Women see the world through a distinctive lens, what they see is defined by what they notice, what they value and how they believe the world should be. Yet, because women’s ways of seeing have not been recognized, their potential to contribute remains underleveraged.
In Sally’s brilliant and strongly argued book, The Female Vision – Women’s Real Power at Work, with her co-author, Julie Johnson, describes the three elements that shape the female vision and explore the specific benefits that each provides.
So, this should be fascinating to hear more.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: It’s an amazing day here at Leadership Development News for me. One, because I am one of the big fans of Sally Helgesen’s work. Having recently come into the women’s leadership arena with, What Happy Working Mothers Know, and I think it’s also a great day because Sally is going to share some of her insights as both a leader but also a leader of leaders.
Sally is also the author of the bestselling book, The Female Advantage – Women’s Ways of Leadership, hailed as the classic work on women’s leadership style, translated into fourteen languages and continually in print for twenty years.
An earlier book, The Web of Inclusion – A New Architecture for Building Great Organizations, was cited in the Wall Street Journal as one of the best books on leadership of all time.
Sally develops and delivers leadership programs for corporations, partnership firms, universities, and non-profits around the globe. She has consulted with the United Nations Development Program on strengthening women’s programs in Africa and Asia. She has led seminars at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has been a visiting scholar at North-Western University and the Lauriston Institute in Melbourne, Australia.
Articles about Sally’s work have been featured in Fortune, New York Times, Fast Company and Business Week just to name a few, and she has appeared on hundreds of Television and Radio Shows as an expert on the subject.
She is a contributing editor to the magazine, Strategy in Business, and a member of The New York Women’s Forum.
Sally, I’m honored to call you a friend. Welcome to the show!
Sally Helgesen: It’s great to be here, Cathy. Thank you for inviting me.
Dr. Relly Nadler: So, Sally, typically we like to get a little inside look into folks about who’s been most influential in your life, as far as leaders go.
Sally Helgesen: I think the two that have had the biggest impact on my work have been; number one – Peter Drucker, who I was privileged and very fortunate to meet when he was still alive because Peter was instrumental and really looking at how major changes in the world, our economy, the technology, and demographics impact how people live and work, how organizations function and what the greatest capabilities for leaders really should be in organizations as they change.
I’d also been very much influenced by the work of Carol Gilligan, who wrote the classic book, A Different Voice, which was really the first to explore how women’s values, in some cases, deferred from those of man. And to point out the way, in which, the expectation in our culture favored male values. Gilligan’s book was really instrumental in helping me to write the first book in this Leadership Series I’ve been working on for the last twenty years, The Female Advantage, because it freed me to explore what women’s leadership strengths were.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Sally, as you were talking about influential people and how you got to be where you are, as you think about your career in supporting women in the workplace, how did you get to where you are, what brought you to that place in time, where you have been so successful?
Sally Helgesen: It was really a highly individual journey. I came at this as a journalist and as a writer, this was not my academic field, I didn’t get a Ph.D. in organizational development nor did I pursue it in studies. My academic background had actually been in comparative religion and I was pursuing a Ph.D. and I decided that I wanted to give myself a rest and enter the contemporary world.
So, I became a journalist for what I thought would be for a few years. I became fascinated by organizations and by how women worked within them when I was doing some speech writing in the middle and late 80s for large corporations.
I, first of all, became fascinated by organizations and how they are structured and how they worked. Having come in as a journalist, I always felt a bit like an outsider, an observer.
Secondly, I saw firsthand, how poor even great organizations often were at using women’s best strengths and I decided to write about that.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Sally, you were talking about how you were a journalist by trade and somehow you were on a journey to learn about this subject and have become an expert since then, tell us about the book that you are featuring right now, The Female Vision – Women’s Real Power at Work, and why you wrote it.
Sally Helgesen: I’m very excited about this book, The Female Vision – Women’s Real Power at Work, looks at the strategic and visionary strengths that women bring to organizations and I really look at it as almost a fulfilment of the work I began twenty years ago in, The Female Advantage, which was published in 1990. When I was looking at what the capabilities and operational strengths were that women brought as leaders to organizations.
In the twenty years since then, a lot of women’s skills, strengths and capabilities have become more accepted in organizations and women have become much more integrated into organizations as a result.
But, what the last couple years have really driven home to me and also to my co-author, Julie Johnson, who is an executive coach also, is that women are still often frustrated at the top and strategic level. At getting their best ideas understood and recognized in organizations. Even though they are becoming over fifty percent of employees or in organizations. There is still stymie there.
My co-author, Julie and I decided we really wanted to look at what some of the deeper cultural issues were, and the result is The Female Vision.
Dr. Relly Nadler: Well Sally, that’s a great primer for me and I’m sure for our listeners too.
So, what have you found, what are some of the main common issues that you see most facing people today, on this subject? So, you say it’s listening and maybe you could tell us a little bit more about that.
Sally Helgesen: The skills and strengths that I think women bring most strongly to organizations that have been recognized over the last twenty years are, first of all, skill in building great relationships and this is a capacity and a skill that has become much more important over the past twenty years. As every kind of organization seeks to focus more on customers and it’s relationships that it has in the marketplace.
Women’s comfort with direct communication has become more and more of an advantage given the way in which the technology has evolved to really support and demand direct communication.
Women’s skill at leading from the center and putting themselves in the center of organizations has become more recognized and valued.
Finally, and I think this has also been under-appreciated, women’s refusal to really compartmentalize their lives but draw on both information from their personal lives – bring that into the workplace – and vice versa has become more and more of an advantage as we have moved into a 24/7 workplace.
So, in all those ways, I think the skills women bring have become more recognized and more appropriate but there is still work to do at the strategic level.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Sally, this is fascinating to me because in the practical application of what we call leadership development we have, and Relly correct me if I’m wrong, tried to help leaders distinguish between themselves as leaders in the workplace and themselves as leaders outside the workplace, while I’m not necessarily agreeing with that philosophy, it seems that all leadership development is now focused on the integration of the whole-self, the whole brain. This distinctive style of women, in particular, is an exceptionally positive trait, which has been emphasized more for women than for men. I’d just like some clarification on that.
Sally Helgesen: I agree with that, I think there are two things going on. I think, first of all, the whole field of leadership development as you point out is really being transformed by our understanding of neuroscience.
One of the things we get into is some really wonderful, new neuroscientific research mostly being done at Columbia or UCLA in the book, which indicated that women have a more robust tendency to integrate information from different sources and put it together to synthesize it and use that information as they make decisions.
I think that because of what we’re learning in the neuroscientific field, that capacity is really becoming more recognized and more valued. One of the pieces of research we picked up on in the book is the observation in a neuroscience lab that the way in which women notice things tends to operate more like radar taking in a lot of information at once.
Whereas men often operate more as a laser, focusing very narrowly and deeply. I think what we are finding the over-focus on the laser-way of noticing inhibits organizations that really need to be much more nimble and thoughtful in a global environment. We are really moving to a time where we need, what some people are calling gender bilingualism in order to really flourish and develop the kind of leaders we need.
Listen to the complete interview above.