Helgesen, Sally

Sally Helgesen is a premier thinker about the role of work and leadership in the new economy, with a particular but not exclusive emphasis upon how it affects women. She looks at how profound changes in technology, demographics, and the economy are intersecting to create unprecedented opportunities for individuals, and how these opportunities are reshaping organizations, institutions, and society as a whole. Her pioneering studies of inclusive leadership and the increasing power of individuals in shaping their own work have influenced the hundreds of organizations where she has consulted, run workshops or given keynotes.

Her book, The Web of Inclusion: A New Architecture for Building Great Organizations, was chosen by the Wall Street Journal as one of the best books on leadership of all time. It explores how innovative organizations achieve strategic advantage and solve complex problems by taking better advantage of people on the front lines and by forming innovative partnerships. An earlier book, The Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership, has been widely hailed as "the classic work" on women's management styles, and has become the standard text on the subject in colleges and universities.

Sally Helgesen is a member of the Harvard Business School Thought Leader Network, a Fellow of the Center for the Digital Future, and a participant in the Financial Times Knowledge Leadership Dialogues. She has taught seminars at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and at Smith College, and been Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University. She has also consulted extensively for The United Nations, which used her work to create a group of "Centers of Experimentation" that administer programs in developing countries in a decentralized and inclusive way; the UN then hired her to travel to Africa and Asia to evaluate these programs. Articles about her work have been featured in Fortune, BusinessWeek, and Fast Company.

Book Cover Web of Inclusion

tompeters.com asks Sally Helgesen …

On page 37 of Web of Inclusion, you write: “Because they evolved through trial and error, webs rely upon improvisations, which is open-ended and takes place at the front lines. An emphasis upon improvisation can help organizations overcome the challenge of accommodating individual expression while also building strong allegiance among the group. Only by balancing these two often conflicting values can both creativity and cohesion flourish. But achieving this balance can be especially challenging for American organizations since there exists a strain in American life and thought that exalts the individual effort at the expense of group values.”

This seems to embody what I see as a prototypically American problem: “Yeah, but I know all the answers. Why should I wait for this whole group to figure it out?” type of thinking.

SH: Exactly. In America, we tend to be individualistic and we tend to be highly innovative. One of the characteristics of people who are very innovative is that they’re impatient. They’re visionary. They may not be able to articulate it yet, but they usually have an idea of the direction they’re going in and it may seem as if it is taking up a lot of extra time to have to explain it to people and bring them on board while working on the best solution.

That is one of the big challenges we face. We hear so much about teams and teamwork. Often when I give talks in organizations, I hear people say that they feel as if the emphasis on teamwork is somewhat exploited within their organization, that they’re being forced to become a good team player in a way that forces them to keep a lid on some of their own individuality.

It’s a problematic thing for us in the United States. The good side is that we tend to be good at improvisation; we tend to be comfortable winging it; we tend to be interested in innovations rather than following set patterns. The downside is that it can make teamwork harder.

I’m thinking of the person who’s impatient and has a vision and wants to charge ahead and says, “God, I can’t wait for everyone else to get up to speed on this.” Is there a role for someone to play the intermediary between the charging-ahead leader and the rest of the group? Does that go against what you’re talking about as a web of inclusion, where everyone has to be part of this nucleus?

SH: One of the things I found in doing the interviews that became The Web of Inclusion was that—and this is the real paradox of The Web of Inclusion—the tone for inclusion was set at the top. That was key.

What do you mean by that?

SH: For example, the case study on the Miami Herald. Dave Lawrence, who was the publisher of the Miami Herald at that time, set the tone when he said, “This organization is going to find a way to accommodate much more diversity than we have.” They were in trouble on the diversity issue because Miami, of course, is becoming ever more diverse and the Herald had a history of being seen as a bastion of Anglo power in that community.

And the way they reached a more diverse way of operating and a more diverse way of being structured was that the Herald convened a task force, but it operated as a web of inclusion because it cut across barriers, linked people at very different levels and in different functions. It operated in an extremely open way, posting the raw data and getting people’s feedback. It was a long, painful process that they went through.

I remember interviewing Doug Clifton, the managing editor at the time. He was the typical bright, brisk, somewhat impatient manager who liked to get things done and didn’t want to waste a lot of time doing them. And he said, “This process has been one of the hardest things that I have ever done. It would be much easier to say, ‘Look, let’s just do it this way.'”

He said, “Dave Lawrence told us, ‘You have to get there in an inclusive way. I’ll leave that to you to figure out.’ Dave set that tone in terms of this diversity effort.” But Doug Clifton had a realization, and I think this is the key, and understanding it is really the key to your question.

What he saw was that you can come up with great answers and terrific solutions working on your own. What you can’t do often then is to get buy-in for them. So you may come up with the most brilliant innovation or solution to a problem. But if you’ve gone about it in a way that’s very individual and not bringing people along at the time, it’s going to probably fail because you won’t be able to get the buy-in you need. So you’re going to have a great idea that often may be kind of standing out there and doesn’t get implemented.

One of the things that was so interesting when I was doing the Herald study is it was the same exact time that the healthcare task force had been convened in Washington, D.C. And the process that was used in the healthcare task force, which I believe was the reason it failed, was the precise opposite of what I saw them doing at the Herald.

That is, the idea there was let’s limit input so we can come up with the best possible solution, and then we’ll go out and sell it. But if we get too much input at the start, the process is going to take too long, be too messy, and it will never get done.

And we see what happened. We can argue whether the task force came up with the best solution or not, but I think that’s beside the point. I think the point here is that the process they used, because it was so uninclusive and because it kept out a lot of the stakeholders who had a real interest in what the solution was, meant that no matter what kind of solution they came up with, they would never be able to sell it.

I always think of that great Apple slogan in the early days, which was, “Real artists ship.”

I love that line.

SH: And that to me is really the essence of what we’re talking about. You can be a real artist, but if you can’t ship—that is, if you can’t convince people around you that this is the right idea—and you often can’t if they’ve been excluded from the development of it—then you’re going to have a problem.

So I think that’s where it lies. But it was interesting. The organizations that I studied in The Web of Inclusion did tend to operate in a highly inclusive way in terms of decision-making. But that tone was also set at the top.

It’s funny to hear the one line about not wanting too much input because I’ve actually been in a work situation looking at a problem and people said, “Let’s not get too much input here because then we’re not going to be able to do this.” It was as if too much information would mean too much work. There was this fear of sorting and organizing, I think, the input and the ideas. And then it would be way too difficult to do, so we would never do it.

SH: Exactly. And that was the objection with the healthcare task force as well. It was “if we include everybody here, we’ll never be able to get it done.” So let’s just come up with the best plan and then we’ll sell it. It may actually have been the best plan. Here we are, seven years later, and we have no healthcare reform and people are still wondering what to do about it. It’s still a problem in this country.

But I believe that it was the message of how that task force was convened and how it operated—which was almost the precise opposite of the web of inclusion—that was responsible for that initiative’s demise and for the fact that it was actually worse than a demise; it turned out to be a fiasco.

So I think that’s part of it. I’m like that, too. I’m impatient; I’m used to working alone; I like to get things done as quickly as possible. If you give in to those impulses in yourself in the name of efficiency—and that’s usually what it is—”This will just take too long. This will be agony if we have to go through all these meetings and get everybody on board.” If you do that in the name of efficiency, the chances are far less likely that you’ll be able to implement your idea because you won’t have buy-in.

And a number of the leaders in The Web of Inclusion emphasized that even though the process of doing something could take so much longer using this method, once you came to real agreement and once the idea had coherence, implementation was so much easier because everybody was really on board. No one was trying to sabotage it; no one was thinking “They overlooked the concerns of my department so why should I get on board with this?”

So that’s why I think one of the real rules, if you will, for a web of inclusion is that the real work comes up front. With the Miami Herald task force that I call a web of inclusion, a number of people talked about the fact that because it was done in a very inclusive way, the meetings went on way too long, were painful, filled with a lot of wrangling, and made people feel very impatient with the process.

The financial officer at the Herald said, “I really wanted to give up on this. It was a painful sort of effort.” He had another insight. He said, “I realized that it’s painful processes that actually change people and that easy processes don’t change people. They don’t change attitudes and they don’t change behaviors in ways that make a substantial difference in an organization.”

That’s a great statement.

SH: You’re trying to do things that are difficult, challenging, ambitious, that often reverse ways in which the organization has behaved habitually and historically. You’re trying to reverse that. You can’t do it unless you change people’s behaviors and attitudes. And that’s never going to be a quick and easy process.

In your case study about Intel, you quote Carlene Ellis, Vice President for Organization at Intel, who says, “I do think this is why the metaphors we’re starting to use now—the web, and I also like the amoeba—are all organic images. Real time forces you to organize structures that are more reflective of how life actually works. … You can’t hide information. … We’re moving toward the essence of participatory democracy.”

That was written in 1995. It’s now five years later; we’ve gone through this dot-com flare-up and settling down and we’re trying to figure out where it’s going. And you’ve got the world wide web. How much has American business taken to heart this concept of working in this way, working as a web of inclusion? Do you see it happening in this dot-com world? Or is dot-com world really structurally business as usual?

SH: In dot-com world, as in any new thing, I think there’s always a tension. I think there’s always the initial formative stage where it’s like the Wild West. And then an organization will get bigger and it will try to become more efficient and adapt some of the more standard ways of operating.

I think that two things are pushing this model: this more web-like and inclusive model. First of all, obviously, the technology is pushing it, because its architecture is more web-like and inclusive than the hierarchical architectures that enabled people to do their work in the industrial world. It is by its nature pushing power and information down to the front lines and linking people very quickly across large distances cheaply and fast, and it is creating a need for organizations, institutions, the military, education, religious orders, everything across the board to operate in a more web-like and inclusive way because it is the architecture that we all use to do our work. So I think that’s pushing it.

Another thing that’s pushing a movement towards organizing companies and institutions more along this model is a greater feeling of empowerment among individuals in terms of having the freedom, the power, and the opportunity to shape their lives and to use organizations to help them achieve their individual goals rather than to see themselves as the implementers of the organization’s roles throughout their lives.

It’s the kind of thing Tom Peters writes about, of course, the Brand You idea. That empowerment that is occurring—again, the technology plays a huge role in it because it enables so many people to go out on their own and so makes us less dependent upon large organizations than we’ve been in the past—is probably what Carlene was talking about when she talked about a participatory democracy.

To have democracy of any kind as Jefferson saw it, depends on having a population that feels it can control its own destiny. That’s why Jefferson stressed the yeoman as the ideal American citizen because he saw the yeoman as the independent citizen who, because of that independence, could participate freely in a democracy.

I’ve done a lot of consulting work in Africa and you really see how true that is. When people do not have any sense that they’re able to control their own destiny, democracy doesn’t work because they can be bribed so easily to vote for a certain person because they promise them something. You need to have that sense of independence.

There’s a growing sense among people, particularly in this country, but certainly in parts of Asia and Europe as well, that they—not some company—are the ones who are in control of their personal destiny. We’re seeing a level of empowerment that we’ve never seen since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution on any large scale. And having that situation does create the potential for a more kind of participatory democracy in organizations, which will manifest itself in smaller units working more autonomously.

But you do write, “There is, after all, a kind of comfort in having merely to follow orders—as both obedient soldiers and those who have unquestioningly followed church hierarchs have always recognized.” I’ve met these people. They drive me crazy. They’re looking for job descriptions and you say, “Well, there is no job description.” Then you know, when somebody asks for the job description, you know you’ve made a mistake, that they shouldn’t be there.

Will there continue to be this ongoing conflict? Or are people going to change? I’m guessing half the population is still happy just to go to work to pick up a weekly check.

SH: Certainly. There are many people in that situation. And one of the things you hear from people who are trying to implement these kinds of systems is that they often get resistance from people on the front lines who are more comfortable taking orders and knowing exactly what the parameters are.

At Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, they inverted their whole hierarchical structure so the administrative staff became a support system for the nurses, because the nurses were conceived of as the frontline people who interacted directly on a day-to-day basis with the patients. The biggest resistance to this new structure they put into place came from nurses and doctors.

Nurses primarily because a lot of them felt, “I don’t want to be a nurse manager. I don’t want to manage a case load. I’m here to be a nurse. I don’t want my role expanded into that of decision-maker necessarily. My training doesn’t qualify me for that.” Doctors objected because they had to learn the names of lots of different nurses instead of just the head nurse!

But objections come from people, particularly as they’ve been trained in a way to not necessarily have to make decisions. People often aren’t comfortable with that. I do think it’s changing. Certainly when you talk to any employer, they talk about how different the younger generation of workers is in terms of what they expect from work. Human resource people tell me, “The younger generation comes in and says, ‘Here are my goals for myself. Here’s what I want to do at this company. Here are the skills I want to learn at this company. This is why I’m here.'”

So I do think that the younger generation of workers, people who have grown up on the computer and understand in their bones what the potential for individual empowerment is that is implied by the development of the PC, I think that is helping to produce the kind of generation that will be increasingly appropriate for what organizations need in order to adapt.

How has this happened? Is it that they’re reading everything? It’s as if there’s an evolution going on and we’re right in the middle of it. I’m having this epiphany now of why Tom Peters keeps saying, “Isn’t this the best time to be alive?” He loves all the turmoil, of course, and all the change.

SH: It’s funny, there are these fortunate kinds of confluences that happen, and I really thought throughout the 90s I was seeing it was a female advantage. I felt like what I was seeing is that those qualities that I’d identified in The Female Advantage as the qualities of the best women leaders—the emphasis on relationships, the discomfort with hierarchy, the fact that they like to lead from the center rather than the top, the emphasis on communication, the refusal to compartmentalize their lives, their comfort with, as opposed to tolerance of, diversity—I felt like all those aspects that I saw and identified in that book in 1990 as characteristics of the best women leaders, over the last 10 years I’ve seen them become more and more mainstream and more and more what organizations in general are looking for.

So I have begun to think of that as a fortunate confluence with women coming into the workforce and bringing some of the skills and attitudes that are the very things organizations have needed to adapt to globalization and the change in the nature of the technology. And I feel that I’m seeing that also with the younger generation of workers. I feel very encouraged by that.

I always put my foot down when I hear people say, “Oh, this younger generation, they’re just in it for themselves. They have no concept of loyalty. They want to tell you what they want to do instead of being team players.” I totally disagree with that point of view. From what I see, this is exactly what organizations need now to create a more empowered environment, which is very essential, as Tom has pointed out, for innovation and for the kind of improvisatory attitudes and skills that are needed.

We’ve somehow managed to produce a generation that is very appropriate. Now people our age are the ones who produced that generation. What did we do differently? I think that to some extent we taught that generation to be in touch with what they wanted and what they felt they needed.

A lot of people have been critical of that. But I think that it may prove to be very fortunate for organizations and fortunate for us as a society that we’ll need more innovation and more entrepreneurialism as well.

It’s all due to Woodstock.

SH: Of course it is. This is the real playing out of the revolution that we who were in college in the 60s thought was happening in the 60s. It’s really happened in the 90s.

Exactly. I was thinking about this recently. Think of office clothing. In the 60s we were all walking around in torn blue jeans and the more ripped the better—it was an extreme. And yet it’s 30 years later and all of a sudden, nobody wears a tie at the office anymore.

SH: Of course.

I don’t think people really see that connection back to that time.

SH: I don’t either, and I try to stress it in every talk I give, that this really is the fulfillment of what we saw then. And we didn’t know how to affect it, and also, we had many barriers standing in our way. I think that you had to wait for the technology to come along that supported this way of operating and then the revolution could come.

But of course, part of the reason the technology came as it did was because of that way of thinking, that you had people who said, “No, we do need to develop a personal computer,” and saw it very clearly and very deliberately as an instrument of individual empowerment that would undermine, eventually, established corporate hierarchical powers. You saw that in Berkeley; you saw that in the Apple people. That’s what they were looking at.

The social revolution, the sexual revolution, led to the technology revolution?

SH: So the social revolution led to the technology revolution and then the technology revolution created an institutional and organizational milieu that required the attitudes of the social revolution in the first place.

But then on the other hand, there’s always a backlash operating as well. There is an empowered generation out there asking what they want from an organization, and yet I sometimes sense a real conservativism in this group as well.

SH: I saw a statistic about the election and it said the biggest supporters of Gore (not playing Gore up as a revolutionary of all time), but it said the over-60 crowd tend to favor Gore 51% to 34%, whereas the younger group of voters has the exact reverse. So you see a lot of that. And I think that’s the other side of it. We do see a backlash and we do see discomfort with some of the social innovations that have occurred and a desire to go back to some extent in terms of how the society is organized. So I think there’s a yearning for simpler times and being able to flop easily into a world in which you could follow orders.

But I believe that the emphasis on individuality and empowerment and finding less hierarchical ways to operate is what the dominant trend is and will be because it’s the way in which organizations and institutions will need to operate to take advantage of the technology. So I think that’s really what’s pushing the more revolutionary side and will end up being more powerful ultimately.

Just to play Devil’s advocate for a moment—there was a point in the story about Geraldine Laybourne at Nickelodeon and their alliance with Universal Studios in Florida. It seems that the people at Nickelodeon were good at the new ideas but then when it came to implementation, it actually worked better to have the very top-down hierarchical Universal follow through on certain things.

SH: Yes, absolutely. In The Web of Inclusion when I talked about that aircraft carrier where both things worked. You had a very strict hierarchical structure, but the minute they did the daily walk down to check for debris on the deck of the aircraft carrier, the hierarchy broke down 100 percent and a seaman third class could put a question to a captain or a commander because safety was the critical issue.

I don’t believe that one system would categorically replace another system. I believe that systems will become much more open and much more individual to the situation and the organization and that there will always be, to some extent, a hierarchical functioning and an efficient orientation. But I think that what’s happening is that this other thing co-exists with it so there’s this constant tension.

Now, just to break open the female versus male discussion. There are differences between men and women. Is a hierarchical system more comfortable for your average male to operate in or is that a myth? Or do you not want to answer that?

SH: I’m glad to answer it. I think that traditional hierarchical situations have traditionally been more comfortable for men because the classic hierarchical organization evolved under men. Who knows what of this goes to nature and what goes to nurture, and that’s not something I feel qualified to speculate on or particularly want to.

But in terms of how people have been socialized and raised, certainly the standard classic hierarchical structures were developed when men ruled the public arena and the public sphere. One of the things that suggests to me that it might be quite deep is if you study the history of Western religious orders, one of the things you do see is that for example, when you have abbesses, when you have nuns who formed religious orders originally, the structures that they lived under—I’m talking about in the Medieval period and the Early Renaissance—were very, very decentralized, organic, and inclusive … very web like.

And as they came more under the control of the church hierarchy, they would be affiliated, for example, with a male order. They would become in a way the female version of that male order. You had the church hierarchy strongly imposing a hierarchical structure on the women’s religious orders, which were one of the few institutions that women founded that we had in very early Western culture. But they would impose a hierarchical structure on them which resulted in them having a Mother Superior and rules of obedience that were very much reflective of how male religious orders had been put together.

So I find that historically interesting. I also find it historically interesting that archaeologists, when they have gone to uncover villages in Middle Europe, Central Europe, in the Near East, they can tell from the physical structure of the village whether it was a matriarchal society with matrilineal descent and female deities or a patrilineal society with patriarchal authority and male deities by the way it’s laid out physically.

Physically, the patriarchal villages seem to have one big structure at the center and very small structures around them. Whereas in matriarchal societies, they tend to be more all the same size.

But I would tend to say that men often grew up in different organizations, different structures that were very hierarchical and had more comfort with it. Again, I don’t think it’s an accident that as women have come into the decision-making arena and moved into every kind of organization and institution, it’s coincided with them becoming less hierarchically structured.

Again, it doesn’t mean that all women—probably every woman who tunes into this Cool Friends area has had the experience of having worked for a woman, like I have, who was anything but anti-hierarchical and was a real queen bee in terms of how she organized things. So I’m not saying that this is characteristic of all women.

One of the things I do think, though, and I think we’re seeing it again with the younger generation, is that as things change and as people adapt to organizations shaped by a different technological model, I think men and women will in a lot of the ways they operate and function—although possibly not in terms of their interests—become more alike.

But in terms of how we function in organizations, I think that we will grow more similar through time, just through the exposure to each other and through similar experiences.

One of the things that I realized when I was doing my last book, Everyday Revolutionaries, is that the personal computer is the first primary tool of work that men and women have shared in all of human history. Men and women have always used different tools of work, always.

In the agricultural era, men hunted with bow and arrow and women worked with the spade tilling the earth, to the early Industrial era when women were associated with looms and men with steam engines, and on to the late Industrial era when women were associated with the typewriter. And now we’re using the same dominant tool of work for the first time in human history. That’s going to make a difference over the years.

And I would say that it is already making a difference, especially with the younger generation—boys and girls—who’ve grown up on it.

That’s really pretty fascinating because I was thinking as you were talking about men and women becoming more alike, and I agree with you, and I thought, “What could possibly lead to that?” And it seems it had to have been so many women coming into the workplace where all of a sudden, men and women are working together and meshing the way they just naturally work.

SH: And men, as a result of more women working, having more involvement and more duties at home. So I think those both work.

But still not washing the dishes often enough.

SH: Well, the dishwasher is there for that. But particularly in terms of the concern with their children. I mean, you see that all the time now. Fathers are so much more active and more involved than they used to be. That’s a big difference. So I think that those two things working together are what really will break down those differences.

You know, our lives are more similar. If you go back and read The Organization Man, the William Whyte book from 1956, the men and the women in that book—the men in the suburbs and their wives—or as Whyte calls them in that book, “typical Americans and the wives of typical Americans,” they practically live on separate planets in terms of what their days are like, what their concerns are, the language that they use, and the tools they use. They really have very, very, very separate, segregated kinds of lives.

We don’t see that anymore, at least in this country. Again, I’m not sure that women will be eagerly changing their own tires and stuff like that. But in terms of how we work, I think that’s really getting broken down.

You’ve just finished working on a new book. When will that be published?

SH: The pub date is August, 2001. So we’ll have copies in June. I don’t have a title for the book yet. The book will be called Thriving in 24/7: Six Strategies for Taming the New World of Work. It seems that every other book I do is aimed at women and every other book I do is a more general audience book, The Web of Inclusion obviously being more of a general audience book. That’s how I see this book.

What I’m trying to do in this book—and actually, it does involve some of the ideas that I developed while working on Everyday Revolutionaries but carried into a different arena—what I’m trying to do in this book is look at all that we’ve been talking about. The workplace is changing; the opportunities are changing for people; and looking at what that means for individuals in terms of how they’ll live their lives, make decisions—personal and work related—and how they’ll structure their careers.

So what I’m trying to do is to focus on the new rules for the new economy but as they pertain to individuals, not so much organizations. It’s something that I think Tom has done very successfully, which is move from writing about issues so much as they affect organizations and focusing more upon what individuals in their own lives can do about them.

I’m looking at the stages of life having changed, and how that alters our approach, the need to integrate learning into our work throughout our lives instead of having the old industrial division of school, work, and golf dominating how people planned out their adulthoods.

I studied the kinds of changes that have been brought about as the technology has changed, as people have become less dependent upon organizations, people having more choices, more variety. How do they handle them? How do they tame that very opportunity—rich yet confusing and demanding world of work that we’re looking at?

I tried to set forth some general principles for thriving in that very different world and I did it in that way. It’s less analytical and more practical than the last two books I wrote.

Books by Sally Helgesen

The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership

The Web of Inclusion: A New Architecture for Building Great Organizations

Everyday Revolutionaries: Working Women and the Transformation of American Life