When it comes to leadership, women don't do it like men

Andy Jex has noticed some differences since joining a new leadership team at TBWA\London, where he is the odd one out. But they're not the clichés often used to label female leaders.

Since joining a new leadership team, I’ve noticed some differences. 

I’m officially an alien. For the first time in my career, I’m the odd one out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m used to being the odd one – I’ve even written about it before (hello introverts). I’m just not used to being the odd one because of my gender. 

Towards the end of last year, I joined a leadership team, where as the male, I’m on my own. While this may not be unique in our industry, it’s definitely not the norm. And I’ve found that an agency run mainly by women is a very different agency to one run mainly by men. 

Maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising. A few years ago, I sat on a jury (not a proper jury – one for ads). I was the only man. Purely by accident I must add (the blokes who were supposed to be there were either too sick or too busy). The dynamic change was dramatic. No-one tried to dominate the room with their opinion. No-one shouted anyone else down. And there was a lot less pressure and influence being exerted on others to vote a certain way. 

Like everyone, I was brought up in male led agencies. Sometimes that means a great culture, sometimes that means a lad culture, sometimes that means a loud, aggressive, posturing culture.

But my new agency is the opposite. It’s led by women. And for those of you who haven’t yet been fortunate enough to work in a business run mainly by women, I thought it might be worth revealing what that’s like, and how it’s different. 

The oft-bandied clichés would say women are better listeners and have more empathy. Added to that, many presume that if female leaders are better in any way than their male counterparts, then it’s in nurturing competencies like developing, inspiring, motivating, relationship building, collaboration and teamwork. And this is true – research from leadership consultants Zenger Folkman in 2012 confirms women are strong in all these areas.

But the women leaders I work with are highly effective in other, perhaps less clichéd areas too. 

Like getting stuff done. Sara Tate [chief executive] and Anna Vogt [chief strategy officer] just get on with it. I’ve found a real fearlessness, particularly when resolving conflict or making difficult decisions. Stuff that could be a right furore is dealt with calmly, in a sociable, open manner. I just thought it was part and parcel that tough decisions meant a right royal fuss! But here, sleeves are rolled up and things get resolved. Yes, expectations and goals are set, but importantly they’re clear and understood by everyone. I think it comes down to prioritising what’s important. Sounds obvious, but so many don’t do it. 

Women are often quoted as having to "work twice as hard to be thought of as half as good". Maybe women are used to getting things done with initiative, in a world where they’ve always had "double duty" more than any man ever had. 

Whatever the reason, it really alleviates stress, especially in the wider agency. Our jobs have a lot of pressure and the three of us are no different. I’ve been in situations here that elsewhere would have caused conflict, even panic. They’ve been diffused by open talking, listening and a lack of blame and finger pointing. Stress doesn’t mean anger in women – who knew?

For a long time men have "got away" with angry behaviour – shouting and storming out of rooms. Unlike their female counterparts who, when they show signs of stress, immediately get labelled "emotional" by men. I do wonder if this is why that by the time they reach leadership level they’ve cultivated being a swan. 

Some of the agency cultures I grew up in were a bit like locker rooms – sports jock inappropriateness, gratuity and gags at others’ expenses. And I think it’s true to say men prefer competitive environments. Men often work alone in order to own a project. Women, I’ve found, prefer to collaborate, work in teams and share experience and knowledge. Aha! to the detriment of decisiveness, I hear you ask? In fact, I’ve noticed no such thing. In a job that’s big, new and challenging, I’m pleased to say the straightforward communication, no nonsense decision making has been a real delight. I think it adds a day to day transparency to work that’s refreshing. 

Creative reviews are different too. If someone, anyone, has a good idea, the reaction is very open and outwardly supportive. This makes for an inspiring atmosphere and breeds a positive culture. I’ve seen male counterparts quash potentially great ideas in sessions like this purely because of ego and bossing the room.

Back to the Zenger Folkman research. Rather conveniently, it backs up my experience. The competencies where female leaders actually outdo their male counterparts by the largest positive margin are: taking initiative, displaying integrity, honesty and driving for results. These are definitely NOT your classic nurturing competencies. These skills perfectly define a leader prepared to take on difficult challenges, who makes sure people act with integrity and who simply achieves challenging results. 

Fascinatingly, the same research states that when in junior positions we all ask for feedback. But once we reach seniority, men stop asking, assuming they’re doing fine. Women, however, don’t; they continue to ask for feedback and help. Always learning, always improving, never settling. Always conscious of what’s going on around them. That’s a role model right there. 

Perhaps this is true of all female leaders. I don’t think it can be just the two I work with. Either way, we need more leadership teams like this, made up of talented, challenging, successful female role models (and some male aliens). 

Andy Jex is the chief creative officer of TBWA\London. 

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