Women lead differently than men, and that’s a good thing for business

March 8, 2011

SusanSpencerSusan T. Spencer is the only woman who was GM of an NFL team and an entrepreneur who successfully navigated the male-dominated world of meat processing. She is also the the author of “Briefcase Essentials: Discover Your 12 Natural Talents for Achieving Success in a Male-Dominated Workplace”. The opinions expressed are her own.

As today is International Women’s Day, there’s no better time than now to look at the role of women in business and why their different leadership style can help improve the business world.

During the five years I spent as vice president, legal counsel, and acting general manager  of the Philadelphia Eagles Football Team I had a unique opportunity to observe first-hand the vastly different ways that men and women lead. In this machismo world, I learned that women are sometimes better equipped to accomplish the same business goals as men.

One of the first changes I made as acting GM, in an effort to drastically cut costs, was to replace the existing jumbo jet—which transported the players, coaches, other Eagles personnel, press, and friends of friends to away games—with a smaller jet which could only accommodate team personnel.

Saving money was a new concept to the players, who assumed that sports teams had unlimited budgets when it came to spending money on them, and grumbled unhappily as they climbed aboard the replacement jet for the first time.
After a few hours into the flight, the plane began to descend and the players were looking around wondering why. I thought it was best if I spared management the negative details of the new travel plans—which included a fuel stop in North Dakota on our way to California. My marching orders were to trim a million dollars off the budget and by downsizing our cross country travel, I was half way there.

While the plane was refueling the players waited in the small airport lounge but not before each player glared at me as they deplaned. Upon leaving the lounge to re-board the plane, their grumbling grew even louder and the expression on the faces of the players and coaches left no doubt that I was “public enemy number one.”

I understood my decision would be unpopular and considered how a man would handle this situation. From my observation of other GM’s, it goes something like this—“stop whining—man up, suck it up and shut up.”

My female approach was completely different. I recognized that in order for this change to work, there had to be a quid pro quo. As I left the plane, I didn’t join the team in the lounge but stayed nearby, waiting to pull a rabbit out of my hat. Carts filled with large cartons of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, containers oozing hot fudge, and bowls full of bananas, whipped cream, sprinkles, nuts and more were wheeled up to the plane’s steps. When everyone returned to the plane and saw the sweet extravaganza before them, they started hooting and applauding loudly. Giant scoops of ice cream and toppings were shoveled into large plastic bowls, handed to the players and carried onboard. Fifteen minutes later, the plane took off… and everyone was smiling and licking their lips.

If I had told any of the coaches or players that I was going to trade their jumbo jet for a jumbo ice cream sundae, they would have laughed in my face. Nonetheless, by coming up with a novel idea to make the change easier to swallow, I was able to lead effectively and not alienate  the people I had to work with.

Being Resourceful

Yes, a spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down, and yes, the way to a man’s heart is often through his stomach—old sayings familiar to everyone. While women take those sayings seriously, they also improvise by coming up with original and sometimes unconventional ideas to approach problematic situations differently. As leaders, they plan ahead by putting themselves in the shoes of others so that they can execute a strategy that addresses the reaction that is sure to come. I knew the players and coaches would not be thrilled with the new travel accommodations so I devised a response that would divert their attention and let them know I was aware of their discomfort.

Being Empathetic

Women are able, in part, to be more creative because they tend to be more empathetic. Psychologist and Cambridge University Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who has studied the female brain and wrote a book on his findings, concludes that “the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy.” And hundreds of studies indicate that women are more empathetic than men. Former BBC Producer turned CEO and author Margaret Heffernan connects the dots in her book How She Does It: How Women Entrepreneurs Are Changing the Rules of Business and finds that empathy and vision go hand in hand. Women’s empathy enables them to look at business issues through a wide angle lens verses men who tend to have tunnel vision.

As a leader of another company, I followed the old principle of not having a buddy-buddy relationship with my employees. In most cases it served me well except for the following one. As the CEO of Suzannah Farms, a ham processing company, I had to tell my employees that I could not fix this broken company that I purchased and operated for several years and that I was truly sorry but the plant would be closed in 60 days.

My plan was to tell the story in a calm, clear and unemotional way. But when I stood in front of the workers and looked into the eyes of the men and women I worked with every day, tears filled my eyes and the tears continued to fall until my speech was finished. I feared that an angry crowd of workers would mock me, but as I dried my eyes and tried to gain some composure, one of my workers shouted out, “You’re not so tough!” and the rest of the employees applauded and laughed warmly in appreciation.

It’s a rare moment when most bosses or figures of authority show this side of themselves, but if it’s sincere, it’s a moment that will be appreciated forever by everyone who witnesses it. Because I communicated openly and honestly with my employees, every worker stayed on and saw the company through until closing day, saving me from even greater losses. Empathy is an awesome skill when it is used carefully and wisely in business situations.

Being Inclusive

Women naturally are more “people persons” than men because they are comfortable relating one-on-one with people at all levels of an organization. We make it a point to be inclusive and know the names and faces of people we are working with. Businessmen, however, tend to act impersonally and do not interact at all levels; they are exclusive. For women the term “inclusive” carries with it an implicit acknowledgement that people come first. By being inclusive with every business contact—whether customer, supplier, or employee—it allows us to be straightforward with them, and thus more efficient, about business problems when they arise.

Women’s success in business proves that “manning-up” is no longer the sole definition of leadership. The definition of leadership should be expanded to also include the unique skills that women bring to the table.

Photo: Susan Spencer

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My I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

Let’s Find 1 Million People Who Want to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion

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[…] into the 21st century globally we are realizing that women are good for business.  Beyond having empathy they also tend to be firm in their decision making processes and good with […]

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