It was a classic business situation that most of us have faced at one time or another during our career. Sales were lagging behind projections. The company was at risk in missing its quarterly revenue forecast. Leaders rallied the organization to avoid a negative outcome. Company leaders had even given the potential sales miss a name, Code Red, in an effort to focus the organization around the cause. Two recently anointed sales managers, Jane and Eric, focused on seeking potential solutions prior to a critical sales department meeting scheduled for the following morning. While the business challenge was the same for Jane and Eric, how they approached solving the business problem as leaders was very different.
Jane’s first priority was to clear her calendar of all other activities. She then proceeded to gather her team so she could clearly explain what she knew about the situation. She wanted to ensure their questions were clearly answered about Code Red, and she felt it was her obligation as a leader to gather their ideas and suggestions so she could represent those to the broader team. Following the meeting with her own team, she then arranged a set of additional meetings with a number of individuals throughout the organization about Code Red. She used these meetings to seek out creative ways to solve the immediate problem as well as collaborate about preventing a situation like this one from happening in the future. Her final preparation for the meeting with her boss was to organize her findings and summarize the information in a single document that she could take with her.
Eric’s first priority was also to clear his calendar of all other activities. He then proceeded to reserve a quiet conference room where he could work alone to focus on Code Red. Once settled in the room, he proceeded to send a set of emails to his team and even to other peers in the directing them towards key activities that he felt would have immediate impact in the situation. He also requested an update by the end of the day as part of his instructions. Later that evening, he used these updates to craft an email for his boss, the head of sales, outlining the activities that he had already set in motion, along with the updates he had received on each. He planned to walk into the meeting knowing his boss was fully up to speed on the immediate actions he had taken. The email also served as an indication that he had listened to his boss about the importance of the situation.
Code Red was a real business situation in an unnamed company that we all know. Eric and Jane are real business leaders, though their names have been changed. Their immediate leadership approach to solving the business situation actually happened as it is described above.
A person’s leadership style is based on his or her communications style. Women use communications to establish intimacy and build and maintain relationships. Jane demonstrated her relationship focus in her leadership style through her immediate actions for Code Red. She pulled together her team. She made sure they clearly understood what was going on and answered any questions they might have. She also felt it was her obligation to gather their input to solving the problem. She did the same throughout in her individual meetings with individuals throughout the organization. She also tended to not only focus on having an immediate impact for Code Red, but seeking longer-term solutions to prevent a Code Red situation from happening in the future.
Men, on the other hand, primarily use communications to drive immediate, tangible outcomes, preserve status, and avoid failure. Eric demonstrated his leadership style through his actions as well. He worked autonomously so he could focus on the immediate problem at hand. His actions tended to be more directive and less collaborative. He summarized these actions for his boss, clearly demonstrating he had taken immediate action that had impact, and his email also was a clear indication that he was complying to his boss’s request.
Would the actions of Eric and Jane be measured differently if their boss were a woman or a man? Nether set of actions were neither right or wrong, they were just different. Jane’s actions were beneficial for clear communications, gathering ideas from a number of sources, and looking at the longer-term view as well as more immediate actions. Eric’s focus on driving immediate actions across the organization by influencing his team and his peers were also impactful in driving immediate momentum to solving the business problem.
Statistically, we can assume that the sales leader was a man, simply because we know the number of women holding leadership positions steadily declines from 37% at the first level manager to just 3% for the most senior leadership positions. If indeed he were a man, would he understand why Jane had taken a different approach to solving Code Red than he would have? Would he value the contribution that her different style provided for the organization or would he judge her against the male leadership standard?
The male leadership style is an exclusive club, even though it’s often not intentionally exclusive. And, while both women and men bring equal value to the workplace, equal does not mean they are the same. It’s time for us to have meaningful conversations about how women lead differently than men. Only then will we understand the value both bring to the workplace.
About Daina Middleton
Daina Middleton is a former CEO, executive coach and author of Grace Meets Grit: How to Bring Out the Remarkable, Courageous Leader Within.