Women As Great Underdog Leaders
A number of recent and excellent books by Mika Brezinski (Knowing Your Value: Women, Money and Getting What You’re Worth; Weinstein Publishing) and by my former Columbia University student, Claire Shipman (The Confidence Code; Harper-Collins), highlight the challenges facing women executives today and deliver various mixtures of “play offense” advice to get ahead. These books help and inspire more and more women to lead and to lead greatly.
This, by the way, is a topic that transcends Hillary Clinton’s prospects next year to become the first woman to lead our nation. Indeed, as Warren Buffet said recently on a panel in response to the new and rising power of women leaders: “It’s just one of the things that makes me optimistic about the future of the United States—look how far we’ve come not even using half our talent.”
To be sure, we still have more talent to use and more ground to travel. But working with a range of US and global businesses—and as someone who has advised and coached Fortune 500 women CEOs and candidates for national office—this is all very good news.
My book, The Underdog Advantage: How to Use Insurgent Strategy to Put Your Business On Top (McGraw-Hill), and its upcoming sequel, delivers lessons that seem tailor-made for women executives, who Brezinski and Shipman argue can benefit from developing more consistently proactive strategies and by playing more and more offense.
Specifically, if women leaders want a better future, they must imagine it first. This is the first step in effective leadership: Winning always begins with practical dreaming. So women executives, as all executives, must develop a clearly defined destination—a “Shining City on the Hill”—toward which they and their teams keep working.
In our current volatile and hyper-competitive business climate, women executives need all the imagination and creativity they can get because the only certainty today is change. In fact, today, the rules of leadership, business, and communication have completely shifted—and women must take advantage of these shifts and remember that in so many ways the old rules are gone and transformation rules all markets and competitions.
Look, for example, at high-tech businesses, where women have been in the vanguard of change. Over the last several years, women have begun to move into the executive suites and the technical workforce in large numbers. Recently, for example, women held 27 percent of computer-related jobs in U.S. firms, as well as 15 percent of CIO positions in IT companies in the Fortune 500. In addition, more than 55 percent of high-technology businesses that presented an IPO had women officers, a more than five-fold increase over the last ten years.
But overall progress has been disappointingly slow. In 2012, the 27 percent of computer science jobs that women held is actually less than it was ten years earlier. And while women earn 60 percent of all undergraduate degrees, they account for only 20 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in computer science.
Change has been uneven in the executive suite, too: CNN Money reports that although women currently “hold over one-third of jobs in the tech space, less than 10 percent of venture-backed companies have women founders.” In many ways, Silicon Valley remains a boys’ club, as a recently controversial Newsweek cover and article portray. In the Silicon Valley and the high tech industry, women are fighting to overcome discrimination and the expectation that computers are a game that only men can play. Clearly, in this industry, the world hasn’t changed quite enough.
For women in non-technical businesses, change is also slow. Five decades after the Equal Pay Act, there are still substantial penalties for “Working While Female.” In the U.S., women earn 77 cents for every dollar in a man’s paycheck. Moreover, high status in the workplace is no protection against this wage gap. For example, the number of women executive officers in Fortune 500 companies increased from 13.5 percent in 2009 to 14.3 percent in 2012; but women executives currently earn 42 percent less than men.
Interestingly, even when women CEOs determined their own salaries, they paid themselves only 76 percent of what male entrepreneurs awarded themselves, according to research by American Express OPEN. And there’s a similar gap for women-owned businesses, too: According to a report by the Center for Women’s Business Research, men were twice as likely as women to own a business with more than $1 million in revenue.
Obviously, we can work to eliminate the gender gap, as Brezinski’s and Shipman’s books call for, but complete equality isn’t going to be here anytime soon. In the meantime, women can improve their financial position and, incidentally, help change the world, by continually adopting the same imaginative, revolutionary strategies that have helped propel such business leaders as Apple, Google and Starbucks to the top.
In my lingo, these companies and the executives who lead them are called “Insurgents”: In contrast to Incumbents, these Insurgents harbor an attitude of difference, they move faster and they welcome change as opportunity.
What do these companies and their leaders have in common? They draw on boldness, an outsider’s perspective and good old fashion imagination. And they utilize classic leadership skills, plans and tactics.
The best advice for women executives, then, is the same as for all executives: Forget the traditional corporate cliché of “act like a leader.” Instead, continue acting like the hungry, scrappy little company or executive that fought its or your way up to leadership success in the first place.
In this sense, individual and corporate success is tied together and must draw upon the same resource—because developing a revolutionary and successful culture begins in the mind and heart of the individual.