We live in a world that is increasingly shape-shifting. Habits that used to be the norm traditionally are almost passé in what is being termed a BANI (brittle, anxious, non-linear, and incomprehensible) world. Humans are more connected, more aware of world issues, and carry more accountability for their actions than ever before. These new age phenomena have brought changes not just in a personal capacity but in the work sphere as well. Corporate leadership too is undergoing an education, adapting and adjusting its lens, and increasingly becoming a job that encompasses many roles within it.
Interestingly, while the modern-day CEO is having to rethink concepts like empathy and vulnerability in leading and has been dislodged from his ivory tower, the number of women CEOs ruling the roost still leave much to be desired. These are some of the many observations that the members of Power Women had at a recent session headed by Carolyn Dewar, senior partner, McKinsey & Company, San Francisco, and the co-author of the New York Times bestseller ‘CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest’. A global platform for senior women leaders, Power Women aims to change the face of world leadership by focusing on the holistic development and well-being of working women.
Power Women’s vision is aligned with the UN SDGs of gender equality, improved well-being, and reduced inequality. Founded by Simran Kaur, an ambassador at Girls X Tech, advisor at Loyal VC, mentor at Founders Institute, and among GCC’s 50 Women Leaders (2016), Power Women addresses work-life challenges by connecting top women professionals with senior executive coaches, global thought leaders and peers with similar journeys to create innumerable success stories.
Be bold, take risks
As the keynote speaker in the October session, Dewar shared how she and her co-authors chose CEOs that outperformed in their roles and belonged to the first percentile. “Leaders who had been in their roles for over six years had been there long enough to eat their own cooking, so to speak. The track record of their company could be attributed to their tenure. So the narrowed down final list had 67 CEOs out of which 9 were women,” Dewar explained. One-on-one interviews with these top-notch CEOs gave Dewar six clear mindsets that distinguished them from the rest.
The secret was fairly simple – it is not what they did but how they thought. “All the CEOs showed curiosity and learning mindsets, they set the ball rolling in a culture that welcomed challenges,” she said, giving the instance of Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan & Chase, who admitted the job was too big for one person; one had to mobilize many leaders within a team to get results.
Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, on the other hand, was advised by the outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer to ‘be bold and be right’. Dewar too emphasized the significance of being bold being directly related to being an overperformer. Barbara Rentler, the CEO of Ross Stores was named among Forbes' America's 100 Most Innovative Leaders and was the only woman on the list. One of the boldest decisions she had taken initially was to withdraw from a country where the company had shown no profits for years. Her decision to re-pivot had gotten her flak but she stood by it. Cut to the present, her leadership continues to inspire – Ross Stores' early 2022 revenues grew 50%.
Similarly, when the CEO of Mastercard, Ajay Banga realized that only 20 percent of all transactions were conducted electronically, he turned the company’s focus entirely and became a payment platform giant that currently operates in 150 currencies across the globe. Banga’s bold move gave him a wide playing field and an impetus to win.
Women leaders do it all
With so many moving parts and CEOs holding them all together, a distinct style could be seen among the women CEOs who etched out their short-term as well as long-term goals in contrast to the men. Apparently, when the women spoke about their calendars, they included their personal lives and treated work-life balance as one entity. The men only spoke of their work calendars.
Dewar shared how the women leaders took it as part of the job to blend both things, with most admitting to have had to act like men in a man’s world. “It has to be noted that this generation of women truly broke the glass ceiling to have been made the CEO 6 to 10 years back. To be where they were, many had to hustle very hard. However, a generational shift could be seen while talking to some of the younger women leaders – they intended to be great at what they did by not acting as men would but being the incredible women they were,” Dewar explained.
Six mindsets and spinning plates
The required mindsets; of setting direction, aligning the intention of the organization, identifying leaders that make a team, managing the board, connecting with the stakeholders, and finally, bettering the self may not demand a CEO’s time all at once, according to Dewar. Like a game of spinning plates, it is one of the plates or areas that may come off loose and require a CEO’s attention at different points in time.
Many of the leaders let Dewar in on a surprise element; the best ones tried to turn the board into a resource. She shared how JP Morgan’s Dimon regularly spent an hour with his board without any paperwork or presentations. He took the time to fill them in with the good and the bad. “This is the biggest difference we saw between excellent CEOs and the rest - they thought of ways in which they could help the directors to help them indirectly. They gave the board relevant information to thoughtfully engage. They also seeked board members with relevant skills and experience to take the company ahead together,” she said.
As Neeti Virmani, venture partner, Loyal VC, pointed out, the role of the CEO has gotten increasingly complex with new-age tech coming in and making old learnings obsolete. In fact, the average tenure of CEOs has gone down from 10 to 7 years and ESG has become a big piece of the pie. The keynote speaker admitted that nobody had got it all right yet, but those doing it well started within; why their company existed, what impact they desired, and who they served. A bright example of this came from a Finnish CEO who decided to meet Greenpeace activists and discuss solutions after the latter repeatedly protested.
Power Women’s Simran Kaur also elaborated on how managing the pandemic, community health, racial discrimination, and social unrest fell on most CEOs who got called to take a stand. “Increasingly, employees and customers are making employment decisions and purchasing decisions with companies that are in line with their values. This isn’t something past CEOs had to deal with,” Dewar explained, dismissing empathy as a passing trend but a must-have quality for CEOs today.
A deeply insightful read for new-age CEOs, Dewar’s book etches out lessons leaders can apply across geographies like that of Satya Nadella’s. In Microsoft, he inherited a culture that was toxic to a certain extent with internal competition stifling innovations. Nadella chose to invest heavily in a growth mindset and turned a know-it-all culture into a learn-it-all one. He even did the rare feat of apologizing after answering a question about equal pay wrongly during a conference. He corrected his belief stating ‘men and women should get equal pay for equal work and women should just ask if they think they deserve a raise.’
Inclusive leadership need of the hour
The world is grappling with massive layoffs and the Great Breakup where women are leaving the workforce in record numbers due to a lack of work-life balance, thus there is a lot of room for improvement. A distributed leadership that is comfortable with vulnerability is the need of the hour; the kind that acknowledges the ambitions of women and puts them at equal footing with the men. “CEOs today need to be intentional, more externally oriented and collaborative. It is also the right time to bring in allies and create a world where a woman doesn’t have lesser opportunities or is paid lesser than a man for the same job. This change has to come during our generation itself,” Dewar summarized.
Power Women’s next session is When Women Lead with Julia Boorstin and Taking Care of You with Dr. Mary O'Connor and Kanwal Haq.