I have been studying, practicing, and speaking about transformational leadership and feminist leadership theory for the better part of fifteen years. Over that time period, much has changed in the way we work and with the tools we use to engage the workforce. Sadly, what hasn't changed is the role, representation, and perception of women in the workforce, namely as executives and innovators. That is, until now.
This week at the SAP SuccessConnect event, human resources leaders, the very leaders responsible for people strategy, are coming together to talk about how to use technology to harness the best talent, not just a portion of the population. One of the key components relies on eradicating bias in order to create a culture of inclusion in which everyone can thrive. While this sounds like old news, the fact of the matter is that leaders have a long way to go when it comes to creating gender equitable business environments.
The leadership status quo
Admit it. When someone talks about a captain of industry or a wunderkind start-up CEO who is changing the landscape of business, the image that pops into mind probably looks like something like Matt Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs - not Sheryl Sandberg or Arianna Huffington. This month, Inc. Magazine published its annual list of top 500 Fasted Growing Businesses. Globalization Partners, a professional services company that helps American businesses expand internationally by providing local specialized human resources, was ranked number six. What got them on the top 10 was extraordinary growth (16,197%) in three years. Yet, the media hype has been focused on the fact that the leadership team is all women. "If we were an all-male founding team, no one would mention it," says Nicole Sahin, CEO and Founder of Globalization Partners.
Listening to her founding team share stories of how they established and grew their business so quickly and without the help of venture or angel or venture capital investors, it was clear that much of the media missed the point of the story: what it takes to create something from nothing, something that is a market-maker and sets a new standard for leading stakeholders to a new way of working among us. The way Globalization Partners is being led and managed will change the landscape of what leaders and employees of both genders expect from the entrepreneur experience and from corporate life.
Changing the face of leadership
The rapid pace of innovation required by global companies like Globalization Partners requires leadership styles often displayed and associated with female leaders. Of course, being a woman isn't enough. Changing the way leaders structure and run their businesses is at the core of the new face of leadership. The future of leadership styles should be less about being male or female and more focused on the traits. Through six intentional and inter-related practices, Sahin and her team have created a new leadership paradigm whereby both male and female gender traits can thrive.
- Inclusive culture drives, versus supports, the company's mission, vision, values from the get-go. Globalization Partners services over 100 customers by providing highly skilled employees in over 150 countries. On behalf of their customers, Sahin and her team have created strategic relationships with business partners who reflect the diverse populations in each of the countries in which they operate. Moving beyond diversity, Sahin is steadfast on role-modeling and enabling a culture where inclusion is expected, not just accepted. She personally builds relationships with everyone in her business from the first day of hire. She actively seeks out diverse opinions and encourages innovation that can only come from differing perspectives. The leadership team understands that simply having an open-door policy is not enough; they often act on suggestions.
- Strategic goals are as much about purpose as they are about profit. Sahin's team acknowledges the transactional nature of their business; they hire local employees for American companies who want to set up shop without having to wait long periods of time to work through red tape. They take this work very seriously and work to innovate the platform and ecosystem that is critical to scale while considering the human element. Yet, when they think about the core of their work, a greater, more meaningful calling quickly surfaces. "Through global commerce comes peace," says Sahin. The leadership team is intentional in building a global business as an opportunity for people to create meaningful relationships across cultural and geographic boundaries. "It's hard to go to war against your teammate or someone you value who works for you," says Nancy Cremins, General Counsel at the firm.
- Being brave and informed enough to take unconventional risks in order to grow a business. Female business leaders are often portrayed as risk averse. With the acknowledgement that investment decisions made early in the company's life may not scale at this growth stage, Sahin made the exceptional decision to stop accepting new clients for a few months so that she and her team could evaluate business operations. They reworked much of their operating model and structure. Given the company's growth, it's a risky decision that clearly paid off.
- Retaining top talent requires focusing on the whole person, not just the one who works in your business. In Silicon Valley, free food and foosball tables may be the glue that keeps men and women, who are able to work day-and-night in cult-like atmospheres, engaged on the cool work happening inside of the world's most innovative companies. While the work might be amazing, the approach doesn't leave much room for a full life. Sahin's workforce is 75% women, a number she wants to shift closer to 50% as they grow. Her people strategies are focused on work-life Integration. Sure, there are long days when you are building a high-growth business in a 24-hour global work environment. Yet, her model is showing that people can have fully integrated lives and realize huge success. When she talks about her staff, the focus is on the whole person, not just the employee she sees at the office. The flexible hours, generous family leave and re-entry approaches where new parents come back to work without missing opportunities for growth and advancement are just a start. When thinking about her human resource policies and practices, Sahin and her team always think about the employees' lives inside and outside of their business.
- CEO decisions are based on relational assessments versus strictly linear. While the majority of start-up founders are practically brainwashed to adopt the Lean Start-Up method, Sahin spent a year building her business by travelling the world. She acknowledges that this is not an experience that everyone can afford financially or in the amount of time they have. Like anyone, she employed the tools and resources she had and used them to create the business she knew her clients needed. Sahin learned local business approaches, listened to functional experts and local views as she formed her perspective on how to create just the right business model for success.
- Investing in the future means investing in people. I almost fell off my chair when Sahin told me that she has paid sabbatical written into human resources policies. The sabbatical includes fully paid world travel for employees and their families after five years of service. This new form of leadership understands that in order for your employees to be fully engaged, you have to do more than offer development programs that benefit the business. You need to be willing to invest in what they care about, including seeing the world with their families on the company dime. "Traveling around the world with my husband, meeting people who were so different from me, changed my life. I want my employees to be able to experience that too, with their families," says Sahin.