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Why aren’t women viewed as visionary?

It’s an age-old story that women don’t make it to the top in business. But it’s still something of a mystery why that story continues right up into the present day. And the plot thickens with some research that we recently carried out at INSEAD. In short, we asked why so few women succeed as business leaders. Our results suggest that “the vision thing” plays a bigger role than we might think.

To explain what we mean, let’s look at the true story of a CEO we’ll call Anne Dumas. Over four years as leader of a professional services company, she achieved some very impressive results. She doubled revenues, developed a new strategy and reorganized the company’s core processes and structures. And she put her success down to one fundamental principle: Always stay close to the details. “You obviously can’t monitor everything,” she said, “but nothing should keep you from knowing in detail the processes on which your company runs.”

However, Dumas also knew that something else was expected of her. One of her biggest challenges was her management-style mismatch with the chairman. He was a broadbrush, big-picture thinker, who frequently accused her of excessive attention to detail. Dumas was adamant that she wasn’t going to follow his lead and, as she put it, favor “form over substance.”

Anne Dumas, it turns out, is anything but an isolated case. Aspiring leaders, whether men or women, have to move on from the brilliant strategic analyses and rigorous implementation plans that brought them success in the past. Instead, they must learn how to sell their ideas to all kinds of stakeholders, by telling inspiring stories about the future and painting bold strategic pictures. In short, they must leave everyday realities behind and become visionary. It’s a new game, with a new set of rules, that many would-be leaders are reluctant to learn.

The 360º study
Before going any further, we should probably stop telling stories and provide a little detail about our research. The data came from five years’ worth of 360-degree assessments collected through executive education programs at INSEAD. In total, there were evaluations of 2,816 managers from 149 countries. These executives filled out self-assessments and, as with most 360-degree exercises, invited subordinates, peers, supervisors and other people they encountered in a professional context, such as suppliers and customers, to evaluate them on a set of leadership dimensions.

All in all, 22,244 observers contributed and evaluated the program participants along 10 dimensions of leadership: emotional intelligence, empowering, energizing, envisioning, global mindset, organizational designing and aligning, outside orientation, rewarding and feedback, team building and tenacity. The questionnaires and the 10 dimensions were themselves the result of a three-year research project carried out by our colleagues at INSEAD’s Global Leadership Centre, so the result is a pretty robust instrument. Our own research focused on the rich source of data that our colleagues’ work had supplied. And we asked one very simple question: How did the leadership ratings of women (about 20 percent of the total sample) compare with those of men? What’s more, as seasoned researchers in the field, we thought we already knew the answer. All the literature about gender and leadership suggested that the women executives would be less highly rated than the men.

And so we crunched the data. To our enormous surprise, the female business executives were actually rated more highly than their male peers. We crunched the data again. But the results were exactly the same. Then we drilled down a little further and uncovered more surprises. First we looked at how women scored themselves. It turned out that their self-ratings were significantly higher than those of men on four of the 10 dimensions—and more or less the same on the other six. So much for women’s supposed modesty.

Second, we analyzed the questionnaires from the observers—bosses, peers, subordinates and business associates. Again, we expected gender bias to lower the ratings of women, particularly when scored by men. And again we were in for a shock. If there was any bias at all, it favored the women. Male observers scored females more highly than their fellow men on seven leadership dimensions, while female respondents gave women the edge on eight.

However, there was one exception. And it was a big one. While women outshone men in most of the 10 leadership dimensions, they scored much lower on “envisioning,” that is, in the precise words of the questionnaire, “Articulating a compelling vision, mission and strategy that incorporate a multicultural and diverse perspective and connect employees, shareholders, suppliers and customers on a global scale.”

If that all sounds a little abstract, let’s turn—improbably—to George H.W. Bush (that’s Bush the elder) for some elucidation. When someone suggested that he look up from the short-term goals of his campaign and start focusing on the longer run, he famously responded: “Oh, the vision thing.” Another telling example from U.S. presidential politics is the recent triumph of Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. One version of this story is that the visionary, charismatic communicator, offering a more hopeful yet sketchy future, won out over the competent executor with an impressive yet uninspiring grasp of policy detail.

Vision in politics may be very different from vision in business. But the two presidential anecdotes illustrate just what we mean by “the vision thing.” It encompasses the abilities to frame current practices as inadequate, to generate ideas for new strategies and to communicate possibilities in inspiring ways to others. Being visionary isn’t just about being charismatic. It entails painting broadstroke patterns and setting strategy accordingly. In other words, the vision thing is fundamental to being a leader. No vision, no leadership.

It’s not just us and the U.S. electorate who see vision as absolutely fundamental to leadership, either. We first published the results of our research in Harvard Business Review in January 2009. By coincidence, another article in the same issue, by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, presents a categorical assertion of the intimate relationship between vision and leadership, again based on rigorous research: “Being forward-looking-envisioning exciting possibilities and enlisting others in a shared view of the future—is the attribute that most distinguishes leaders from nonleaders.”

Who says women aren’t visionary?
The next obvious step in our research journey was to understand why women fail to impress with their vision. Are women leaders really less visionary than men? Or is it just a matter of perception? We trawled the academic literature in search of an answer, but prior studies weren’t much help. So we turned instead to the experts who were living this reality every day—the women participating in our executive education programs. They guided us towards three possible explanations.

THEORY 1: Women are visionary but in a different way
Several women who had participated in the 360-degree evaluation argued that women don’t lack vision at all, but that they do formulate their visions in a more collaborative way than men. According to this theory, women leaders first seek the input of their teams and then describe the output as a group—as opposed to individual—vision.

At INSEAD, we’ve been studying Vivienne Cox, CEO of BP Alternative Energy. She claims that her role is to be a catalyst. As one of her colleagues told us, “She thinks about how to create incentives or objectives so that the organization will naturally find its own solutions and structures. It encourages people to be thoughtful, innovative and self-regulating.”

Our more detailed research results cast some interesting light on this behavior. While women are rated much lower overall than men for their vision, one group in fact scores them slightly higher than men: their subordinates—both male and female. Why is this so interesting? Well, first, they are the group that is most likely to recognize collaborative creativity as a form of “the vision thing.” Second, they are probably the group with most direct experience of their managers’ performance. And, as any selfrespecting gender researcher will be quick to point out, it’s the absence of direct experience of an individual that brings gender bias into play.

It gets even more interesting when we turn our attention to peers. Female peers also rate their female colleagues highly for envisioning, suggesting that they too might recognize the existence of “the collaborative vision thing.” So who says women aren’t visionary? It’s the male peers (and to a lesser extent, male and female superiors), arguably those most susceptible to gender bias, who rate women so poorly for their visionary qualities.

Regardless of how we interpret our research, one thing is certain. Cox is a success. She’s recognized within BP for having woven peripheral alternative energy projects into a single mainstream strategy. Yet that’s just our point. She may be known throughout her own organization, with its enlightened attitudes towards leadership, but she’s hardly a household name. When we teach our Vivienne Cox case study to our MBA students, they profess great disappointment at her understated approach. Their attitude seems to be that you can’t be visionary unless you’re also highly visible.

THEORY 2: Women hesitate to go out on a limb
If women are reluctant to take the credit for assembling a shared vision, they can be even more reticent about going out on a limb for unproven assertions. One management consultant told us, “Men speak more confidently and boldly on an issue, with very little data to back it up. Women want to have a lot of data and feel confident that they can back up what they are saying.” And an investment banker confessed, “It’s like my whole basis for existence is taken away from me if I can’t rely on the facts.”

Perhaps this theory just comes back to the old story of women lacking confidence or being risk-averse. But turn it around, and you can create a positive scenario of a well-researched vision grounded in impeccable logic and undisputable facts. The trouble is, that means it doesn’t look like a vision at all. We somehow expect visions to be grandiose and a little bit crazy.

THEORY 3: Women don’t put much stock in vision
Our interviews with women managers uncovered one more particularly intriguing theory as to why women get low scores for envisioning: They just don’t rate “the vision thing” as important. Over and over again, we heard women vaunting their concrete, no-nonsense attitude and practical approach to everyday work problems. “I see women as more practical,” said one female pharmaceutical executive. “Although the women in my organization are very strategic, they are also often the ones who ground the organization in what is possible, what can or cannot be done from the human dimension.”

We also listened to complaints about men. While men were busy promoting themselves, so the story went, women were getting on with their work behind the scenes, in the belief that substance was a much better means of gaining credibility with key stakeholders than form.

This also seems to be the position of Hillary Clinton. In a recent New Yorker article by George Packer, she said: “A President, no matter how rhetorically inspiring, still has to show strength and effectiveness in the day-to-day handling of the job, because people are counting on that. So, yes, words are critically important, but they’re not enough. You have to act. In my own experience, sometimes it’s putting one foot in front of the other day after day.”

The only problem is that while you’re acting, you risk being the invisible woman. By the time you emerge from the shadows a man might have taken up residence as leader.

Developing 20-20 vision
Is women’s lack of respect for vision healthy scepticism? Or is it a selfdestructive form of arrogance? Either way, it’s clear to us that—regardless of their industry—women must overcome their natural distrust of “the vision thing” to reach the top. But equally, they must be prepared to promote their contribution as visionary, no matter how much it’s grounded in facts or developed through collaboration. The challenge facing women, especially in senior leadership roles, is not just to have a vision, but to express it as such.

It can be done. Margaret Thatcher once said: “If you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman.” And yet she will be remembered—for better or for worse—as one of the greatest visionary leaders in history.

Herminia Ibarra is a professor of organizational behavior and the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. Otilia Obodaru is a Ph.D. student in organizational behavior at INSEAD.


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