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5 important lessons from women business leaders

A woman business leader takes her team through a report.
A business workgroup discuss the latest report with a woman leader.
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

In recent years, women have made incredible strides in the business world. Forty-one women currently lead Fortune 500 companies. While that remains an unacceptably low percentage (8 percent) overall, it nonetheless represents progress. Twenty years ago, only two women ran such companies, and 2021’s numbers are even a step up from 2019’s 33 women who made the list. Similarly, 2015–2020 witnessed a slow but steady increase of women taking charge in SVP and C-Suite positions.
In addition to running some of the world’s most successful companies, women are changing the way we do business. Seeing their jobs as more than being guardians of P&L, women have become some of the business world’s most accomplished and influential teachers and thought leaders. Their leadership philosophies and strategies have impacted how we view company culture, how we innovate new ideas, how we capitalize on D&I, and how we navigate crisis points in our business. And they’ve become important coaches and role models for tomorrow’s business leaders.
This month, we recognize women in business by returning to some of our favorite lessons they’ve taught us in the art and science of leadership.

Become a fluent leader with Jane Hyun

We tend to think of leadership as a domain controlled by those naturally born with the traits of charisma and presentation. Not so, says Jane Hyun, founder and president of Hyun & Associates. She holds that leadership is a skill, but to grow in fluency, we must not become accustomed to a “default mode of operating” such as the Golden Rule.
For Hyun, fluent leaders don’t do unto others as they would have others do unto them. Instead, they realize that “people have different preferences, different ways they like to communicate, different ways they like to get feedback.”
As she told Big Think+: “[Fluent] leaders are very attuned to how these differences work out, and they start to think, ‘How can I adapt my style to more effectively work with the person sitting across from me versus applying my style onto them?'”
To prepare for interactions with people across generations and cultures, Hyun has developed three pre-engagement questions she always asks. They are:

  1. What are the mindsets and preferences of the person I am meeting with?
  2. How can I best connect with this person?
  3. How do I empathize with this person, or put myself in their shoes?

Though she may communicate or work differently, these questions help her attune to those differences and meet the other person from a place where communication and productivity can thrive.

Nancy Duarte unearths the heart of communication

Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Design, taught us that people aren’t moved much by data or directives. They instead find purpose through connections and stories. Like an anthropologist, she turned her acute eye to the rituals, speeches, and ceremonies that unite and inspire people in different cultures and civilizations. And she found the same underlying mechanics joined the people in corporations, too.
“There are these things that will rise up with incredible meaning, and leaders need to identify the symbols in an organization,” Duarte said. “Some of them need to be amplified, so they get more meaning and infuse the organization with more meaning, and some need to be dismantled. Some of them are so sacred they need to be dismantled in a very meaningful way because they need to be stripped of their power.”
Her lesson for leaders is to draw from these cultural elements. A well-told story can inspire a mission, while symbols can be infused to arouse positive emotions. Meanwhile, ceremonies emphasize transformation and can be tapped into when preparing your people for an upcoming change.

Manage risk and crisis better with Anatasia D. Kelly 

All leaders will face difficulties during their careers, but when things are running smoothly, leaders rarely consider preparing for the next crisis. But that’s exactly when they should.
Anastasia D. Kelly, secretary of the LCLD Board of directors and a co-managing partner at DLA Piper, argues leaders should borrow liberally from their lawyer’s playbook. As she told us in our interview:

When things were challenging and the difficult situations arise, lawyers are perfectly, perfectly able to step into that breach to say, ‘I got this.’ You are the calming influence. You are the center of the storm, but you are the person who your colleagues will come to and say, ‘How do we deal with that crisis?’ That is something you do get in law school; the ability to see the issues, to spot them, to analyze them, and to figure out how to resolve them.

What pages should a crisis-ready leader begin studying? They must learn to keep perspective at all times, get to know their team in advance of the crisis, commit to transparency at all times, and become a student of human nature. These will help us develop self-management techniques and anticipate common human reactions to stressful situations.

Beth Comstock asks us to imagine it forward

Beth Comstock, former vice chair of GE, is big on the notion of having a “growth board” at your organization. Such a board acts as a venture capital incubator within the company—identifying promising new ideas, weighing them against organizational priorities, and bringing different departments together to test them out. Based on the test results, the board can decide to expand an idea or place a dedicated team on it, propelling ideas from seed to launch to growth.
“We all know culture is really important, but you need the whole culture to feel that they’re part of invention, reinvention, and change. That means you’re giving people permission to test things and to learn. I believe everybody needs to be a part of this ‘lab of change’,” Comstock said.
By testing out ideas and networking different departments, growth boards also help people in an organization find roles that suit them.

Angie McArthur on collaborating intelligently

Stein’s law states, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” He was referring to economic trends, but the law can be molded to fit numerous business scenarios. For example: “If communication cannot go on forever, it will begin to degrade.” And once a signal begins to degrade, it will lead to a complete communication breakdown unless you act to establish the connection.
Angie McArthur, CEO of Professional Thinking Partners, teaches that communication breakdowns can become breakthroughs. We just need a little foreknowledge of how different minds analyze information and the willingness to adjust our approach.
“We get stuck in our communication habits,” McArthur said. “And when we’re talking and we are not connecting with the person, we talk more, we talk louder, we began to yell, we say different words. The thing to remember is: shift your mode of communication. That’s all. It’s really easy to do but really easy to forget.”
For example, if you’re having trouble with an interlocutor who talks too much or talks over others, you’re probably dealing with an auditory thinker. Talking energizes this person’s mind, helping them focus and analyze information. In this situation, McArthur recommends writing down their key points. Visually seeing that the communication is successful helps the auditory thinker calm down, re-opening conversation.
Similarly, some people are more stimulated by large amounts of visual details, while others shut down at the sight of such a data smorgasbord.  When creating presentations, McArthur recommends having your visually stunning graph, but also keep a few key bulleted points off to the side. This way, all visual learners can be engaged.
Learn from the most well-regarded business leaders with lessons ‘For Business‘ from Big Think+. At Big Think+, these five experts join a network of academics, professionals, and entrepreneurs to teach you critical skills in career growth and organizational development. Gain perspective from other important women voices in with lessons such as:

  • Extending Your Influence: An Introduction to Engaged Leadership, with Charlene Li, Founder and CEO, Altimeter Group, and Author, The Engaged Leader
  • Seeing Around Corners: Inflection Points to WAtch for Competitive Opportunity, with Rita McGrath, Professor, Columbia Business School
  • Influencing Others: The Art of Modern Management, with Linda Hill, Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School
  • The Power of Onlyness: Unbox Your Talent with a New Model of Management, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • Pursue Happiness Together: A Human Approach to Building Virtual Teams, with Andrea Breanna, Founder and CEO, RebelMouse

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