Will the next Steve Jobs be a woman?

October 10, 2011

There seems to be a dearth of leadership these days. Even more so now that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is no longer with us.

Americans aren’t just worried about who might become the next Steve Jobs; there’s a lack of leaders across the board. No political “leader” — in the U.S., Europe and many other places — seems willing to step up to the plate. There’s a lack of leadership for the protest taking place on Wall Street. And there’s a lack of corporate leadership – banks seem unwilling to admit their mistakes, correct their wrongs and start down a fresh path.

It’s men who got us into this economic crisis and it’s been women who’ve been bailing us out of it. Author and columnist Michael Lewis aptly notes: “The Icelandic tycoons were a parody of Americans. The interesting thing is that they were all men.”

So where can we find new and necessary leaders? If you’re author Anne Doyle, you can find them in women.

Despite all the progress women have made there are still too few women leaders – especially in business, politics and technology. Out of the Fortune 500 companies 15 are run by women. Other top positions at corporations are also still dominated by men.

In U.S. politics, there are 93 women in Congress – 76 in the House and 17 in the Senate – out of a total of 535 members. On a more granular level, the National Journal counts 13 women who hold high-level White House positions. Worse, in his new book, “Confidence Men”, Ron Suskind recounts a senior female aid who said that the current White House is a difficult place for women to work. And senior adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett has admitted there is tension between the sexes.

Doyle isn’t on a “woe is woman” type of rant, as can easily be detected with the title of her recent book, “Powering Up! How America’s Women Achievers Become Leaders”. In it, Doyle talks about what it was like to spend her life making her way to the top in the male-dominated corporate worlds of sports media and the auto industry. Eventually, she became a sports broadcaster for CBS and the Director of North America Communications at Ford Motor Company. She relays stories of what it’s like to survive – and thrive – in such testosterone filled worlds, the lessons she has learned from it, and how women can navigate through it. But, Doyle’s main focus is on why there’s still a black hole of female leadership and, more importantly, how to fill it.

The vacuum of female leadership exists in part because the old boys club is very much alive and kicking, Doyle says. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” is quite prevalent among men and not prevalent enough between men and women or women and women.

It’s not as if there aren’t any female leaders though. Christine Lagarde is now the head of the IMF, Arianna Huffington created The Huffington Post, sold it to AOL for $315 million and is now launching Le Huffington Post in France. Hillary Clinton, who has long been a strong advocate for and supporter of the advancement of women in all sectors and countries, is a great role model by showing that women can pave a prominent road for themselves.

Women are also on the rise in the world of technology. Meg Whitman was recently appointed the CEO of Hewlett Packard. Sheryl Sandberg, the former vice president of operations at Google, is now the chief operating officer at Facebook. Ken Auletta recently wrote about her ascension in Silicon Valley’s male-oriented culture. There are plenty of other examples, but, sadly, these women are anomalies, not the norm.

Moreover, women still have to rely on men in order to get ahead. Sandberg had the good fortune of having a powerful male boss, Larry Summers, mentor her career. Hillary Clinton has been quite successful, but would she be as successful if she were not married to Bill Clinton? That’s a harder one to answer, but it’s not as hard to answer for someone like Melinda Gates. Gates has become quite a prominent leader on global health issues, but mainly because of her husband, Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Doyle admits that she never could have made it as a sports broadcaster were it not for her father, who had been a sports broadcaster himself and then the president of the sports broadcaster association in Detroit, where she was eventually hired by CBS in 1987. Doyle’s father was a great mentor to her and helped her open the door to the men’s locker room. But it was Doyle who had to step into the locker room all by herself and prove that she deserved to be in it.

In the tech world, where women are few and far between, Esther Dyson says it’s because there’s a lack of “venture” mentors for men and women alike. It’s hard for women to run, let alone start, a technology company because most angel investors are men and most of them invest in male pitched or run ventures, says Founder and CEO of Honestly Now, Tereza Nemessanyi. But, she adds, there’s no reason the next Apple or Google can’t be started by a woman.

Some men may fear that the rise of women coincides with the exclusion of men, but Doyle is here to reassure us that this certainly is not the case — there’s plenty of room for men to share the space with women. Helping women shouldn’t come at the expense of men, but rather the inclusion of them. Doyle says the new role men need to play is to be part of a supportive environment that not only helps women become leaders but also helps create an environment that isn’t hostile to them once they reach the top. And, once they get there it’s important, arguably imperative, says Doyle, for women not to blend in with the men, but to maintain her “womaninity”, as Doyle calls it.

“Women bring different skills to the workplace that men don’t,” Doyle says. “We know that now with all the research and science. It’s not that one’s better than the other; we complement each other; so when it’s uneven, it’s dysfunctional.”

Men not making room for women is not the only reason for the lack of female leadership. Doyle thinks there’s a complacency among women to make further strides because women have achieved so much already. There’s a feeling that if we maintain, we’ll do just fine, she says. But women are starting to lose ground. For the first time in 30 years we’ve lost women in Congress. And, for the most part, corporate executives are still mostly men.

“In the last four decades we have become a nation of high achieving women – highly educated, aspiring, skilled professional,” Doyle says. “But for all of our numbers and achievements we are leadership underachievers.”

No one – whether male or female – can simply afford to maintain, especially in the current economic environment. No matter how much progress one makes, we have to keep in mind that there will always be more progress to make. You can’t stop even when you get to the top.

Although Doyle breaks down how to become a leader with seven different general guidelines in her book, there aren’t any easy ways or detailed answers for how you become a leader in real life. Every person who’s gotten there has their own story. The concern, then, is how you become successful in that leadership position.

The not-so-secret answer is that the higher up you go in the world of business, the more coaching and mentoring you receive. Some companies have corporate leadership programs for their high-level executives, some have training programs for employees (which, like most things, can be useless or helpful), and some will even pay their highest level executives to meet with a personal development coach. The more individually-tailored coaching you can receive, generally, the more productive it is.

The sad secret is that mentors, coaches, godfathers – whatever you want to call them – are becoming more and more rare for aspiring employees. But companies should not lose sight of their in-house talent – whether it already exists or needs to be developed — says consultant Wes Siegel. You can, of course, hire your very own personal career or life coach out of your own pocket. Otherwise, you are at the mercy of some woman’s, or more likely, man’s benevolence.

In the end, though, there’s no better person to help you than you. You are your own best friend (and worst enemy). If there’s something or someone standing in your way, the first place to look may be the mirror. To be sure, becoming a successful leader often means going through a very discouraging and humbling process, with plenty of failures along the way. Doyle says that if you have not failed big time then you don’t know what your limits are, and leaders should know their limits. But never give up on achieving your dreams, she says. Picking yourself up when you do fail, no matter how many times that may be, is the only known recipe for success.

Photos, top to bottom: U.S. entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari gestures in her space suit at Baikonur cosmodrome September 4, 2006. Ansari, a U.S. citizen of Iranian origin, will become the world’s first female space tourist when she blasts off aboard a Russian rocket on September 14. REUTERS/Sergei Remezov; Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, speaks at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Half Moon Bay, California, July 22, 2008. REUTERS/Kimberly White; The opening ceremony of the CeBIT computer fair, the world’s largest IT fair, in Hanover March 1, 2010. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

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