Opinions on why there’s a dearth of women leaders in business are all over the map, but the facts are indisputable. According to research firm Catalyst, just 4.6 percent of Standard and Poor 500 CEOs and 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOS are women. Worse, the number of women corporate officers actually declined during the last decide to just under 16 percent. At this rate, Catalyst predicts it will take 40 years for female corporate officers to achieve parity with male officers. Yet gender diversity at the top delivers 84 percent return on sales, 46 percent return on equity, 60 percent return on investment capital and 34 percent higher total shareholder return.
I came by this information while listening to a recent episode of SAP’s Coffee Break with Game-Changing Women entitled, “Views from the C-Suite – Women CEOs.” Dismal as these stats are, host Bonnie D. Graham, a colleague I greatly admire, led a lively conversation, which spanned everything from the ancient Chinese art of war to the industrial revolution and the game of tennis. Here are just a few highlights.
Strategy beats strategy every time
Drawing from the teachings of Sun Tzu, a Chinese warrior philosopher from 500 B.C., Sharon Matthews, President and CEO of eLynx, said women need to define a better strategy whether they’re considering a business plan, a major personal life decision or even thinking out normal daily decisions. The goal is to move beyond KPIs to context. “If you don’t know the why of what you’re doing, you can’t know why it’s the best thing to do. If you don’t have that baseline of what you’re trying to get to and why, by definition your strategy is ill-defined. It leads you to a better approach and better tactics to achieving that approach.”
Great (women) leaders serve others
Colleen Abdoulah, CEO of Wow!, a U.S.-based internet, cable and telephone provider, turned the definition of effective leadership on its head, calling for the replacement of traditional command and control structures with an approach focused on serving others (think: tennis) to bring out the best in everyone. “I don’t think that’s happening in corporate America where leaders feel like you’re there to serve them as opposed to the opposite,” said Abdoulah. “And if more and more people embraced an opinion of leadership as something there to serve you, to help you create and innovate do your best, then the results follow where you have an environment like that. I find in many cases where women are leaders, whether it be of departments or companies as a whole, you tend to get that culture more often than not.”
Gender parity is everyone’s responsibility
“We [need to] get men involved, men who are currently in power, and start partnering with them on this issue and getting them to make conscious efforts. We need to have men understand these statistics, understand the why,” said Abdoulah.
At the same time, Abdoulah called on women to advocate for themselves in a different way. “Why do we think we have to be perfect or we have to have it all or we have to have done it to go for it? That’s one obstacle we put in our way. Another is that we believe with our whole heart, mind and soul that we’ll do a good job and get recognized, and we don’t negotiate well enough for what the job is worth, asking for what we think we deserve in that role, and asking for the promotions.”
Matthews also thinks women should help each other through coaching. “It’s part of our own responsibility as women in any kind of leadership position to reach down and help pull everybody up.” She advised women to become prolific readers for growth and learning, find mentors and have confidence, courage and be comfortable.
What struck me as I listened to these incredibly smart women is that we already know all this information. Now is the time to do something about it.