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Women leaders - key ingredient to success

Variety is the spice of life – and good business


In a world where every ounce of competitive advantage counts, greater diversity at board level could be the secret ingredient all companies are looking for as evidence mounts that women executives have a positive effect on the bottom line.

The economic reasons for progressing women through the talent pipeline into senior management positions are compelling.


Research, such as that by Columbia University and the University of Maryland business schools on data from 1500 US companies, shows a strong positive association between return on assets and return on equity on the one hand, and the participation of women in top roles on the other. Another recent study by McKinsey demonstrated that among companies for which gender information was available, those with three or more women on their senior management teams scored higher on nine organisational criteria of success than did companies with no senior-level women.

“It stands to reason that organisations that are able to find ways to increase the diversity at senior levels have a significant opportunity to hone their competitive advantage,” says Liz de Wet, course director of the Women in Leadership programme at UCT’s Graduate School of Business (GSB). And given that women are still underrepresented in most organisations and governments around the world, there is plenty of scope for forward thinking organisations to capitalise on this, she adds. According to the latest Businesswoman Association corporate census – just 28% of senior management positions in South Africa are held by women.

De Wet says that while old models of business may have worked in the past 150 years, the business landscape has shifted dramatically in the past decade, requiring far greater engagement, collaboration, innovation, and diversity of thinking for success.

As Eddie Obeng, creator of the “World After Midnight” concept says it is important that organistions adapt to a more human-centric way of operating, that allows people and organisations the opportunity to thrive in an increasingly complex, ambiguous and fast-changing world.

According to Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project and author of Be Excellent at Anything, women are particularly well adapted to this task. Writing in the Harvard Business Review he notes: “An effective modern leader requires a blend of intellectual qualities – the ability to think analytically, strategically and creatively – and emotional ones, including self-awareness, empathy and humility. Great leadership begins with being a whole human being and I meet far more women with this blend of qualities than I do men.”


Gender does not, he says, ensure or preclude specific qualities and he has hired men who are just as self-aware, authentic and capable of connection as women. Just as he has encountered senior women executives who have modeled themselves after male leaders, perhaps feeling they must do this to survive, and are just as narrow and emotionally limited as their worst male counterparts.

“But for the most part,” Schwartz says, “women bring to leadership a more complete range of the qualities modern leaders need.”

Schwartz is backed up by a study published in the Harvard Business Review in which 7300 leaders were rated by their peers, supervisors and direct reports. Women scored higher in 12 of 16 key skills – not just developing others, building relationships, collaborating and practicing self-development, but also taking initiative, driving for results and solving problems and analysing issues.

To shift corporate culture so that it can reap the benefits of a greater representation of women at the top, Schwarz says more courage is needed – from both men and women. Male leaders need the courage to stand down and comfortably acknowledge their shortcomings and women need the courage to step up, fully own their strengths, and lead with confidence and resolve.

Jane Farrell is joint founder and chief executive of the EW Group, a UK consultancy with 20 years experience in providing professional services and management consulting in business equality, diversity and leadership. She says that this shift does not happen easily and that it requires formal support from the highest levels. “It's important people at the top confidently articulate why diversity makes sense and how it is linked to the company meeting its strategic objectives.”


One of the early programmes her company ran was at the BBC where women were dramatically under-represented at senior levels.


They designed and delivered two 18-month programmes calling for clear support from senior managers and delivered tangible outcomes. They found familiar patterns: women tended not to have ambitious career development plans, were more hesitant to ask people in senior positions to be mentors, focused on the job in hand without "looking up" enough, and lacked female role models.


Sixty BBC women progressed through the programme – two-thirds gained either promotion or new, valuable connections, and there were "softer" benefits as women tapped into informal networks across the organisation.


 “Women leaders undoubtedly benefit from specialist knowledge, and coaching and networking support that allows them to translate their qualities, ideas and insights into sustained action for increased impact and visibility,” says de Wet.

Rosemary Grant, who has many years experience as a General Manager and board member, and runs the GSB Women in Leadership programme alongside De Wet, adds, “Accessing the knowledge and skills women possess undoubtedly helps businesses capitalise on the opportunities a more diverse workplace and talent pool offers, as women senior executives turn personal leadership practice into value for their organisations.”

Women in Leadership is a modular programme with module 1 running from 18 to 21 November 2013 and module 2 from 11 to 14 March 2014. For more information please contact Sharman May at Sharman.May@gsb.ac.za, on 021 406 1248 or visit http://www.gsb.uct.ac.za/WIL.


For more information:Please contact Sam Mabaso on sam@rothko.co.za or 021 448 9465. www.rothko.co.za



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1.         Economic reasons to get more women at the top are compelling.


2.         Only 28% of senior management positions in SA held by women – and it hasn’t budged since 2009.


3.         Women bring to leadership a more complete range of the qualities modern leaders need.


4.         Women senior executives can turn personal leadership practice into value.


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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

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