Knowledge Center: Article

Accelerating Leaders

How Women are Filling the Strategic Skills Gap

Subscribe to Accelerating Leaders 5/31/2016 Yulia Barnakova, Steven Krupp and Franklin Shen

Women as strategic leaders 

Organizations are facing a new business landscape defined by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). Despite these conditions, most leaders and organizations still focus on the short term and make plans as if the world were predictable, developing point forecasts, budgets, and initiatives that will succeed only in stable situations. Yet, what this environment requires is truly strategic leaders—both women and men—who can adapt to changing conditions and navigate this uncharted terrain to succeed in the long term.

The importance of strategic thinking is not disputed. In fact, it’s widely cited as the most valued skill in leaders today. However, our research and experience show that many organizations face a major skills gap when it comes to strategic thinking.

Fortunately, more and more women can fill this gap by honing their strategic capabilities. This is already beginning to happen. A Dow Jones study, for example, found that the median number of women executives at successful companies was significantly higher than the median at unsuccessful companies.1 Companies with female board representation outperform boards without female board representation, according to a study by the Credit Suisse Research Institute.2 Moreover, a report by the Wall Street Journal found that some funds are starting to invest more aggressively in companies led by women.3 While such examples highlight advancement on promoting and recognizing women in leadership, this progress needs to be accelerated.

So how can women further develop their strategic-thinking skills and continue to close the leadership gap? Based on our research with more than 25,000 executives around the world, we have distilled some of the most critical behaviors that exemplify strategic thinking at its best.

Anticipate what’s next

Based on our research, the skill most often associated with being strategic is the proverbial ability to “see around corners.” This means being able to anticipate market shifts concerning customers, competitors, regulations, technology, and the economy—and finding ways to seize the resulting opportunities. This is exactly the type of foresight that enabled Anne Wojcicki to start her groundbreaking genetic-testing company, 23andMe, which offers genetic tests straight to consumers. By connecting the dots among trends that include the increasing power of big data, cost reductions in DNA sequencing, and patients’ growing desire for medical engagement, Wojcicki is making healthcare more democratic for patients, as well as accelerating innovation in the industry.

While the company’s genetic tests allow consumers to better understand the implications of their own genetic sequence (such as predispositions to certain diseases), the broader benefits include the ability to collect much more substantial research data on patients overall. “If one of the bottlenecks in health care is that you don’t have enough data, then why couldn’t we just use the Internet to start collecting it?” she has asked.4

Recognizing and connecting market trends in new and insightful ways, as Wojcicki did, is at the core of being a forward-thinking, visionary leader.

Seek diverse views to challenge your thinking

Among the most critical disciplines of strategic leaders is intellectual curiosity, as well as acceptance of people who see the world differently and challenge conventional thinking. Hala Moddelmog, former president of Arby’s Restaurant Group and now president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, believes in surrounding herself with people of different backgrounds and different personality types to help round out her perspectives. “You really don’t need another you,” she has said. Leaders should seek input from diverse stakeholders to help broaden their thinking. By staying open to different viewpoints, leaders help ensure they can diminish known or unknown biases that may hinder them.

Approach challenges with tenacity and courage

Leaders who take big risks must also be prepared for missteps along the way. After all, most start-up and social-change efforts fail. Sara Blakely, founder of the shapewear company Spanx, has noted that her father would often ask her and her brother, “What have you failed at this week?” He reinforced the message that the essence of failure is not even trying, rather than experiencing a bad outcome. His view, said Blakely in a 2013 interview, “really allowed me to be much freer in trying things and spreading my wings in life."5

On her road to success, Blakely flunked the law-school boards twice, had a failed stint at Disney World, and for seven years struggled to sell fax machines by cold-calling companies. Like most entrepreneurs, she did not give up in the face of failure and kept experimenting—ultimately hitting it big when she founded Spanx. Women often feel the need to be perfect because the odds are stacked against them, but strategic leaders don’t let mistakes derail them. Rather, they embrace opportunities to experiment and learn from both failure and success.

Stay resilient in the face of biases

Despite progress toward equality in corporate America, workplace gender biases are still very much present. Aspiring women leaders must stay resilient to overcome these obstacles. Pantene’s viral video “Labels Against Women,” part of its #ShineStrong campaign, provides a great demonstration of how women are often perceived differently than men for similar behaviors and traits. The video shows assertive men being viewed as “persuasive” versus women being viewed as “pushy.” Furthermore, a study detailed in Fortune found that managers at large gave more negative feedback to female employees than to male employees.6 Of the negative feedback given to women, 76% included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that a woman was “abrasive,” “judgmental,” or “strident.” Only 2% of men’s critical reviews included similar negative personality comments.

Even if unintentional, these deeply embedded mental models are the product of cultural conditioning and add complexity for women leaders as they confront other strategic hurdles. It’s easy for these types of messages and feedback to negatively affect attitude or performance, but strategic leaders focus on making the criticism constructive and having the resilience to overcome and continue leading in the face of these challenges.

***

We live and work in a VUCA world, which includes having a more diverse and global workforce. This environment calls for a new type of leader—one with a more outside-in lens and a long-term, strategic outlook. The behaviors described here are not easy to master, but practicing them is a great way for leaders to start to increase their strategic aptitude. The more women hone and demonstrate their strategic savvy and gain positions at the top, the closer organizations will be to achieving sustainable, long-term success in today’s increasingly uncertain world.  

About the authors

Yulia Barnakova (ybarnakova@heidrick.com) is a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ Philadelphia office and a member of the Leadership Consulting Practice.

Steven Krupp (skrupp@heidrick.com) is a partner in the Philadelphia office and a member of the Leadership Consulting Practice.

Franklin Shen is an alumnus of Decision Strategies International, a Heidrick & Struggles company.

A version of this article originally appeared in the American Management Association’s journal, MWorld (now AMA Quarterly). It draws from Steven Krupp’s book, Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future (PublicAffairs, 2014), co-authored with Paul J. H. Schoemaker.

References

1 Women at the Wheel: Do Female Executives Drive Start-Up Success?, Dow Jones, 2012.

2 Gender Diversity and Corporate Performance, Credit Suisse Research Institute, 2012. 

3 Daisy Maxey, “Men had their chance; New funds bet on women,” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2014.

4 Elizabeth Segran, “How CEO Anne Wojcicki turned 23andMe around after falling out with the FDA,” Fast Company, October 21, 2015. 

5 Robert Frank, “Billionaire Sara Blakely says secret to success is failure,” CNBC, October 16, 2013

6 Kieran Snyder, “The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews,” Fortune, August 26, 2014. 


Related thinking

Women in leadership: Building a sustainable talent pipeline

The critical role for female leadership in the mash-up of Detroit and Silicon Valley

Debugging the high-tech industry’s gender gap


Yulia Barnakova Principal +1 610.7171000
Steven Krupp Partner +1 610.7171000

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