The Power of Women.

Driving your business into the future

This came from a conference held at the glorious Tower Place East Building, HQ of Mercer – the big insurer. We had brilliant “meet and greet” from the hostesses. Mercer and customer service are joined at the hip. 92 women: 7 men and me (I only separate myself from them because I thought they were to the bristles on their chins pretty awful – didn’t want to be there, patronising and luddite. A kind of “there, there little lady” approach to life. I was so rude to some of them I may be uninsurable now.)

My key observation at the meeting – which I think some of the women quite liked – was this: “men have screwed up recently big time so maybe it’s time to give women a chance”…check out Tom Peters for a much more extreme pro-women view. Key participants: Margaret Heffernan – author, CEO, academic and keynote speaker; Kirstin Furber – BBC; Megen Metger – Mercer.

Here are the headlines as I heard them – with me appropriately in small and bold.

  1. Being on top is tough whatever your sex, colour, sexuality or age.

    It’s hard enough fitting in everything in when you’re a CEO without being a woman as well. But US Adata on new businesses shows:

    • Women have recently built twice as many companies as men
    • Women of colour are four times more likely to succeed
    • Women find it much harder to get funded (but that doesn’t seem to stop them succeeding)

    Tom Peters is convinced women have more skills and skills at juggling and working with disadvantages. Margaret Heffernan is convinced about and convincing that they make better entrepreneurs.

  2. Key reasons for women succeeding in a start-up business

    1. Their motivation is huge…”I wanted to do something for me…when it succeeded I realised it was for someone else – the people who worked for me – which was better.” SMEs are the answer to the future – always were; always will be. Women are good at setting up and running these. How do we get more Annita Roddicks to get marching to this tune?
    2. They want to create a good, sustainable business not just get rich. “None of these women went into business just to get rich. Money was a tool not a goal.”
      See above but in spades. We need champions today not hunter-gatherers. Great companies have solid foundations.
    3. They tend to be kinder than men, believing that “nice is the new mean”and they were looking to create a business that outlasted them.
      I love the idea of creating businesses for the future – rather like cathedral architects.
    4. Their sense of the zeitgeist is profound. They notice things like gaps in markets (eg. Carol Latham who saw the problem of heat in PCs as an opportunity and over 10 years invented and perfected “Thermagon” which was ten tomes more efficient than anything else at absorbing heat.)
      I’m not convinced that these creatures who notice stuff so brilliantly (which I agree they do) make as much of this “noticing” as they should do. How do we ignite this feminine gunpowder?
    5. A key barometer of success is “pattern recognition”.
      Guess what women are good at? Guess what they spend their life doing.  Men = destinations; women = patterns.
    6. Another barometer is the ability to handle data and make sense of it – which women do well too.
      See above.
    7. Whenever a female CEO is interviewed she’ll tend to have her top team there with her, in support and answering their special interest questions. Male CEO’s tend to get themselves seen alone – as the leader.
      In the new world of team-being-key, women win.  Marjorie Scardino step forward.
    8. Women see themselves as conductors of an orchestra – they don’t make the noise.I love this. The conductor makes the difference – even when they aren’t there. One of the best performances was when Toscanini died, the NBC Symphony played brilliantly in tribute to his memory – conductor-less. This is about influence not power.
    9. Women in general want the company to be smarter than they are. They are more or less ego-free.Not always true. Many women (to their detriment) try to become blokes. But the idea of building a business cleverer than you has to be the goal of all leaders regardless of gender.
    10. Women tend to be more right brain users but they really work at and try being good at left brain too – their male counterparts tend not to work at their right brain. The reason for women being potentially good leaders is their believing…”let’s ensure we are making the most out of all our brains”.
      We need all the help we can get. Men tend to try and do it alone. One man bands don’t make great music.
    11. They have an “irrational love” of their customers whom they regard as part of the family.If this alone were what distinguished them it’s why I’d favour the drive to grow, coach and improve, promote and inspire women. The customer in the 21st century really is queen.
    12. One big discovery that they seem to make quickly is that diversity in a management team works best.  Yet our minds are designed to play “snap” all day gravitating to finding people just like ourselves.We are programmed to hire people like ourselves – but we’ve got to stop it.
    13. They invite a wide circle of advisors around them (more than men who want to be perceived as knowing best).
      The most successful people in athletics, the arts or business never stop learning and always have people on hand to use as a sounding-board. Small changes in improvement are the difference between losing and winning.
    14. Men are measurement obsessed and love doing plans and revising them interminably. Women are looser about possible outcomes.  “No one expects things to turn out quite the way we predicted.”
      In the current world the speed of change makes carving out plans and strategies in rock ridiculous. The need is for speed and flexibility.
    15. That big moment in time in the USA (9.11) forced lots of US companies to reinvent themselves. Mostly to their advantage.
      The great thing about crisis is it forces you to question everything. Create your own crisis and see what needs changing.
    16. In a situation where a supplier screwed up big time in delivering right design in wrong material the female CEO had choices:-
      • Sue supplier
      • Lie to customers and hope they don’t notice
      • Confess and beg for mercy

      BFM strategy won and customers were OK with it.
      The truth is your strongest weapon. You don’t have to remember what you said.

  3. What do we do with all this?

    • Have some fun by seeing what diversity can do – the learning from this event was surely this.
      Enjoy creating change in your business.
    • Do something dramatic.
      Give 10% of your business to a female SAS team to see what they do with it.
    • One of the things women have that’s special is an inbuilt alarm-system – bells go off when something seems wrong…why aren’t we using these bells better?
      Or making sure everyone learns to train their gut not just their brain.
    • The whole conversation in our conference was how to keep talented women rather than trying to find how to liberate and bring the best out of them.
      Talent needs to be where it can express itself best. Be an SME and see how great life can be.
    • Get a culture of self awareness rather than “corporate brainwash” working in your business.
    • Create women’s networking groups.
      Yes, aren’t you doing this already? But will you invite bright men too?
    • Persuade (and finance) your best assertive women to leave and set up their own businesses.
      Bet you won’t but you should.
    • Follow the P&G model of building teams in big businesses based on “thinking style” profiles.
      Sensible – cast your people as though they were actors in a play.
    • Help give women a lot more self confidence – too many businesses bas their style of management on “putting people down”.
      Nice is the new mean…making all your people feel good about themselves may be the greatest contribution you can make to productivity.
    • Increase positive thinking in the UL – “in the USA they don’t know the word can’t”.
      Didn’t know it…is this still true?
    • One of the best and well used axioms is this: ”employees first: customers second”. That’s the John Lewis mantra. Put faith in your brilliantly coached employees to want to do the right thing.
      Brand values have real values not marketing fluff underpinning them.
    • Fact: all outstanding leaders have mentors. All of them. No exception. (Margaret Heffernan on the USA.)
      Yes. Yes. Yes.
  4. Conclusion

    I was inclined to be grumpy during this conference because the women were too inclined to be supine and the men too assumptive of some divine status quo. The thrust of the argument was – rightly – to espouse diversity. But there was a remarkable lack of power in the argument that women had either to be moved up big companies or (better) moved out to do their own thing.The argument that women had the power or desire to determine their own destiny was not convincingly shown here yet.Yet the argument for real and not token diversity must be made and acted upon. Because it will increase profits…that’s why.

Richard Hall.

November 15th 2010.


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