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In the television show Mad Men, which depicted a Madison Avenue ad agency in the 60s, women were secretaries and men were bosses — drunk bosses most of the time. As the show progressed toward the beginning of the 70s, we saw the female characters gradually take on leadership roles with great success, bringing an entirely different style of management to the fictional ad agency.
Today, in the real world, women hold about half of all management and professional positions in the United States, but only about 4 percent of CEO positions in the S&P 500. The disparity is a sensitive subject that Matthew McCreight, senior partner at Schaffer Consulting, took head-on when he was asked to address the Women in Insurance Leadership Conference earlier this year.
McCreight was initially reluctant to address the audience, especially when he learned that his topic would be — “What can women learn from effective male leaders.” The provocative title however, wasn’t meant to imply that men have all the answers and women need to learn from them, but rather, it was meant to be a starting point for a discussion on the differences between how women and men lead.
McCreight interviewed 31 women in senior leadership roles to get their input, and he gained some valuable insights. Yes, the disparity is due at least in part to the “secret handshake” phenomenon and inherent bias, but more telling was the fact that there are indeed differences between how men and women lead.
The difference in leadership styles became clear with a telling anecdote. “A woman was in a senior role in a company,” McCreight said. “The CEO had staff meetings every Monday at 8:00 am, so she had to bring her nanny to her house every Sunday night so that she could get out of the house and get to that meeting. So finally after a number of years, she was asked how it was going, and she said, ‘This thing is killing me!’ The CEO offhandedly said, ‘Why don’t we move it to 10?'” For all those years, the female leader didn’t ask, and the male leader didn’t offer.
There is a stereotype of male leaders being aggressive. One of the respondents in McCreight’s interviews said that the best male leaders don’t fit the stereotype, and instead show more empathy, a quality that is more often associated with female leaders. Many of the women interviewed also said that the best male leaders don’t always insist on having their own way, are open to other opinions and listen to their teams before making a decision. It would seem then, that despite the question focusing on what women leaders can learn from men, male leaders can learn a lot from their female counterparts as well.
Related: 7 Traits of Exceptional Leaders
Many of the women in McCreight’s survey took the opportunity for an inward look, suggesting that it would be beneficial for women leaders to speak up more, with one respondent noting that while women do well on assigned tasks, men will speak up to grab the assignments they want.
Some of the more interesting responses to the survey question, “What would you say are some of the more noteworthy leadership practices you have learned from effective male leaders?” include:
- Power. Enjoy being the boss, and don’t be afraid to make decisions. Men are very good at enjoying the power. Some women can be almost embarrassed to admit they like to be in charge and to have power.
- Don’t wait to be asked. Volunteer to take the lead on an assignment.
- The best male leaders I have witnessed don’t fit the stereotype. They emanate empathy, something you would perhaps not expect.
The second part of the question, “What advice do you have for aspiring women leaders in how to go about learning from effective male leaders” also yielded some great insights:
- Remember that if there is something to deliver, you as the leader can only spend a maximum of 30 percent of that activity’s time thinking about it, and you have to give your people 70 percent of the time to deliver. So make a decision, and get on with it.
- Observe, but don’t discount your strengths as a woman. The best run companies have a diversity of thought. You don’t have to be like everybody else.
- Network like crazy.
- Go out of your way to engage with male leaders, and ask for guidance on specific topics. Don’t be wishy-washy in what you want to know. Male leaders love to be asked to give advice. It boosts their feeling of power. Many men still don’t naturally reach out to females in business so we need to take the lead.
- If you need to, fake confidence and gravitas until you are no longer faking.
And perhaps the most important piece of advice to female leaders that came from the survey was this — “You can learn from anyone, male or female. You don’t have to listen to what male leaders tell you if you don’t think that’s the right thing. You don’t have to be a ‘good girl’ and do what you are told. Do what you think is right!”