Over the years, I’ve been inspired to write my new book, Becoming a Woman Leader, by the stories of extraordinary women leaders I’ve met and interviewed while working as a reporter for CNBC and Fortune. The 120-plus portfolio of CEOs, founders and venture capitalists – as the name suggests – is unique in the male-dominated business world. I wanted to both share their stories and draw inspiration from their strategies for success.
When I started reporting on the book, just before the pandemic hit, I had an unexpected opportunity: to be able to analyze their approach and track their progress as they navigated through the most difficult and uncertain period since World War II.
When I schedule back-to-back Zoom interviews, I also have a special advantage: Almost everyone is at home. Not only did that mean people were more willing to talk to me, but the massive disruption of stay-at-home orders and turmoil in business forced everyone to take a step back and take stock.
While many of the CEOs I interviewed were struggling to keep their companies afloat, or pivot to new lines of business, they were also thinking about bigger questions about them, and the goals of their companies.
I feel like I’m watching a masterclass in cross-departmental leadership as they work to motivate (and retain) frustrated and scared employees and figure out their next steps. Shares fell (then rose, then fell again), and CEOs grappled with everything from inventory shortages and supply chain constraints to employee retention and training every day.
Looking at the day-to-day big picture, I’ve identified three top leadership traits that seem valuable to anyone, regardless of industry or position.
The best leaders are truest to themselves
While the vast majority of CEOs are men (8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and female founders received 2% of VC funding last year), there are more than just CEOs—check out my 60+ picks Women in my books include Whitney Wolfe Herd of Bumble and Sallie Krawcheck of Ellevest — but there are many styles of successful leadership. What struck me was that these women used traits that seemed to undercut strong leadership—like introversion, empathy, or gratitude—to their advantage.
Take Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech, a Disruptor 50 company that uses microbes to turn pollution into fuel. She describes herself as an introvert who prefers to listen rather than speak, which appears to be a disadvantage in persuading factories and fuel buyers to embrace her technology.
But she explained to me how she made it a superpower: She used all this listening to figure out what her opponents in negotiations really wanted, and her empathy for their positions to create a Individually valid compromises.
If Holmgren tried to force herself to be a chatty, gregarious salesman, she might not have succeeded. But by figuring out how to use her traits and make the most of them, she turned introversion and empathy into a superpower.
Humble – rely on data, not conceit
I heard a lot from the CEOs I interviewed about how painful it can be to make tough decisions — like cutting off a favorite project or furloughing employees to make ends meet. Leaders are of course people, not machines, and it’s easy to get attached to a plan, especially one in which they’ve invested time, money, and resources.
I’ve found that CEOs stay honest by focusing on the data and working hard to collect and analyze more data – being able to make these tough decisions and not sinking into self-esteem. Clear CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker told me it was a tough decision to end her $24 million marketing plan for this year in February 2020, weeks before the global pandemic was declared.
While some hoped global travel wouldn’t come to an abrupt end, the data told her she had to act quickly – and she was right.
Find your purpose – it helps with perseverance
There’s no question that running a company — or leading anything — is difficult, let alone during a pandemic or the economic uncertainty we’re facing right now. So, in the face of all these challenges, combined with their double standards and higher barriers to fundraising as women, how did the women I interviewed persevere?
Loud answer: They’re focused on their goals, whether it’s transforming industries like retail, or creating new products in fertility and healthcare that they need and know others do too. 0
Julia Collins, founder of Planet FWD, is working to drive the adoption of regenerative agriculture; Shivani Siroya, CEO of Tala, which provides micro-lending in emerging markets; Kristin Mosley, CEO of Full Harvest, which works to reduce food waste ( Christine Moseley) told me that whenever they feel down, they focus on the importance of finding the energy to persevere.
They’re not alone: According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, women are 20 percent more likely than men to create companies with social or environmental purposes. One thing I hear repeatedly: By focusing on a company’s greater potential to help humanity, it’s inevitable that entrepreneurs can find a greater source of inspiration and determination in difficult times.
Plus, there’s plenty of evidence that having an additional purpose is valuable in attracting consumers and attracting and retaining employees — more important than ever.
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