Helgesen, Sally (No. 3)

Sally HelgesenSally Helgesen is a renowned speaker and the author of five books, including the classic bestseller The Female Advantage, and The Web of Inclusion.

Julie Johnson, a graduate of Harvard Business School, is a pioneer in the field of executive coaching and has coached many of the most successful women in the Fortune 500.

Their new book is The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work.

Buy the book

tompeters.com asks …

Have you seen Mad Men on television?

SH: I am the biggest Mad Men fan. I am absolutely captivated by it.

What do you love about it?

SH: I worked in an advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, which was the hip advertising agency, from 1968 to 1971. It is such an accurate depiction of what life was like there.

I love Mad Men because it is a balance between the interest of work and people’s personal lives. I tend not to be as interested in shows where it’s all about their personal lives. I love the way they depict getting ideas for advertising and playing those out, and all the rivalries, the interoffice politics.

I think the depiction of Peggy is absolutely brilliant. We watch her coming into her power and recognizing her ability to make a contribution and finding her own voice, with basically no support for that. I’ve almost never seen such a great depiction of somebody operating on instinct and making it all up as they go along.

And I think that’s one of the things that we’ve watched women having to do, over the last 15 or 20 years, is to make it up as they go along. There’s no precedence for what women are trying to achieve in the workforce and the roles they’re going to play. It’s just amazing to watch that process depicted.

You see her as a very real character? This person did exist in this time and place?

SH: Definitely. I see her as a very real character. I also identify with her a lot because when I was at Doyle Dane Bernbach, I was a very young woman. It was definitely the time of the three-martini lunch. It was really hard to know what your role was there, aside from the obvious office sex object, which is what most of the young women were perceived as.

The very, very few women who had some real professional standing there were older, and they tended to be very buttoned up.

Let’s stay with the historical aspect as it pertains to your book. You can look at this historically and say, “We’re talking about Mad Men, which is set in the ’60s. And then, as we get to the ’70s, there was a larger and larger influx of women into the workplace. And here we are in 2010. It’s been 40 years, yet we’re still talking about these issues.” Maybe it wasn’t really 40 years, since for so many years, women tried to be like men because men were the dominant force in the workplace.

SH: Exactly. I think that this angle of women trying to contribute, first their skills, and then their ideas in a way that they recognized as distinctive, has probably only been going on for about 20 years. To back up a little bit, I have to say that I think, for a change of this magnitude, we have made some substantial progress in 40 years. Forty years is not such an extremely long time if we’re really thinking about how big this change is.

The arena of work has been completely male dominated, certainly on any decision-making level, since the start of the Industrial Era (agriculture is different). Men have been dominant in shaping any kind of institution for several hundred years. So this is a huge, huge change. To expect it to be completed in 20, 30, 40, 50 years, even, I think is unrealistic.

As you said, women started coming into the workforce and began to achieve positions of some influence and authority, starting around 1970. You have this 30-year phase of women beginning to position themselves more for decision-making roles in organizations. But through that entire time, even though women’s skills were becoming more recognized as distinctive, that didn’t translate into strategic or visionary power in organizations. The idea was that the vision, purpose, and means of operation—all the big tier stuff—in organizations was pretty much going to stay the same. Women were going to be integrated into it.

Then, after 1990, it was recognized within organizations that women bring specific skills around relationships, negotiation, and communication that are valuable. But structurally, it’s still going to look the same.

Even though women’s skills are increasingly recognized and valued, organizations have still not done the perceptual piece at all and figured out how to benefit from having a more balanced vision that incorporates how both men and women notice information, analyze information, and value the experience of work. My intuition tells me that we’re at the beginning of a shift there, which will probably only be apparent 20 years from now.

At the end of your book, you suggest that our work system is not complete. It’s a fractured whole at this time because we are not yet completely valuing and using the inherent strengths of half of the participants in the workplace, namely women.

SH: Women are increasingly valuing what they notice, and becoming determined that it be recognized that their organizations could be improved if more of their own insights were incorporated into it. There is a push coming from women, particularly women who have quite a bit of influence and power and want to contribute.

I also think—and this has been my argument for the last 20 years—that the shift in the nature of the technology is supporting very different approaches to organizations that are much more open and networked. I think that the architecture of the infrastructures of work often supports these kinds of capabilities. And that’s changing because it’s changing people. We’re tool-using animals. So the fact that we’re, on one hand, using these tools that have a much more networked, non-hierarchical shape is changing us.

But we’re also using the same tools. This is really the first time in human history men and women—adults and children—are using the same tools. That really makes our lives and our skills much more similar. The technology is pushing us.

I also think that the financial crisis that we went through, not just in terms of its immediate causes, but in the way that it is representative of a certain breakdown and/or evolution in how we’ve done enterprise, and the way in which enterprise has begun to distribute wealth quite unevenly, I think that that’s also something that is pushing it. Because this is very apparent when you talk to women who are in senior leadership positions.

During the financial crisis, you kept hearing from women who were very well placed: “We could have told these guys this wasn’t going to work. But there was this mania to believe that numbers were absolutely transparent. Well, this is what the numbers show. This is going to work. They add up. We’ll do a PowerPoint chart and show why subprime mortgages are spreading risk, etc.” A certain level of perception and a different way, perhaps, of analyzing and noticing information was really needed there. At most institutions we didn’t get it.

You point out, though, that some women were standing up and saying, “Hey, the emperor has no clothes here. These numbers don’t really add up. This isn’t working.” And yet, they were always, in effect, shouted down.

SH: That happened. As we point out in the book, there was some real attrition of high-profile senior women at some of the investment banks that went into crisis. As Michael Lewis also pointed out, the one field where there is an astonishing absence of women is in the hedge fund industry.

Of course there were many males in those organizations and those industries who were skeptical or didn’t go along with it. We’re not saying it’s a uniquely female capability at all. It’s just that it is evidenced that how we’re doing things in this extremely analytical, quantitatively-based environment—”this is what the numbers show; therefore we have to do it”—is being questioned.

Right. The other aspect of that is the risk. Men and women clearly deal with risk in entirely different ways.

SH: Yes. There is a Cambridge study, that shows testosterone as being directly tied to tolerance for risk. There have also been studies that show that women investors are more averse to risk. The kind of late-stage capitalism we’ve been practicing has exalted risk, and the whole idea of creative destruction is an exaltation of risk.

But is that really working well? Is it sustainable?

That’s a good point.

SH: At the United Nations now, all the language is around sustainable human development and the sustainability of our enterprises. That’s one of the things that we’ve been moving away from. It’s almost as if risk and sustainability are, to some degree, at odds. If you move into a highly risk-tolerant environment, you’re going to have fewer sustainable kinds of enterprises.

That’s of interest to me, partly because I had done some of the foundational research on women NGOs, non-government organizations, for UNIFEM in the early ’90s. One of the things that they showed in their research was that women-founded and women-run non-profit organizations in developing countries tended to create much more sustainable solutions for problems of development than the male-run.

We recently spoke with Maddy Dychtwald about how women’s financial influence is growing rapidly and how they will spend their money in fundamentally different ways than men have traditionally. She notes that in developing countries women pour their money back into their communities at a much higher rate than men do.

Thinking about how differently men and women operate in the world, I begin to wonder, is this just not working for women? The fact is that women are starting their own businesses at four times the rate that men are. You have that line in your book, “Women finally just throw their hands up and say, ‘It just isn’t worth it.'”

SH: Yes.

This corporate structure, this hierarchical structure, is just not suited to women. It’s clearly not great for many of us. Women don’t like to be at the top. As you say in the book, they collect people around them. Their style is much more consensus-forming, not command-and-control.

They seem to be struggling in this environment. But they’re starting businesses, in the third world and in the first and second worlds, too. They don’t necessarily start big businesses. They don’t grow big. Maddy Dychtwald writes about how when guys go to venture capitalists, they add zeroes to the amount of money they think they’ll bring in because they’re exaggerators. Women don’t add zeroes because they want to make sure they can actually—

SH: They want to repay.

Women end up not getting money because they don’t exaggerate enough.

SH: I think that’s true. But I think there’s also something else with the V.C. thing. I’ve talked about this with Margaret Heffernan because she has had that experience. She wrote that wonderful book, How She Does It [republished as Women On Top], about women who start their own businesses. She doesn’t quite agree with me on this, but I think that one of the reasons that women start their own businesses, often, is because they want more control over their lives.

There is a real issue of being able to control their lives in a way that’s comfortable for them. Well, the worst way to try to control your life is to go out and borrow millions of dollars for your company, because you’re going to lose control.

Good point. If you’re trying to get control of your life, you’re probably not going to over-extend yourself financially.

SH: Right. Sustainability is an important aspect of it. Those guys that go to venture capitalists and take on a lot of leverage, their motivation is, “I’m going to start this sucker. I’m going to grow the hell out of it. And in five years, I’m going to sell it and cash out.”

Women rarely start businesses with the intention of cashing out. Their point of view is, why would I start this business and then cash out? I’m starting it because this is how I want to work.

They’re doing something that’s important and valuable to them, whereas men, as you say, often just want to make a boatload of money. Or move on to something else.

SH: Exactly. It’s also about scoring a win. “We grew faster than this other guy.” There is a competitive overlay to it. Men use sport metaphors so much in business. One of the things we’ve seen with Title 9 over the last 40 years is that women come into organizations with a much more athletic orientation than they did in the past, or more athletic experience. But they’re still not mentally using the sports metaphor as a metaphor for business. They don’t think in terms of, “We’re going to win big. We’re going to crush them on this one.”

It seems to me what women take from that, particularly in team sports, is the teamwork or the collaboration. And the guys see it, as you write in your book, as “the means to an end.” For guys, the teamwork is there. But that’s secondary to crushing or killing the competition.

SH: Exactly. That brings us to one of the most important points in The Female Vision. It’s one that I explored, to some degree, in The Female Advantage. I had some very interesting conversations with Henry Mintzberg in the intervening years about this, because this was a revelation to him.

Women tend to value the work they’re doing or the enterprises that they’re a part of much more because of the daily experience they provide than the abstract measures around size and speed of growth and all that. There is much more focus on the intrinsic satisfaction and an interpretation of satisfaction, as in, “I’m enjoying my days,” “I love doing this.”

Overall, that seems to be much more important to women; whereas in his book The Nature of Managerial Work [published in 1973], Mintzberg’s criticism of the male executives he studied was that they never even noticed the quality of their life. It wasn’t important. They perceived that they were enjoying their lives if they were receiving “x” amount of financial remuneration and if they were at a specific point in the pecking order.

Now, here is the point that I think is important. I think that’s changing for men and women, both. Every study that I see, such as Jeanne Meister’s 2020 Workplace, talks about how the post baby boomer generations find a greater desire for intrinsic, positive experience.

It seems that this focus on the analytics of success has been characteristic of the industrial and late industrial era. Those kinds of extrinsic motivators are probably not going to be as important to the next generation of men, broadly. I think what we’re seeing, to some extent, is that women are an early warning signal on changes like that. There will also always be both men and women who have those values.

Let’s talk about multitasking. Not that long ago, people saw multitasking as a valuable female trait. In your book, you’re saying, “No. Stop it.” Why is that?

SH: I do think it has been, to some extent, a valuable female trait. But I think that the nature of the technologies we use, their portability, their power, their speed, their diffusion, their ubiquity, and their addictive nature has begun to turn that from an advantage into a disadvantage.

What seems clear to me, and to my coauthor Julie, who is a coach, is that number one, multitasking has an addictive quality. Number two, there is an inherent danger, physically, from accidents due to the distractions it causes. Number three, it tends to undermine the quality of work people do because of the level of distraction.

Number four is, to me, the most important problem with it. Given the nature of the technology and the fact that you can always be doing five things at once, in order to navigate there with real power and influence and creativity, what we need more of than we probably have ever needed, is the ability to be mindful.

It is definitely impossible to be mindful when you’re doing two things. It’s impossible to be present.


SH: It has put a lot of people on a course towards burnout. I always refuse to do two things at once and that’s been an advantage for me. It’s partly just my psychological makeup. I can’t even tune the radio when I’m driving. I have to just do one thing at a time.

It’s also been a source of strength. To the extent that I’ve been able to be original and creative and offer powerful solutions that seem to have a real effect on ordinary people’s lives is because I’ve been able to focus very powerfully. I could never have done that if I habitually did multiple things.

From my personal experience, single-mindedness is a source of power, of influence, and of creativity. Wearing your ability to multitask as a kind of badge of honor is a mistake that women often make.

Let’s talk about ways to implement the ideas in The Female Vision. How can women help themselves in the workplace as it currently exists, to get their ideas and their values into the water system?

SH: Julie and I recommend four distinct steps for women. We also have steps for organizations, and make some recommendations for men who recognize the validity and the potential power of having a more balanced vision in organizations. In terms of the steps women can take, the first thing is to articulate your vision. Be very clear, and find a way to become known for that.

That speaks to Tom [Peters]’s ideas about personal branding, which I think is one of the most powerful ideas that’s been put forward in the last 20 years. That’s one of the reasons it’s been so resonant. It’s very, very rich, but also very simple. That ability to articulate what your vision is, and to be able to express it in an elevator pitch or expand on it in a one-hour interview, that’s what’s really important.

The next step is to be able to frame your vision in the language of benefit. Show how it adds value to the organization, and do it objectively.

The third step is to proactively enlist allies who can help you talk about why your vision can be valuable for the organization. Mentoring can be very powerful. We’re seeing that women need much more mentoring, and they need to benefit from that in a way that men have informally. Part of the reason mentorship hasn’t been as successful as it could have been is that it’s often run in an almost bureaucratic way that takes some of the human spontaneity out of it. Let’s face it. Powerful mentorships are based on personal chemistry.

You mentioned that this search for allies can be slightly uncomfortable for women. Allies aren’t necessarily friends. They’re there to help you, not be your day-to-day friend. This isn’t natural to a woman’s way of developing relationships. Is that accurate?

SH: That is accurate. Many women are more comfortable building relationships than they are leveraging relationships. When you seek out allies, that’s about leveraging a relationship. It’s not somebody that you necessarily want to be best friends with.

This question of leverage is important. Women are often inhibited from deliberately seeking allies in a strategic way, and leveraging their relationships. They don’t want it to appear as if they’re using people.


SH: Forming an alliance is about creating a very strong—to use a cliché—win-win situation. “This is good for you; this is good for me.” That’s what a good alliance is.

It’s often been hard for women to frame how someone who’s very senior to them could gain a lot of benefit through that alliance. It can be undermined on two levels, in terms of the woman not wanting to appear to be using someone. But it’s also the woman lacking the confidence to think, “So-and-so’s lucky to have me as an ally on this. This is good for him or her, as well as good for me. I really have something of value to offer them.” That’s a thought that does not necessarily spring to mind for women.

An example. I was doing this program at Sun Microsystems some years ago. There was a young woman engineer. Her boss told her in a performance review that he didn’t think she was connected enough within the organization. Which astonished her because she said, “Boy, there are people in and out of my office all the time, calling me. I have always considered myself a go-to person here. Well, how would he know? I never told him. He doesn’t sit out in front of my office and see people going in and out.”

So she worked up the courage to start telling him, on a regular basis, about all the people she connected with. She felt very inhibited about doing that, because she thought, “Oh, he’ll think I’m wasting my time, or tooting my own horn.” In fact, she said, “It was information he considered to be valuable.” Because it indicated to him that his department was connecting with people. He wanted that information. She had not perceived that he would see her efforts as valuable. That’s where her inhibition lay.

To create strong alliances, women are going to need to find ways around both those inhibitions.

It seems then that to get women-centric values dispersed throughout an organization, they have to go against their nature in order to do that.

SH: I don’t even know if it’s against their nature. I think it’s that they need to expand their vision. They need to expand their vision beyond a person who’s a friend, and a person who’s a work alliance, to see a greater overlap there. They also need to expand their vision in terms of what they have to offer. It’s a matter of, “I can be a resource to this person, as well as they can be a resource to me. I have something concrete to offer.”

It’s moving beyond this dichotomy between friend or business relationship, and tending to see those as more interrelated. It is often outside a comfort zone. But I’m not sure it’s going against an essential nature.

Okay. I stand corrected.

SH: One of the things that we’re doing in this book is we’re not just arguing on behalf of women here. We’re saying to women, “If you want to make your organization a place where your vision is valued, you’re going to have to step up to the plate in terms of doing certain things that may be outside your comfort zone. And men need to do things that are outside their comfort zone as well, in order to make some of these changes.” I think we’re in for another pretty interesting 20 years.

Excellent. Thank you, Sally.

SH: Thank you.

Email: sally (at) – sallyhelgesen.com

Twitter: twitter.com/sallyhelgesen

Website: sallyhelgesen.com

Blog: Sally’s Blog