'What kind of question is that?' 'What makes you qualified to discuss this topic?' 'This is difficult to answer, there aren't many good examples'... These were just a few of the initial reactions from several dozen senior women leaders in response to the question, 'What can aspiring professional women learn from effective male leaders.'
While diversity of leadership is a regular topic in many top teams and Boards of Directors, progress has been painfully slow over the last 40+ years. Participation of women in the labor force has increased
A few health warnings before continuing: Perhaps most importantly, these comments should not be construed as a call for women to 'be like men' in order to reach leadership positions. On the contrary, there are many things that women leaders tend to do better than men – particularly when it comes to empathy, problem-solving, and team-building - and which make for very effective leadership that men would do well to look to women to learn more about. But, in industries where men dominate the ranks of leadership, women stand a much better chance of advancement if they learn from good male examples.
What is it that men do – besides just being men – that contributes to their success? These reflections grew from an invitation to be part of a panel at the Inaugural Women in Insurance Leadership Conference in April 2017. I was asked to speak on the subject of 'what women can learn from effective male leaders.' Feeling under-qualified, I asked a number of women who were already in senior leadership roles in various industries for their perspectives. The responses to my request were enthusiastic and insightful and their comments filled pages of notes - ranging from the things that effective men tend to do well to advance in business to the ways women act in these same circumstances that can hinder their success. For this brief article, I decided to focus on the former in order to highlight at least a few areas of opportunity for development and learning by aspiring women.
Networking: Effective male leaders network 'like crazy.' Even when uncomfortable at networking, men tend to force themselves to do so. One senior leader described how the introverted CEO of her company has learned to "work the room" exceptionally well since he sees this as an essential part of leadership.
In addition, effective male leaders are proactive at seeking out mentors -- formal and informal -- and creating opportunities to engage leaders. When combined with a tendency to put themselves forward for assignments, these patterns put them on a path to stand out from their peers and gain crucial experience.
Confidence: One of the other generally applicable qualities of effective male leaders is that they act with confidence and conviction -- even if they may not know all the facts. The have a point of view and share it. A number of the women interviewed characterized this as 'not needing 100% knowledge' to be effective.
Hand-in-hand with acting with confidence is how effective male leaders handle failure. There is a general acknowledgement that these leaders do not treat failure as a catastrophic or career-ending event. They tend to move on from failure and not let it define them. In fact, several women noted, 'men seem to get promoted even when they've suffered major failures.'
Focus: Effective leaders are also good at staying focused -- avoiding distractions and side issues that may seem urgent, but are less of a priority. They keep their messages simple and tend to be good at 'getting on with things and not overthinking.'
Beyond a general ability to 'focus,' effective male leaders also have a driving emphasis on growing the business. And since positions that are directly involved in delivering revenue or growing the success of the business produce the majority of top leaders, this driving emphasis provides a clearer route to the top.
Advice for aspiring women leaders?
Understanding traits of effective male leaders is just one part of how aspiring women can increase their chances of playing increasingly senior roles. Just as important is doing something with that understanding -- learning and adapting one's own leadership approach. In keeping with this notion of learning-adapting, the following is additional advice for aspiring women from some exceptional women leaders:
- Know yourself - weaknesses and strengths.
- Don't adopt everything you see -- it's not all good.
- Know your audience and adjust.
- You don't have to be morose to be taken seriously.
- Learn from mistakes and failures. Let these make you more determined, not despondent.
- Find an effective way to be an advocate for yourself.
- The most important choice you can make is to get into roles that grow the business.