New work paradigm allows women’s leadership style to flourish.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has provided critical leadership lessons for governments and organisations around the world. The crisis affirmed the importance of bold, decisive decision-making in the face of unprecedented challenges, while also highlighting the importance of agile thinking and adaptability. Above all else, it has shown that leaders need compassion and altruism because everyone and everything in this world are inextricably linked.
As part of Investec’s Women Behind the Mask series, a panel of prominent local businesswomen and professionals discussed the topic of Women in Leadership, revealing the prominent role that females have, and will continue to have, to play in leadership positions within corporate South Africa and in society at large.
I believe that, despite the pandemic’s devastating health, humanitarian and economic impacts, it has served as a watershed moment for female leadership in the workplace. The pandemic allowed us to show our full selves. For the first time, we were not required to leave behind parts of ourselves when entering the workplace. Instead, working and connecting from home has put all of our roles as a mother, wife, homemaker and business professional on display. For the first time, we’ve had the opportunity to truly appreciate how much women do and how much responsibility they hold.
And this need to rise to the challenge and forge ahead in an environment of physical separation by engaging and leading via online platforms has torn down many of the barriers that constrain female leaders from acting in a manner true to their nature.
Wendy Applebaum, owner and chair of De Morgenzon Wine Estate, and a renowned philanthropist, believes that the ‘Zoom boom’ has brought the essence of female leadership and management styles to the fore. She says that women are persuasive rather than confrontational, which has proven successful in the virtual collaborative environment. “However, we’ve also lost an important element in our gentler management style because it is much harder to impart empathy and sympathy without direct interpersonal contact. Without the physical interaction, you lose that intimacy, which has made it difficult to communicate in those soft and gentle ways.”
Yet, female leaders have excelled in an environment where there is less physical interaction because they naturally fulfill community-building roles in society. Marle van der Walt, Chief Financial Officer of Investec Bank South Africa asserts that, “When you don’t see each other, you need to make sure that everyone is on the same page all the time. Women naturally take a consultative and collaborative approach in the workplace because bringing people together is a dominant female characteristic. This has been vital to keep every team member in the loop while operating in a remote working environment.”
To this point I agree, a woman’s natural leadership style aims to align views, bring people together and achieve consensus. Working in this manner with all stakeholders in your team or organisation is an extension of how women guide their families.
Bongi Kunene, CEO of the Banking Association of South Africa suggested that the key to success in this paradigm is the ability to listen in order to understand, rather than retort.
“There are instances when everybody has a different opinion and those who are talking generally want to get their point across. They’re not necessarily listening to each other to find commonality. So, it is up to me as the leader to listen, no matter how insignificant a comment might seem, to capture any points of commonality and reframe the discussion accordingly.”
Allowing this natural leadership style to flourish has also empowered women in management and leadership positions.
Sometimes, as leaders, women hide behind their professionalism, which means people don’t have access to the real “you”. This makes it hard for staff, especially other women, to connect with you and relate to the fact that we face the same challenges. And this is a vital element to help empower and uplift other women. Women in leadership roles have a responsibility to other women, which we shouldn’t take lightly. We need to invest in young women and really help them navigate their careers in a meaningful way that adds value.
In fact, van der Walt affirmed that, “Women need to support each other.” We know what our younger colleagues are going through, so we need to be there to support them, whether that’s to act as a sounding board or share our experience and advice.
Ultimately, though, we all agree that young women need to assert and apply themselves and work hard to ascend into leadership positions.
Kunene reminded us that there is no one who makes your career for you. You make it for yourself.
And once you have a seat at the table, you need to speak up for other women, especially for minority groups that don’t have a seat at the table, to open doors for other women.
“It is a really tragic and sad situation when women refuse to lead like women should,” states Applebaum. “We need women in leadership to apply their conscience and these values. Women have a special ‘gut feel’ and need to use it. When we do, we can all do well while also doing good.”
And now, without the guises we wear in the boardroom to remain politically correct, female leaders are free to tackle the crisis as their authentic self. People either get behind it or they don’t, and you work with what you’ve got because there is no other option in the crisis.”
Kunene agreed with this contextualisation, saying that, “There has been no time or capacity to pander to sensitivities during the crisis. That’s why women’s unvarnished authenticity has come to the fore.”
This means, often for the first time, women have led without the need to conform to patriarchal stereotypes or leadership styles. Within this environment, women in leadership roles have shown that you can balance a business’s financial needs with the soft aspects, such as supporting and providing comfort to people in the organisation. Everything has become intertwined during the crisis.
In this environment, balancing short-term requirements to save jobs and protect vulnerable breadwinners, with long-term planning to ensure business sustainability has become critical. And I believe that women are equipped to deliver firm leadership on all these fronts.
In the roles we hold as women in leadership, we have the ability to influence decisions so that they are purpose-driven and have maximum impact. As Advocate Thuli Madonsela said, if we commence each day with a single question: “How will I improve life in this world today?” then our actions will always be purpose-driven and impactful.
The views expressed are those of the contributors at the time of publication and do not represent the views of the company. These views do not constitute a recommendation or advice and should not be treated as such. Investec Bank Limited, reg. no. 1969/004763/06. A licensed Financial Services Provider (FSP License Number: 11750) and a registered Credit Provider (License Number: NCRCP 9).
Shenaaz Nair is the Head of People Consulting at Investec.