On January 15, Mary Barra begins her new role as the first female CEO of General Motors. Barra was appointed to the job on December 10, replacing current CEO Dan Akerson. While Akerson led with the typically masculine “from the gut” style, Barra has proven herself a master of not just the typically feminine style of empathetic leadership, but of a range of styles—some typically feminine, others typically masculine.
Barra’s rise highlights how important it is to be able to shift gears between leadership styles, and her tenure at GM will be one to watch for female executives who seek to emulate her abilities.
I first read about Barra’s consensus-building approach, amped with the ability to move to more directive decision making, in a profile in the Stanford Alumni Magazine. A male GM colleague observed:
“She's very methodical, very logical, very fair. She challenges the status quo pretty well. She's provocative…She's an outstanding listener. And I guess she kind of has a consensus approach, but when it's not coming together, she gets concise and she's pretty decisive.”
Research bears out that women on average outscore men on empathy and other measures relating to building consensus, a skill that helps diverse teams with different perspectives commit to decisions even when there’s disagreement. For example, a study by the Caliper Corporation compared leaders of both sexes and found that women rated higher on measures scoring such traits as empathy, flexibility, and sociability. Relatedly, the Caliper study found that female leaders are more persuasive. Their aptitudes for listening well, empathizing, and seeing every side of an issue are all important components of influence.
However, effective female leaders know that consensus-building skills are not incompatible with a directive, decisive mode. The best leadership comes when the two are combined. Of course, not all women embody typically feminine leadership traits, just as not all men embody typically masculine traits. When we’re talking about female leadership, we’re talking about style more than biology.
Barra proves that female leaders are in a great position to combine decisiveness and consensus building—stereotypically masculine and feminine abilities, respectively—for optimum advantage. A truly exceptional female leader knows when to switch gears and notch it up, and the ability to shift into definitive decision-making at the right time is the difference between the average and the stellar.
As a female and former CEO who is currently an executive coach to high potential leaders—both men and women—I’ve found that most of the women I work with know a lot about consensus building, EQ, and empathy, but are often reluctant to act in an overtly directive way and have concerns about perceptions of being “a bitch.” Men, on average, have no lack of bravado and feel confident asserting themselves and pulling rank. Sometimes, however, they have issues with empathy and hesitate to seek out the opinions of others.
I posit that today’s strongest leaders, including Mary Barra, balance consensus building and a directive approach to maximum advantage. They hear others out and gather the best ideas, but are then unafraid to make decisions with confidence and definitiveness. Using all gears—and full horsepower—makes for a winning combination.
Unfortunately, women and their leadership strengths remain underrepresented in the upper ranks of most organizations. According to The Conference Board, the business research organization, women make up 29% of the workforce but only 20% of total managers. A disproportionately male upper management means that organizations are losing out on a significant skill set. More than a fairness issue alone, parity in the top ranks is an important talent management goal: What company wouldn’t want their leaders to show the broadest possible range of leadership and leadership styles?
Mary Barra’s career shows that shifting gears between consensus building and decisiveness is a powerful skill. Because women have been socialized to listen and empathize, they tend to have an advantage when it comes to the former, as the research bears out. When combined with decisiveness, women’s consensus building skills create a high-octane mix.
So, women—start your engines.