In 2011, the business consultancy Zenger Folkman conducted a survey to examine leadership development and effectiveness. The participants in the survey included over 7000 business leaders (4650 men, 2630 women) from several countries (over 60% of the participants were based in the US).
Some of the results seem pretty obvious. For example, today men dominate senior management, middle management and first line management while women have greater presence in individual contributor roles. Not exactly earth shattering.
Some of their other findings however are a little more attention-grabbing. The participants were asked to rate the leadership effectiveness of men and women in 15 different functional areas. Women were found to be more effective leaders in 12 of the 15 functions; most of those functions are today dominated by men. The three categories where men were found to be better leaders conversely are functions that most of you would expect to be female-dominated.
I’ll get to those results in a second but first, let’s explore some people basics in an effort to make sense of the results.
Men and women are different but in general, like Depeche Mode said, people are people. We all take two approaches to make sense of the world- one is analytical (think problem and solution, something more linear in approach) and the other is emotional (think empathy and understanding). Men and women operate with both and will apply, based on the situation, more of one or the other. In general though, men tend to be more analytical and women tend more toward the emotional. What does that mean? Simply, men tend to solve problems and understand the systems or a process. Women tend toward understanding other people and how they are feeling.
That is the most basic of basic when it comes to men and women. There is no doubt we all know very empathetic men and women who employ logic as their preferred approach but in general those are the general tendencies of most men and most women.
What then were the functions where men and women found to be more effective? The three functions men were found to be better leaders were: Customer Service, Maintenance and Administrative/Clerical (I know…probably didn’t see that coming). Think about those functions though…all are roles that require following a process to solve a problem which usually has a linear path. If a customer has a problem, we determine the problem, we apply a solution. The same is true maintenance (fixing or cleaning things requires a process to be followed) and clerical functions general require work to be completed using a linear series of steps (first I do A, then B and C and it needs to do it this specific way).
Men tend to be process oriented, finding satisfaction in solving a problem following a straight line. That isn’t just a work thing- that is a life thing. Ask anyone who is married. The stereotypes exist for a reason- we men don’t want to ask directions, we want figure it out on our own, we are often poor listeners; instead, moving quickly to try to solve the problem or offer suggestions (which I’ve been told can be a real pain), etc.
Now, what functions were women generally found to be the better leaders? Well, that list included: Sales, Marketing, Operations, HR/Training, General Management, Finance/Accounting, Product Development, Legal, Engineering, Information Technology, Research and Development and Quality Management.
The importance of others feelings and input are critical to success in many of these functions. For example: sales, marketing, HR, product development and research/development- all are fluid and dynamic, requiring understanding and opinions to be considered to create an optimal outcome or product. They are also highly dynamic with things, markets and people changing, often times quickly and unexpectedly. In all those roles, empathy is critical to success (again, empathy is trait generally applied far more often by women).
Some of the others though might seem like a more systematic approach (i.e. male dominant) would be best. So, what happened?
Perhaps it is the leadership competencies themselves that the researchers also found that can best shed some light on that. In measuring 16 different leadership competencies, women were rated more positively in 12 of the 16 (and in the other 4 men and women received equal ratings) by the same 7000 business leaders who were surveyed. Women rated much higher in four areas: taking initiative, self-development, integrity/honesty and interestingly, driving for results.
Results like that are certainly worth considering when creating your strategy and approach in making that next hire. So what about it?
First, all of us would agree that in order to be successful, the best person needs to be hired for the job. Talent is a critical difference maker in just about every position in every business. Plus, I have never met anyone who feels great about the idea of being hired because they are a certain gender or fall into a certain class or category. Nope. Men and women share the desire to be recognized (and hired, promoted, etc.) because they are great at what they do. So we all want the best talent.
Findings like Zenger/Folkman uncovered indicate that in addition to talent, taking into consideration the function, your audience, what critical things need to happen and determining what approach would be most effective, systematic or emotional, might be equally valuable in creating a successful outcome and hiring the most effective leader. And in many functions, the best leader, given the choice between equally talented men and women, might just be a woman.