Monthly Archives: April 2021

Learning to Lead in Crisis

Leaders also need to breathe–so smell the daffodils and savor the spring before you jump into your next challenge. Now more than ever we all need to appreciate what we’ve accomplished–surviving one awful year when we learned about ourselves first!
Rondale Productions photo

Women’s role in helping the world fly right, progress, and assist in our successes may be too much to bite off this holiday season of spring break, basketball championships, and holy services. But would that stop us?

Two authors of “Making Yourself Indispensable” in HBR October 2011: Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, CEO and President, respectively, of a leadership/development consultancy, refer to the “glass cliff,” something new to me.

The idea behind the “glass cliff” is that when a company is in trouble, a female leader is put in charge to save it, as opposed to a “glass ceiling,” the invisible barrier to advancement that woman often face when they are up for promotion to the highest levels.

The glass cliff comes to mind in thinking of Vice President Harris being sent to visit leaders on our southern borders to impact the record number of immigrants, primarily children and teens, coming across the border. Whew! That is a tall order. She is from California, where similar, but not as pressing problems have occurred for years. But the magnitude and the immediacy of the issue now, in the opening 100 days of her position in the White House, makes it a bit more critical. Operating without a net.

As discussed in an earlier blog, there are just 38 female CEOs at work in America today. Some took on the big job when the company already faced severe challenges. Some gambled that they could resolve whatever mess they inherited. Thirty-eight percent of those women who gambled were forced out.. Just 27% of the men who gambled were forced out.). Often the women are followed by male CEOs. But at Xerox, Ursula Burns, the first African American woman at a Fortune 500 company, seceded Anne Mulcahny, who took the helm when Xerox faced financial challenges during mergers and acquisitions and near bankruptcy.

Marisa Mayer came in at Yahoo when the company had wolves at the door. When Patricia Russo, former CEO of Lucent Technologies, came onboard the company had three years of negative shareholder returns. Board members were drawn to her upbeat nature and her warmth to motivate employees—the “savior effect” is what some call it. Some analysts say women are more willing to accept these long-shot jobs as their “only chance” to break into a CEO position. Others say the challenge to show what they can do in a crisis pulls them into these positions. 

Opportunities lie ahead for women

It is a big shift from 1977 when the Equal Rights Amendment passed Congress.  But the women who stayed at home, some of the homemakers, feared the ERA with an assist from Phyllis Schlafly, the mother of five, trained as a lawyer, and married to a politician. She told them they were losing their “status” as more younger women chose to work first before getting married/having children, or always working, even after marriage and children. In the end, enough men and women in key states voted against the ERA to deep six it when the time limit for ratification by the states ran out.

Ironically, the things these “no-ERA-not-ever” folks feared would rock the country happened without the ERA ever becoming law. A good portion of the change came naturally as more women went to work for economic or career-positive reasons. Others looked at issues like same-sex marriage and decided it was a personal decision.

In the intervening years from 1970s to the 2020s, particularly the last year, a lot of changes have taken place as each of us determine how to maintain our lives in a Pandemic. Those of us who did not know already learned that you do not need to be working in an office along side your colleages or your boss in order to get many jobs done. Many of the jobs that don’t require a computer are blue collar jobs that pay less, some have been at greater risk than before the Pandemic.

Lessons learned—some came hard, and some were easier than we expected.

In December 2020, Zenger and Folkman issued a report about the impact of women as leaders. They used an analysis of 360-degree assessments by people who worked with the women leaders (conducted between March and June 2020). The survey addressed how leaders performed in the crisis that was 2020. The team pulled from the assessments of over 60,000 leaders (22,603 women and 40,187 men) and compared the results. Women were rated more positively on 13 out of 19 areas that comprise overall leadership effectiveness. Men took the lead in technical/professional expertise.

Based on an analysis of 360-degree reviews during the pandemic, competencies in key areas were:

                                                                                                      Women                               Men

            Takes initiative                                                               60                                         50

            Inspires and motivates others                                   59                                         52

            Develops others                                                            58                                         49

            Builds relationships                                                       58                                         51

            Displays high integrity and honesty                         57                                         49

            Communicates powerfully & prolifically                 57                                         52

            Champions change                                                      56                                          51

            Makes decisions                                                           56                                         49

            Innovates                                                                        56                                         53

            Solves problems/analyzes issues                              56                                         53

            Drives for results                                                           55                                         48

            Values diversity                                                             55                                         45

            Establishes stretch goals                                             55                                         50

            Takes risks                                                                      52                                         51

            Source: Zenger-Folkman 2020

Each leader assessed by the group received an employee engagement score based on their direct reports’ responses to questions about how satisfied and committed they felt. The engagement scores for direct reports of female leaders were significantly higher. The overall average for both male and female leaders was the 51st percentile. Respondents put greater importance on interpersonal skills, such as “inspires and motivates,” “collaboration/teamwork,” and “relationship building.”

The survey team believed the most valuable part of the data collected during the crisis is hearing from direct reports about what they value and need from leaders now. Direct reports were looking for leaders able to pivot and learn new skills, who emphasize employee development and understand the stress, anxiety, and frustration that workers feel.

Leadership traits do not know a gender. We all have areas where we thrive and expertise we’ve struggled to acquire. But learning more about the traits that help a team work together can only be beneficial as we move forward, building our way out of the Pandemic.  Many of the traits that were found to be a distraction in the previous world of leadership, now are realized as assets that help build a team, nurturing success.  Breathe!