Last week I proposed that Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign for women to Lean In to their work was wrong-headed. It is. It is the opposite of what businesses needs to save themselves from the innovator’s dilemma. Today, a vast number of businesses are in slow death spirals. Many companies have big brand names, money in the bank, and absolutely no clue or plan on how to grow, innovate, or matter. Harvard’s Clayton Christensen became famous writing about the “Innovator’s Dilemma,” which is the obvious fact that many companies achieve huge and rapid success on one breakthrough product and then descend into years of dullness, scraping for tiny percentages of market share as competitors commoditize their original innovation. This creative crash-dive sucks the zest out of culture, chases off talent, and makes grinding stress the daily experience for employees. Companies like Hewlett-Packard (HP), Microsoft, and Yahoo come to mind.
I have had a front row seat at many of these dinosaur organizations and the pattern is always the same. Success makes most leaders risk averse. Resource allocation becomes political. Bureaucracy stifles innovation. Meetings choke the culture. Soon the MBAs take over with 100 slide presentations and microscopic spreadsheets. The final spin into the ground is negative innovation. Yes, negative innovation. These are dumb ideas designed to extract money from customers for things they find obnoxious but don’t have much choice to avoid. Airline bag fees are a great current example. Hospital overcharges are another. Pricy software updates are, too. These types of business models are the result of putting leaders in charge who are overly analytical and hyper-competitive. They have trained their brains to think of customers as wallets rather than people. Meanwhile, the ideas for game-changing value that consumers reward is routinely ignored because the “right” brains are not in the room when decisions are made.
Increasingly those brains are found in the heads of women. Here’s why. A research colleague of mine has spent 25 years profiling more than a quarter of a million business leaders. One of his measures is identifying the prime motive of individuals. Your prime motive focuses your attention on certain data, experiences, and values. It forms your thinking pattern as to how you see opportunities and solve problems. Prime motives fall into three categories: winning, achievement, and helping others. The distribution of these prime motives across the general population is about equal. One third of us are primarily driven to win by beating the competition. Another third are motivated to achieve distinguishing goals. The final third invests most of their energy in figuring how to improve, enhance, and enrich the lives of others. Of course, each of the three prime motives are found in both genres. Yet, many more women’s prime motive is oriented toward helping others, which seems to be a product of high emotional empathy. Remember, emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman tells us that analytical (cognitive manipulative) empathy runs higher in males and feeling-emotional empathy runs higher in females.
When organizations are surveyed using this prime motive instrument what we see is that at higher levels of big organizations highly competitive people and high goal achievement people dominate. At the C-level there is often not one high empathy leader. This doesn’t mean high empathy people are poor leaders. It means our businesses and institutions tend to over value competitive goal-seeking missile types. But that is not what produces products or services that customers want. Instead it creates profitable businesses with exhausted, disengaged employees with tired products and money sitting in corporate treasuries that leaders don’t have a clue on how to invest because they are so risk averse and unable to meaningfully innovate.
In my three decades of experience, the obstacles women face in advancing in leadership are real. They are not made up excuses of whiny women who are afraid to speak up or work hard. The obstacles are far more systemic. Organizations are primarily hierarchal which rewards competitive, self-serving behaviors. Marketable innovations, which are bright ideas made practical are best developed through stake holder collaboration and fearless trial and error. Collaboration and learning are not in the wheelhouse of most corporate, male-dominated leaders or their corporate cultures. The result is that true customer empathy is marginalized, good ideas die, and women are left on sidelines.
That’s why in my view the quickest way to the top for women is not to change the current system, but rather start their own. I call it Smart Capitalism. It’s value-adding, sustainable, human centered, and kick-ass.
My advice to women is not to “Lean In” but to “Start Out.” Create a new economy based on your strengths. Go ahead, ladies. Make your difference. We’ll all be better off.