I do men.” And looking forward, as Gen Y—and even Gen Z—rise in the ranks, they expect a level of humanity not yet welcome in much of corporate America. If your business aims to attract them, it’s time to embrace the end of an institutional era in favor of a more empathic style of leadership.
The best work in our industry is coming from agencies willing to swap competition for collaboration—and women are proven masters of collaboration. Look at the six leadership strengths that authors Sharon Hadary and Laura Henderson outline in the book How Women Lead. They include women’s willingness to invest time in consultation, their belief in shared goals and their ability to generate trust in employees. These attributes are in sync with the needs of companies today. Modern business leaders don’t prioritize their own ideas; they get behind the best ideas and make them better. When women check their egos at the door and encourage the same behavior in others, they generate the best work. Their collaborative nature ditches competition in favor of speed, a success-driving behavior that’s a necessity in this era of real-time work.
The modern business must also recognize women’s power in the marketplace. Women still account for more than 80 percent of U.S. spending, and in order to harness that purchasing power, advertisers must appeal to emotion. Yet, as an industry, we still struggle to connect with women. Perhaps that has do with our creative leadership. By enabling more women to lead, we ensure that our work appeals to the purchasing majority.
In 2012 , a now well-known Harvard Business Review study found that women significantly outranked their male counterparts when it came to “high integrity and honesty.” Women also received a higher score on “self-development,” a key ingredient to integrity. I shouldn’t have to tell you what these traits do for your business, but I will anyway.
A lot of boomers grew up in corporate cultures. Our instincts point to secrecy and hierarchy. But the modern business has to have zero tolerance for lack of transparency and integrity. Today, leaders get high marks for self-awareness, even self-deprecation and a willingness to admit when they’re wrong. Women embody these characteristics. They are driven not by how much they know, but by how much they don’t know.
Finally, if you had to guess what skill most employees believe women have over men, what would you say? Empathy? Transparency? Collaboration? In fact, it’s women’s ability to take initiative. In a business world that regularly tells women to “lean in,” many people are shocked to find that the research shows they already do. I’m not shocked. I got where I am today because I raised my hand for every opportunity and took action like a boss.
I would argue that women have a natural advantage when it comes to thinking outside of the box because we’ve never been allowed inside it. We take greater initiative because women are promoted based on performance while men are promoted based on potential.
As your agencies and organizations work through the growing pains we’re all feeling, I challenge you to increase the number of women leading your companies. In the process, you will find that you have created a more open, empathic and driven workplace.
P.S. I think men make great leaders, too. I just think there are enough of them.
Karen Kaplan is the chairman and CEO of Hill Holliday.