Women Leaders: Empathy and Compassion

The women we interviewed for the study Reflections from Asia Pacific leaders: Strategies for career progression mostly agreed that women lead in different ways from men. None felt they had to be like men in order to lead. When describing their leadership styles, most of the women mentioned their empathy, compassion, and ability to connect with people.

 
Jasmin Harvey believes women are usually ‘more compassionate, have better listening ability and are more intuitive [to] how others are feeling; for example, through reading body language.’
 
A person-centred approach does not have to be at the expense of results, as Professor Dr Suzana Sulaiman explains. ‘I have to have empathy towards people, but at the same time I want them to produce the results. There needs to be a balance.’
 
Jennice Zhu believes that women’s empathy can be beneficial in business situations, helping them ‘break down cultural barriers, avoid frictions and provide new perspective to discussions.’ Focusing on individuals can also help women to develop staff effectively, as Rachini Rajapaksa describes.I try to give guidance rather than be dictatorial; this helps to increase people’s confidence.’
 
A participative approach to decision making was another common theme. ‘I like to have the team clued in about what’s happening no surprises, no blame culture,’ Karen O’Duil explains. Sometimes things go wrong and we just concentrate on fixing it.’ Professor Dr Suzana Sulaiman has a similar style. ‘It’s very important to have togetherness when problem solving. I get “buy in” from the team by welcoming suggestions and sharing the responsibility so that I can pass some ownership to the team, and also share successes.’
 
Garris Chen’s leadership style involves being open and sincere, and encouraging staff at all levels. ‘Don’t hide things; be very open with people. People will hear your sincerity and know there’s no hidden agenda behind what you say. And don’t be afraid to share; knowledge is abundant everywhere. People will come to you to hear your advice.’
 
Several women felt that they and other women paid more attention to detail than male leaders, were more organised and were better at multi-tasking. Jenny To advises women tocapitalise on their natural talents. ‘Use your feminine advantage,’ she says, ‘By and large,women are more attentive and better at people management.’
 
Many of the women were keen to point out that although they worked differently from many men, they didn’t view men as adversaries. Theresa Chan has this advice. ‘Focus on your strengths and what you’re good at. Men and women play different roles.’
 
What employers can do
Several of the women we spoke to believe their employers had really supported their career and helped them succeed. It’s clear that the right interventions and policies can help more women move into leadership positions.
 
Separate studies from London Business School and McKinsey identify severalways that employers can intervene and help women reach their full potential. These can be grouped into the following areas:
 
  • promoting mentor relationships and developing female networks
  • supporting work-life balance
  • rethinking recruitment
  • preparing women to be leaders, for example, by exposing them to crucial development activities.
 

Mentors and networks

Mentoring schemes can be particularly important for women. The Catalyst study of MBA graduates found that 61% of women found the lack of a mentor as a barrier to career development, compared with 31% of men.
 
The women we spoke to agreed that a formal mentoring scheme could provide invaluable support, particularly with proper training for the mentor and careful matching of mentor and mentee. As well as supporting individuals, mentoring schemes can benefit the company as a whole.
 
A German study found that mentoring of women by men is helpful, ‘not only for women but also men, as they learn through personal contact about specific problems and barriers that women experience. Furthermore, the organisation makes better use of its female employees and thus increases productivity.’
 
Employers can also provide crucial support by creating female networks. A study by Cranfield University found that many companies see such networks as important inimproving the recruitment and retention of women. It recommends that employers allowwomen time to attend meetings, and that they demonstrate senior-level support for thenetworks.
 
Top tips: A good leader
The women we interviewed shared many of the same views about the characteristics of a good leader. In summary, they believe that an effective leader, male or female, needs to:
 
  • understand the business and have a clear, strategic vision
  • communicate clearly with all levels of staff
  • be knowledgeable
  • understand and respect their team
  • have insight into what motivates people
  • inspire and engage their team
  • act as a guide and mentor
  • lead by example
  • be approachable, open and willing to listen to the advice of others
  • be able to make important decisions and take responsibility for their actions
  • accept limitations and continue to grow and learn
  • uphold high standards of ethics and integrity.
 
A report from McKinsey states that, in order to increase the proportion of female leaders,‘we need to change the modern model of leadership which, by requiring unfailing availability and total geographical mobility, is now male-oriented.’ It states that companies ‘must be innovative and willing to create flexible work environments.’
 
The majority of the women we spoke to had benefited from either formal or informal flexitime. One of the women, for example, works a nine-day fortnight, with every other Friday off. The women also felt that ‘virtual offices’, the ability to work from any location, were important in allowing them to manage their work/life balance.
 

Devika Mohotti believes companies can go even further to harness the talents of senior women for the benefit of the whole organisation. ‘The corporate world needs to look at employing part-time directors who have a super speciality in a certain area,’ she explains. ‘You might have an individual who specialises in ethics, or risk management ormanagement conflicts.’

 
How employers can support work-life balance
  • Offer flexible hours/working patterns.
  • Provide some part-time opportunities, including senior level appointments.
  • Be flexible about location,such as allowing employees to work from home.
  • Use video conferencing instead of face-to-face meetings.
  • Offer long career breaks and provide support during breaks and upon return to work.
  • Provide access to emergency childcare.
  • Give employees the option not to travel.
  • Enable employees to tailor their rewards package to include things such as childcare or extra holidays.
  • Provide facilities for new mothers to breastfeed or express milk.
 
Rethinking employers’ roles
A PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) study into female progression recommends the following actions for business leaders and HR departments:
 
  • Set performance targets for female retention and promotion.
  • Reconsider the composition of selection teams for leadership roles.
  • Encourage females to apply for leadership positions.
  • Make selection criteria and processes transparent.
  • Identify and communicate relevant career paths and stepping stones for leadership roles.
  • Complete career potential analysis for all female leaders.
  • Recognise the existence of bias in recruitment, and consider bias-awareness training.
  • Invest in leadership development and training opportunities, particularly for high-potential
    females.
 
Recruitment and preparation for leadership
According to the PwC study, the shortage of women in senior roles suggests ‘a lack of pro-active consideration of females for major assignments and a lack of gender consideration in succession planning.’ Although most employers plan to treat their staff equally, it’s all too easy for hidden biases to creep in. Often, employers need tochallenge to the status quo and actively plan to develop female staff; for example, by providing training and moving women into high-visibility roles.
 
A McKinsey report on female leaders in Europe advises companies to set recruitment targets that reflect the number of women available in that field, such as trying to match the proportion of female accountancy graduates when recruiting new accountants. It also recommends reporting the number and distribution of women in the company, and setting targets for senior female representation.
 
Your action plan for success
The following checklist is designed to help you evaluate and plan your career advancement. It brings together advice from the senior CIMA members we interviewed.
 
Plan your career
1. Determine what success means for you and where you would like to be in ten years time.
2. Set long-term and short-term career goals and position yourself for the next step on the ladder.
3. Seek career advice from people you admire in your own organisation or externally.
4. If your long-term goal can’t be achieved within your organisation, don’t be afraid to change companies.
5. Apply for interesting new opportunities, including overseas assignments, to expand your knowledge and skills.
6. Choose an organisation with a good record for personal development and a good representation of women at board level.
7. Look for a job that fills you with passion.
 
Find support
1. Identify influential people and those who can help support your career.
2. Set up a formal mentoring relationship, or set aside time to talk to supportive senior staff and role models.
3. Investigate internal and external network groups for women.
4. Find out about coaching opportunities.
 
Raise your profile
1. Keep a record of your achievements and discuss them at appraisal meetings.
2. Network widely and make yourself known among senior-level staff and board members.
3. Continually contribute and bring new ideas to the organisation.
4. Take every opportunity to participate and be seen, such as reporting back from group discussions.
5. Discuss your career plans with senior managers.
6. Get the support you need, through training or mentors, to develop confidence and assertiveness techniques.
 
Work smart
1. Develop your organisational and planning skills.
2. Play on your strengths and find a leadership style you’re comfortable with.
3. Ask for advice when you need it, and share your own advice and knowledge with others.
4. Never stop learning.Learn from your mistakes and from everybody you meet.
5. Keep your knowledge up-to-date by reading professional journals, studying for qualifications or attending training courses, both for the job you have and the one you want.
 
About the Author
Sandra Rapacioli is responsible for producing and promoting thought leadership at CIMA. She has a special interest in leadership, particularly the progression of women into senior roles, and sustainability.
 
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