April 13, 2023

Lead Like These Women

In chapter four we bust a myth. Organisations don't need to ‘fix’ the women, we need to lead like them. Based on these observations, we share powerful and actionable recommendations for organisations.

To read the introduction to our 'How Did She Get There?' study, please click here.

-    Don’t fix what isn’t broken    -


Michelle P. King points out that both men and women continue to describe the notion of leadership with attributes that have traditionally been assigned masculine, such as assertiveness and dominance.55  We are still experiencing the ‘Think Manager – Think Alpha Male’ phenomenon. But what if these are not at all the attributes that we need in order to solve the challenges we are facing today?

Evidence is emerging that shows that when women do make it to the top, despite the obstacles, they are considered on average to be more effective leaders. Mary Ann Sieghart points out that “a meta-analysis of 99 studies found that women were rated by other people as significantly more effective leaders than men, although male leaders rated themselves more highly than women did. 56

The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic were an interesting moment in time to observe. Mary Ann notes that a study conducted by Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati for the World Economic Forum compared “countries led by women with other nations that had similar demographics and economies… they found that the female-led countries locked down earlier and had significantly fewer cases and deaths than the male-led ones. The results were ‘especially highly significant’ on deaths.” Also, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who looked at death rates, put the difference down to a question of ego: women leaders were happy to put public health first, defer to scientific experts and act quickly. They were humble, they didn’t assume their country would be fine because their nation was exceptional. 57

The women we interviewed, who were leading from a place of authenticity, demonstrated leadership qualities that are precisely what organisations need in order to solve the disruptive challenges they face today.

Empathy and collaboration are essential when it comes to navigating today’s challenges. This is because the challenges we face are becoming increasingly complex and multifaceted. They can rarely be solved with a quick fix. Instead, they require us to go below the surface and listen deeply to unearth what’s really going on. This takes empathy. Once we’ve identified the problem, the solution is unlikely to come from just one leader. It takes the whole team (i.e. a collection of diverse minds from different backgrounds) to solve it and to open up the discussion wide enough for breakthrough ideas to emerge. This takes collaboration. When a solution has been created by the entire team, everyone is invested in its success.

The irony is that several of these qualities (e.g. listening deeply, empathising, collaborating) have historically not been considered leadership strengths at all by organisations. Instead, women have been encouraged to move away from these capabilities. Yet time and time again, the women we interviewed leaned on them in order to thrive. Let’s take a look at these qualities in more detail:

Empathy – going below the surface

“As women, we often bring greater empathy and can walk in someone’s shoes” - Louisa Gregory
Pamela Klyn, Senior Vice President -Corporate Relations & Sustainability at Whirlpool Corporation
Pamela Klyn, Senior Vice President -Corporate Relations & Sustainability at Whirlpool Corporation

During our conversation with Pamela Klyn, she explained “I’ve noticed that I am more empathetic than my male colleagues and care for people. People respond to it.” She goes on to say, “I can make the tough decisions, but I don’t forget we are human beings.” She thinks of her team as “people first and workforce second… I have a curiosity for what makes people tick. A genuine interest in a person builds trust.”

The ability to walk in other people’s shoes and have empathy for others was one of the strongest themes that emerged from our conversations. Georgia Gould told us that “compassion is not seen as leadership. Competence, authority, decision making, etc. are seen as the skills. My traits are thought of as weaker traits.” Yet she won the role of Leader of Camden Council precisely because she was “sitting in living rooms and talking to people.”

When Lorna Davis, Board Member at B Lab, was responsible for a large advertising campaign for a brand that was close to collapse, she learned the value of listening. “I learned how to listen to consumers… I turned the brand around and set it on a growth trajectory… there is very little I can’t solve if I listen carefully and let the information in.”

The women we interviewed never accepted the status quo. As soon as they started a new project, or a new role, they immediately sought to understand everyone around them (their colleagues, customers, partners), as well as the challenges they faced. When we first spoke to Tanisha Carino, she was in the middle of interviewing every board member for a non-profit in which she was the Vice Chair. “I don’t know them. I don’t know why they are motivated to be part of the board. I just need to understand what’s in their heads a little bit more if I’m going to be an effective vice chair and chair.”

As well as enabling these women to get to the root of people’s perspectives and the heart of a problem, empathy also allows them to resolve conflict and find a way to partner with whomever they need to. “My manager saw that I could build relationships with anyone… for most people I can find a rapport.” (Jenny Rowlands) When Maria-Pia De Caro noticed that someone was being aggressive, rather than blaming this person, she understood that it was coming from a place of suffering. She looked beyond this and tried to see things through the other person’s lens.    

The ability to listen deeply and to empathise is especially powerful today because it enables these women to go deeper and uncover what’s really going on. And once they do, they can start to address the root cause, have courageous conversations, and enable everyone to collectively work towards a solution that will drive real change.


Supriya and Uma, the two economists who conducted the study into different public health responses to the pandemic for the World Economic Forum, determined that “good communication skills and transformational leadership skills”58  led to lower death rates in women-led countries. What is transformational leadership? Mary Ann Sieghart describes it as the ability to “mentor and empower employees, encourage them to develop their full potential, engage their trust, and allow them to contribute their views – in other words, being democratic rather than autocratic leaders.”59

The women we interviewed had these skills in abundance. They had an exceptional ability to facilitate. The word 'facilitator' comes from the Latin word 'facil': to make easy. By facilitating, these women saw their roles as the enablers: enabling the group to do their best thinking together, enabling diverse opinions to co-exist, and enabling the discussion to open up wide enough so that ideas and even breakthroughs could emerge. They created a safe space to ensure that all voices were heard and valued; they enabled all opinions (even those that differed from their own) to be respected. They galvanised a team around a problem and enabled them to be at their best.

Louisa Gregory, HR Executive and Non-executive Director
Louisa Gregory, HR Executive and Non-executive Director

Louisa Gregory, HR Executive and Non-executive Director, explains that “The most important thing for me is developing people’s belief in themselves. All I am is the enabler for people to be their best self. Opening up conversations, helping people to be themselves and to say freely what they think without fear.” “I make it really clear that I believe in people.” (Jenny Rowlands) “What people want is to know that what they do matters.” (Lorna Davis)

Leanne Cutts, President and COO (International and Europe) at Saputo Inc., remembers one of her mentors “helping me understand psychological safety in a team, contracting, role modelling, holding things lightly… being inclusive.” She now understands “how to get the best out of the team I have, creating belief in the team. I galvanise people around a goal.”

During her years in public service, Jenny Rowlands, Chief Executive at Camden Council, has walked in the shoes of many people and found solutions for seemingly impossible problems. Here are a couple of examples of her recent challenges: “How do we ensure the Afghan refugees currently in hotels in our borough, thrive in our society?” And “how do we bring people back to work and help them manage the trauma of the pandemic?” She is a big thinker but she doesn’t fall into the trap of assuming she has all the answers. Instead, she brings many minds together to solve the challenges with her. For her, everything starts with a question, rather than an answer. She is interested in gathering insights and letting the solutions emerge. She enables the discussion to open wide enough for breakthrough ideas to materialise. The process is inclusive and emergent.

The women we spoke to were able to facilitate their teams effectively and this was, in part, due to their lack of ego – they didn’t need to be the star of the show. They role modelled vulnerability and were not afraid to show when they were wrong. “I have a willingness to be humble, vulnerable and to be wrong and to demonstrate this.” (Cathy Gilman) They were willing to raise others up and celebrate their gifts: “What I’m proud to admit is that the people that work for me are really good at what they do; which is exactly why I've hired them. What we have to do is to build together; it's about finding people that have got the courage, the conviction and the energy, and also finding people that can call out, speak up, and engage… or seeing the potential in individuals so that they have the ability to chase the success they desire, to empower others is so rewarding whilst giving them the opportunity to succeed. I've never held back in fear of somebody being better than me – It makes for a very happy team and a very successful business.” (Tracey Woodward)

By enabling the whole team to be at their best, these women were able to reinvent, redesign, and find sustainable solutions. And the solutions were sustainable because the entire team had created them and had a stake in them. The quality of conversation these women were able to facilitate unlocked a collective intelligence and deep alignment in their teams. Our conversations showed us that the capabilities that are needed to solve today’s challenges are those that many of these women already excel at.

We are not saying that men do not possess these strengths. We are saying that it is these strengths that the women leaned on. And unfortunately, these particular qualities are often undervalued by organisations. As we have seen in the previous chapter, several women initially tried to suppress these strengths in favour of ones that were associated with the alpha male culture. What if organisations enabled more women to reach senior positions and encouraged them to lead authentically? How much more could these organisations achieve? Why aren’t we taking the time to learn how these women are leading?

One last point – Intuition

As we close this chapter, it would be remiss of us not to share one final observation. Several women we spoke to described using their intuition when they made decisions.

In her book, Work Like A Woman, Mary Portas explores the skill of trusting your instinct: “... whether you’re running a corner shop or a global enterprise, you can plan a huge amount based on what you know as fact: your market, profit margins, staffing costs and all the rest. After that comes intuition. Or instinct. Or whatever you want to call it. Sometimes you just know a decision is right even if you can’t prove it – and the skill of trusting your instinct is often highly underrated in business.” Li Edelkoort, arguably the world’s most influential trend forecaster, has said she listens “like a slave to intuition”.60

Mary shares a story where she describes how the dynamics are very different in a meeting when women are present. “When a former head of GCHQ was interviewed about putting more women at the top of the intelligence services, he commented on the effect they have: “it’s radically different with two women on the Board rather than one,” he said.”‘... I find that the discussions are deeper, I think they are more emotionally intelligent, and, if you like, I think there is more intuition in the room.”61

Speaking about her experience in retail, Mary says, “... what I realize now was that what made me so successful at Harvey Nichols – my intuition – flew in the face of alpha culture’s devotion to logic. Because however fully paid up I was as a member of the alpha tribe, there were certain parts of me that couldn’t be filtered out. And I drew on my intuition again and again to create windows that pushed the boundaries and helped revitalize the store’s reputation.”62

Mary does point out that, although intuition goes against the grain of an alpha culture, it isn’t “a female thing: it’s a human thing. And it has served some of our most iconic male leaders well. Steve Jobs said that ‘everything else is secondary’ and Bill Gates also attests to its power.”63

Sophie Neary, Group Director UK&I at Meta
Sophie Neary, Group Director UK&I at Meta

Several of the women we interviewed demonstrated this ability to listen to and act on their intuition. When Jenny Rowlands is in a meeting, she makes a point of “saying what’s going on in the room and trusting my feelings”. Gail Rebuck remarks that “I notice things and have good instincts, but I know instincts are based on experience… I have a sense of where things need to be.” Sophie Neary comments, “you combine the power of that instinct with huge experience and it becomes very powerful.”

Vasiliki Petrou comments that “women leaders can tap into a lot of mighty sensory intelligences that are available to us, I don't know how much is available to men. But at least I can see it in women because there is a lot of intuitive energy… For example, I can feel if something is wrong in one of the companies. Once I called one of my CEOs and said, I think there is a problem there. He said, how the hell did you find out? You must feel the business, the business is not just on paper. When I look at numbers, I see the story that the numbers are telling to me, items, numbers, sets of figures… People have become way too robotic and automatic.”

She adds, “I see patterns when I look at the world… Biotech is doing this, healthcare is doing that. What are the adjacent patterns and how is all of this going to disrupt the Beauty and Wellness sector? Over the years, intuitively it was coming to me, I was always open to the kind of alternative way versus just the rational way.”

Perhaps intuition is underrated in business because it isn’t quantifiable. When explaining ‘gut feeling,’ Simon Sinek says “sometimes intangibles get ignored because we lack the ability to fully grasp or explain them, to have the patience to nurture them or to know which yardstick would accurately measure them.”64  But as more and more thought leaders attest to its importance, perhaps organisations will start to value intuition. It’s certainly something that several women we spoke to relied on when making key decisions and it is one of the reasons why many of them are thriving.

Download the full paper here

How can organisations learn from these insights and enable more women to thrive? Download the paper to explore several powerful and actionable recommendations that we put forward.

HDSGT Study October 2022

Download the complete 'How Did She Get There?' Study

55 The Fix, Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work, Michelle P. King, P225

56 The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It, Mary Ann Sieghart, 2021, P33, from “Gender and perceptions of leadership effectiveness: a meta-analysis of contextual moderators”, Samantha C Paustian-Underdahl, Lisa Slattery Walker, and David J Woehr, 2014

57 The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It, Mary Ann Sieghart, 2021, P34, from “Women leaders are better at fighting the pandemic”, Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati, 21 June 2020 and from “What the pandemic reveals about the male ego”, Nicholas Kristof, 13 June 2020, The New York Times

58 The Authority Gap: Why Women are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and what We Can Do about it, Mary Ann Sieghart, 2021, P35, from “Women leaders are better at fighting the pandemic”, Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati, 21 June 2020

59 The Authority Gap: Why Women are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and what We Can Do about it, Mary Ann Sieghart, 2021, P33, from “The Female Leadership Advantage: An Evaluation of the Evidence”, Alice H Eagly and Linda Carli

60 Work Like a Woman, Mary Portas, May 2019, P45

61 Work Like a Woman, Mary Portas, May 2019, P45

62 Work Like a Woman, Mary Portas, May 2019, P42

63 Work Like a Woman, Mary Portas, May 2019, P46

64 Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team, Simon Sinek  David Mead, and Peter Docker, September 2017, Page 25