Sunday 31 May 2015

You're fired - why women leaders hold the secret to better performance

The good Lord Sugar
"You're Fired!"  Lord Sugar's now infamous catch phrase is key to the success of the Apprentice.  Part of the show's popularity is its reinforcement of our deep seated assumptions about how power is exercised in business.  That to get to the top requires a tough - even ruthless - determination to remove under performers in the relentless pursuit of commercial success.

Medieval Turkish sultans killed their brothers to prevent claims to power
I believe this popular assumption is based on a myth.   We grow up believing men are more ruthless than women and that this extends to removing people in the workplace.  But in my experience male bosses are often afraid of difficult people issues.  Instead of confronting them, they become experts in kicking the can down the road,  hoping the under performer will conveniently decide unilaterally to pursue their career on the other side of the world.  An American variant on this I have observed is to hire duplicate staff as either the boss or the subordinate to do the job of the under performer.  This doubles the cost of the problem but rarely solves it, as those tricky people issues just magnify and the original issue is clouded by an increasingly complicated reporting structure. 

It's not that men can't fire people.  A new CEO will often remove people in the first months of their term - often to secure their power base and bring in their own cohort of tried and tested acolytes.

Women on the other hand almost never fire for political gain - tending to favour starting with what they have and experimenting with trying to get the right people in the right roles.  But when all routes are exhausted and it is clear under performance is the cause of the problem, they will be comfortable and confident in moving towards exiting someone.  Why the difference between the genders?
Whatever progress we make in gender equality in the Boardroom, these choices are not really driven by opportunity or lack of it, it is something much deeper that comes from our DNA. 

Many women get stressed by a lack of structure and clarity in the workplace, and so they will consistently strive to remove ambiguous, inefficient structures.  I think this is a major difference between men and women and isn't just true in the workplace.  When my children were small, they would leave their toys scattered around the living room.  I could not relax for the evening and enjoy a meal and a glass of wine until the room was tidy.  My husband was quite untroubled by the mess, hungry after a busy day, food and a civilised conversation were the priority and he was easily able to completely ignore the chaos around us.
Mars vs Venus

When women leaders unpick performance problems in the workplace, our approach inevitably leads to shining a light onto the core issue lurking underneath the stack of complex dual reporting.   Almost always this is someone who just doesn't fit, usually due to poor people skills.  Nine times out of ten these are the same types of people and they're always tough to get rid of because they usually have some core skill that the organization really values but they're tough to work with so they are very hard to fit into teams and projects. 

Organisations desperately need women's forensic, dogged approach to problem solving. Most of us are ready to tackle issues, however awkward, with the goal of a functional happy workplace inspiring us to carry on.  Just as we like clean homes and happy children, we want contented staff who are clear about what's expected of them and are properly supported to do their very best in well-organised, clearly run groups.

Because men don't prioritise the same things, and most leaders are men, organisations don't prioritise these skills but they should.  It's yet another area where women's natural preferences really do make for better leaders.

Regrets? I had a few..
Good succession planning at all levels can avoid these issues piling up and creating a drag on the organisation.  This is not, as some people think, a time wasting exercise, rather a way of making each senior staff member truly accountable for the number two players in their teams.  I have rarely seen a senior men embrace this idea. They are usually highly resistant to hiring or even identifying a credible successor.  When I have raised this in different organisations I have frequently had the 'look what it did for Tony Blair - dead man walking' speech quoted to me.  Yup, I bet Tony looks back on his time as premier and thinks that's the only thing that went wrong...

Identifying your successor isn't easy because it is like facing your own mortality.  But as with death and taxes, anyone competent knows that they will in time need to identify a new role for themselves.  We don't like thinking about moving on from jobs we enjoy and are good at.  But encouraging people to do this is the key.  Regular conversations with your direct reports about what they want to do next and sharing your own thoughts on your next steps from time to time is healthy and creates liquidity in top jobs which is a key criteria for growth.  Rather thank just box ticking, a credible succession strategy is one of the attributes of a truly strong organisation.

1 comment:

  1. Understanding of the glass ceiling in the workplace is very important. I have read so many articles about the glass ceiling, but what I got out all of my reading is that Gender discrimination against women is not only common in North America, Europe and Australia but is a repetitive pattern globally
    For example, three out of five of the research articles questioned whether or not the "Glass ceiling" really exists for women, which prevents them from getting highly paid roles amid their work force.
    Not only did the researchers identify the promotion gap differences but were also keen on analyzing whether or not men and women were being rewarded equally in one was promoted.