I was inspired to write my new book, When Women Lead, by the challenging stories of the phenomenal female leaders I met and interviewed over the years as a reporter for CNBC and Fortune Magazine before that. The mix of 120+ CEOs, founders and VC investors are – by definition – exceptional in the male-dominated business world. I wanted to share their stories and also find useful ways in their successful strategies.
As I began reporting the book, just before the pandemic hit, I had an unexpected opportunity: the ability to analyze their approaches and follow their progress as they navigated the most difficult, uncertain times since World War II.
I also had a distinct advantage as I scheduled zoom interviews: almost everyone was at home. Not only did this mean that people were more available to talk to me, but the massive disruption of stay-at-home orders and the upheaval in business forced everyone to step back and take stock.
While many of the CEOs I interviewed were struggling to keep their companies afloat, or to pivot to new lines of business, they were also examining larger questions about their own and their company’s purpose.
As they worked to motivate (and retain) frustrated and fearful workers and figure out their next steps, I felt like I was watching a master class in leadership across sectors. Stock prices fell (and then rose and then fell again) and CEOs wrestled with day-to-day worries about everything from inventory shortages and supply chain constraints to employee retention and training.
Stepping away from the day-to-day to the big picture, I found three top leadership traits that seem valid for anyone, regardless of industry or position.
The best leaders are most authentic to themselves
Although the vast majority of CEOs are men (women make up 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs and female founders attracted 2% of VC dollars last year), not only is there a wide variety of CEO- ve — check out the 60+ women I feature in my book, including Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe Herd and Ellevest’s Sallie Krawcheck — but there’s a wide variety of successful leadership styles. I was impressed to find that these women use characteristics that would seem to detract from strong leadership—such as introversion, empathy, or gratitude—to their advantage.
Take Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of Disruptor 50 company LanzaTech, which uses a microbe to turn pollution into fuel. She is a self-proclaimed introvert who prefers to listen to talk, which seems to be a disadvantage when it comes to convincing factories and fuel buyers to embrace her technology.
But she explained to me how that made her a superpower: She used all that listening to understand what her negotiating partners really wanted, and used her empathy for their position to craft a compromise that could work for all.
Holmgren probably wouldn’t have succeeded if she tried to force herself to be a chatty, outgoing saleswoman. But by figuring out how to lean on her traits and make the most of them, she turned her introversion and sensitivity into a superpower.
Be humble – rely on data, not ego
I’ve heard a lot from the CEOs I’ve interviewed about how painful it is to make tough decisions—like cutting the cord on favorite projects or putting employees on leave to stay afloat. Leaders are definitely people, not machines, and it’s easy to get attached to a plan, especially one they’ve spent time, money, and resources on.
I found that CEOs kept themselves honest – able to make those tough decisions and not get caught up in their egos – by focusing on data and working to collect and analyze more of it. Clear CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker told me about the difficult decision to pull the plug on her $24 million marketing plan for the year in February 2020, weeks before a global pandemic was declared.
While some were holding out hope that global travel wouldn’t stop, the data told her she needed to act fast—and she was right.
Find your purpose – it helps with persistence
There’s no doubt that running a company — or running anything — is difficult, never mind during a pandemic or the economic uncertainty we’re facing right now. So how did the women I interviewed cope with all those challenges, plus the additional double standards and higher hurdles they faced in fundraising as women?
The resounding answer: they focused on their goal, whether it was changing an industry like retail, or creating new fertility and health care products that they needed and knew other people did too.0
Planet FWD founder Julia Collins is working to drive the adoption of regenerative agriculture; CEO of Tala, Shivani Siroya, whose company provides microcredit in emerging markets; Christine Moseley, CEO of Full Harvest which is working to reduce food waste – they all told me that whenever they felt discouraged they focused on the importance of their goal to find the energy to persevere.
They are not alone: women are 20% more likely than men to start companies with social or environmental goals, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. One thing I’ve heard over and over: By focusing on a company’s greatest potential to help humanity, entrepreneurs can find greater sources of inspiration and determination when the going gets tough, which it inevitably does.
Plus, there’s plenty of evidence that having an extra purpose is valuable in attracting customers, as well as attracting and retaining employees—which is more important now than ever.
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