By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
When you think of a high performing female leader you admire, what traits does she display? Is she innovative? Collaborative? Inspiring? Analytic? Dynamic? Now think about a male leader you admire. How does he approach leadership? What traits does he display?
It shouldn’t surprise you if you tick off a number of similar qualities.
After all, good leaders exhibit many of the same traits, regardless of gender. And while we anticipate that women will perhaps rank higher when it comes to measures of collaboration, developing others, building relationships, and communication, we anticipate that men will perform better when it comes to traits like taking initiative, driving for results, establishing stretch goals, and problem solving.
But, according to new research by Zenger Folkman, it’s time to reexamine those stereotypes. In fact, based on 360 degree evaluations of over 7,000 leaders, not only did women score higher than men on an index of overall leadership effectiveness traits (53 compared to 49), but women ranked higher in twelve out of 16 leadership competencies – including all of the traits listed above.
In fact, the widest gap between men and women leaders was “taking the initiative,” where women scored 11 points higher than men. Why are women performing so much more effectively than male leaders? And why is the gap so wide?
Because of women’s traditional nurturing or care-taking persona, we often expect that women will perform better on measures of soft or people skills. And they do.
According to Zenger Folkman’s study of 30 degree evaluations (performed by managers peers, and direct reports), women scored significantly higher soft skills and more dynamic ones. In a recent HBR blog post, they wrote:
“Similarly, most stereotypes would have us believe that female leaders excel at “nurturing” competencies such as developing others and building relationships, and many might put exhibiting integrity and engaging in self-development in that category as well. And in all four cases our data concurred — women did score higher than men.
“But the women’s advantages were not at all confined to traditionally women’s strengths. In fact at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows.”
This finding was surprising. One would anticipate that, since good leaders display many of the same traits, genders would score about evenly on this survey. One would expect see scores showing that women and men are equally rated at most characteristics, with each gender slightly higher or lower on a few items.
But that’s not what we see – women are rated higher than men on the majority of qualities, and on only one quality were men ranked significantly more positive (“Develops Strategic Perspective”). Why?
Why are Women Better Leaders?
Many female leaders have discussed the need to be “better” than the guys in order to be taken seriously, to have to prove themselves constantly, or to withstand frequent challenges. The researchers suggest that this feeling of instability actually creates better leaders. Following a discussion with senior women about the results of their survey, they explain:
“That is, anecdotally, at least, the women we queried don’t feel their appointments are safe. They’re afraid to rest on their laurels. Feeling the need (often keenly) to take initiative, they are more highly motivated to take feedback to heart.
“The irony is that these are fundamental behaviors that drive the success of every leader, whether woman or man.”
Good leaders, regardless of gender, recognize that they can’t get too comfortable, and, being in the minority, female leaders are frequently more aware of this than men.
Jack Zenger, CEO and Co-founder of Zenger Folkman, suggests that companies could benefit by increasing awareness of these stereotypes, and promoting promising female talent – since the research shows they will likely perform better. He said, “It is a well-known fact that women are underrepresented at senior levels of management. Yet the data suggests that by adding more women the overall effectiveness of the leadership team would go up.”
Joe Folkman, President of Zenger Folkman, agreed. He pointed out that the lack of female leaders may be related to the perception that they don’t perform as highly as men – which is unfounded. He said, “while men excel in the technical and strategic arenas, women clearly have the advantage in the extremely important areas of people relationships and communication. They also surpass their male counterparts in driving for results. This we know is counterintuitive to many men.”
Counterintuitive, but true. If companies want to get the most out of their leadership team, they need to reexamine old stereotypes and acknowledge the true performance capabilities of female leaders.