Work is getting more and more complex every day, and leaders are trying to figure out how to set themselves up for success when yesterday’s rules no longer apply.

In the mid 20th century, being a conscious company seemed like something of a fringe luxury for the high-and-mighty and doomed to feel good but perform badly. In simpler systems, hierarchy, command-and-control decision-making, and a handful of smart people sitting at the top of a sprawling system could still produce results. This tell-you-what-to-do model was built on traditionally masculine qualities: confidence, clarity, assertiveness, and focus. Well balanced and properly directed, these traits can be extremely powerful. Out of balance, though, they can wreak havoc, and we all pay the price.

We have already passed the tipping point. The “smart-person-at-the-top” model will not be adequate to either solve today’s most pressing challenges or anticipate the disruptions ahead — much less keep an increasingly sophisticated and exacting workforce engaged. The leaders who embody and embrace a profile of more characteristically feminine traits are already paving the path to the future.

In today’s faster and more interconnected world, no one person — no matter how smart or sophisticated — can hope to connect all relevant dots. More typically feminine qualities of receptivity, connection, curiosity, listening, and relationship are increasingly important to success. As Tina Young underscored in the February 2018 issue of Conscious Company, both male and female leaders can master feminine leadership qualities, and the most successful leaders will.

1. Radical receptivity: Be open always, in all ways

Take Haley Robinson, for example. At only 32, she is the CEO of Kammok, a B Corp with a mission “to equip and inspire others for life-changing adventure.” She’s also one of Conscious Company’s 2018 Top Business Leaders.

Robinson has distinguished herself in many ways, but believing that people can handle the truth better than they can handle deception is a hallmark of her leadership. “People can handle bad news,” she says. “They cannot handle bad behavior. If you are forging new paths, mistakes and failures are inevitable. People will rally to problem-solve with you if they are treated with respect and compassion. There is no substitute for integrity and humility.”

2. Wholehearted connection: It always starts with us

A few years ago, Brené Brown skyrocketed onto the national spotlight with her now famous TedX Talk on the power of vulnerability. In her wry, funny, down-home way, she told us how her quest to understand the secret of happiness and success led her to a most unwelcome collision with the raw truth: Wishing for all the good that life has to offer means being open to and allowing the pain, too.

It turns out we can’t selectively shut out only the bad stuff. And, if we want openness from others, we often have to go first. Brown observed that we see others as courageous when they speak up and speak out, yet we hold ourselves back out of fear and shame. This insight become one of the foundations of her now wildly successful Brave Leaders, Inc.

3. Rabid curiosity: Never stop learning

Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix and co-author of the company’s infamous Culture Deck, made a name for herself by doing away with many once-sacred staples of talent management. Annual talent reviews and anonymous feedback? Buh-bye. McCord insisted that the best way to improve performance is to help people learn to welcome feedback and learning (public debates of tough topics anyone?), and then give specific, in-person feedback that focuses on behaviors rather than personal characteristics. She now teaches startups like Warby Parker to implement her model.

With disruption coming from all sides, being open to new insight is a crucial business asset. The leaders who will succeed in the future are those who know that they don’t have all the answers and have a hunger for learning that drives them to leave no stone unturned.

4. Deep listening: Wonder what is beneath the surface

Even in an era of big data, when CEOs and their teams have access to highly sophisticated analyses and insights, their ability to make sense of it is only as good as where they already know to look. Those who are open to surprising new insights will win, while those who behave as though they have it all figured out have already lost.

Pete Sheahan, one of my favorite thought leaders, likes to tell the story of Amazon’s “disruption” of the food industry by buying Whole Foods. He happened to be at a forum a few days after the 2017 acquisition, where CMOs and other senior grocery industry leaders wondered how Amazon could have possibly “come out of nowhere” to challenge their market share so severely. Their stocks were plummeting, while Amazon’s soared.

The timeline below shows that this industry upheaval should hardly have been a surprise to people who were paying attention (or looking under the right stones):

  • 1999: Amazon buys 35 percent of HomeGrocer.com.
  • 2006: Amazon starts selling food on Amazon.com.
  • 2007: Amazon launches its “Fresh” brand.
  • 2015: Headline reads: “Grocery Industry Tries Not to Freak Out as Amazon Plans its Own Food Line.”
  • 2016: Amazon announces the Amazon Go grocery store.
  • 2016: Amazon releases the Wickedly Prime food brand.

I wonder how many people, in how many meetings, piped up at some point between 1999 and 2017 to say, “Hey, should we be worried about Amazon?,” only to have their concern laughed off or their data dismissed as an “outlier.” Amazon sold books online. How could it possibly be a threat?

From a “king of the hill” mentality, it couldn’t. The company didn’t have the right stuff to challenge a well known and exhaustively analyzed market. The people who had “taken that hill” were right to feel secure in years past but, of course, they were missing something.

5. Fierce relationships: In the end, it’s the only thing that matters

What the other grocery executives didn’t see is that Amazon was watching, listening, and being curious about what the massive amount of data from its online sales revealed about people’s buying habits, how and when they were shopping, and how their lives were changing and evolving as a result.

The company was building relationships with customers, cultivating even more loyalty than to the increasingly anonymous and unfriendly “corner grocer” — which, incidentally, is less and less likely to be at any nearby corner. Amazon knew what shoppers liked and what they cared about.

While there is plenty about Amazon to quibble with in other areas, this example highlights an important point: Today, more than ever, work gets done through relationship and connection.

For years, even the most successful women in business succeeded by leaning on their masculine side and bringing their hard-charging, sometimes ruthless, face to the fore. Today, though, more and more women — and men are — embracing their feminine qualities and leading positive disruption in their industries by putting relationships first.

Coming full circle: Will the future of work be feminine?

Vicki Saunders launched SheEO just three years ago to revolutionize how woman-led startups, which still receive less than 4 percent of traditional venture funding, raise money. Based on a notion of radical generosity, women from all over the world are coming together to contribute funds and create a network of support that has already provided funding and coaching to 32 ventures.

By embracing Buckminster Fuller’s claim that to change anything we need to build new systems that make the old ones obsolete, Saunders and the thousands of “activators” who donate their time, money, expertise, support, and encouragement are embracing this new model and finding their way through successes and stumbles. (Full disclosure: I’ve been an activator since year one, but I don’t make any money from SheEO or its ventures.)

At the end of the day, the best leaders — whether women or men — are learning to hone the business-critical skills that we once called “soft,”and to harness the power of collaboration, authenticity, and deep listening to unleash the full potential of their teams and organizations.  

As you will note, several of the examples I listed are of big organizations led by men, and others are radically innovative organizations led by women, whose success is not yet guaranteed but whose early experiments are generating exciting results. Both can — and should — begin to embrace traditionally feminine leadership qualities in order to succeed.

Jennifer Simpson

Jennifer Simpson has dedicated her life-work to improving lives, strengthening communities, and adding value to organizations. She helped launch SheEO in the United States and is the founder of A Bolder Vision, incoming President at Integrated Work, and has held senior leadership positions at Conversant and Karrikins Group. Wherever she goes, she helps people find clarity where there is confusion, tap into as-yet undiscovered (or long-forgotten) talents, and make a bigger, bolder difference in the world.

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