C-Suite Tsunami

The Skills That Could Sweep Women to the Top
by Edward D. Hess

As robots and smart machines take over our workplaces, many employees will be displaced. While this news will be worrisome for many, it could be great for women… and may even sweep them into the C-suite.

In 10 to 20 years, the working world as we know it will be practically unrecognizable. A 2013 study published by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of the University of Oxford shows 66 percent of the nation’s workforce has a medium to high risk of being displaced due to technology advances in coming decades. And while the fast-approaching artificial intelligence (AI) tsunami is frightening for many, it could play a surprisingly positive role for women. Though women currently make up only 14 percent of Fortune 500 executives, as the role of AI and smart machines grows the need for women in leadership roles, specifically in the C-suite, will grow as well.

As technology continues to advance and replaces workers—even knowledge workers—in a variety of industries, the value add of people will be whatever they can do better than machines can. In order to be successful, companies will need to understand and nurture the very human capabilities that are at the root of innovation: the ability to ideate, create, emotionally engage, empathize and learn in conditions of uncertainty, ambiguity and rapid change. That is the kind of thinking and learning that no machine has yet mastered.

More important for women, these are areas in which they typically excel.

Leaders with a humanistic management style will be in high demand. High emotional and social intelligence and the ability to relate and emotionally engage with others will be key leadership requirements. It is not surprising that many women generally are better at doing that than men. As a result, women generally may well have a compelling edge in the race to the C-suite.

Here’s why I believe women are perfectly positioned to rise to the top as technology plays an ever-growing role in the way we do business:

“Woman’s intuition” is real and valuable. Research shows that higher order critical and innovative thinking, which will play an increasingly important role as technology solidifies its place in the nation’s companies, is done best by small, diverse teams. Why? Because as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman stated, individually we have a hard time overcoming our cognitive bias to confirm what we already believe, and it is much easier for us to discern thinking errors made by others than those made by ourselves. Thus, people must work with others in teams with humility, authenticity and empathy to confront biases, get past their egos, and continually challenge their beliefs.

Critical to small team performance is collective intelligence. A key collective intelligence differentiator is social perceptiveness: team members’ ability to “read the mind of others in their eyes.” Women generally score higher on this skill than men. In fact, Thomas Malone and his colleagues at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence have found that the most effective small teams have more women members than men and that the more women members, the more effective the team will be.

Women are more in tune with interpersonal sensitivity. Building learning organizations will require what I call “learning conversations.” For these conversations to be productive and successful, team members will need to suspend judgment, engage in active, reflective listening, and consider the views of others. In other words, empathy and humility will be key, which will require interpersonal sensitivity. In their summary of the research in this area, Judith A. Hall and Marianne Schmid Mast found that the “superior performance of women in tests of interpersonal sensitivity is well documented.”

Our emotional systems are triggered not only by the actual words someone speaks to us, but also by the emotional messages they transmit. Researcher Deborah Tannen calls these unspoken emotional messages “meta-messages.” She says she has found that women converse differently than men do, and they are generally more focused on relationships and are often more sensitive to the meta-messages of talk. Being in tune to this kind of emotional subtext is going to be an essential leadership skill in coming years.

Women are often more collaborative and relationship-oriented. Not all women are collaborative and have high emotional and social intelligence, just as not all men are overly competitive and confident. But whether because of differences in cultural norms and expectations, differences in genetics or brain structure, differences in experience, or a combination thereof, women generally score higher than men in emotional intelligence and tend to be more relationship-oriented and collaborative. The powerful work connections that will be needed to build successful learning organizations will derive from relationships that are built by authentically relating to another person, recognizing their uniqueness, and doing so in a respectful way that builds trust. Women generally view collaboration as a relational process—not as a competition to see who is right or who has the best answer. In this area, women’s collaborative and relationship-building abilities will serve them well.

Women are more capable of inclusive leadership. My research of the advances over the last 25 years in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics and education reveals stunning advances in our understanding of the individual human learner and of the type of work environment that best enables and promotes those capabilities. That work environment is a positive emotional environment characterized by trust, psychological safety, candor, intellectual humility, empathy, mindfulness, collaboration and the mitigation of fear.

Leaders of collaborative organizations must be able to relate to people on an emotional level. They must know how to foster candor and open-mindedness and how to help people confront brutal facts and search for the truth no matter where that search goes. It’s a process of discovery that Edgar Schein of MIT calls “humble inquiry.” And it’s a necessity for companies seeking to incorporate humanistic management styles, an area in which women have an edge, into their cultures.

Traditional top-down, command-and-control management styles simply will not be right for these environments. At Intuit, they refer to this death of the traditional management style as “burying Caesar.” In a November 2012 blog post, President and CEO Brad Smith summed up the change: “The modern day Caesar is the boss who gives thumbs up or thumbs down on all decisions. Decisions made by politics, persuasion, and PowerPoint. It’s time to bury Caesar.” Scott Cook, cofounder of Intuit, and Smith emphasized humility and empathy in their innovation culture and processes.

Why will the tech tsunami propel women into more leadership positions? Because many women are better at relating, engaging emotionally with others, empathizing, and using conversational learning processes. As this sea change takes place, many men will need to quiet their egos and learn to “lean out.” That said, can men develop some of these capabilities? Of course. Smith and Cook are doing it very successfully at Intuit. But to do so they had to be willing to shift their mindsets and behaviors. It’s a skill set that both women and men should get very comfortable with in years to come. iBi

Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration and Batten executive-in-residence at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and author of 11 books, including Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization.

Add new comment