Nurturing can be good for businesses, book says
By Michelle Archer - January 29, 2007
The corporate world is still frequently a macho universe that many women find, well, alien.
And getting ahead in that world often means adopting new behaviors and shuffling priorities.
Margaret Heffernan spent years in work atmospheres where toughness was a top-dog requirement, all-nighters were a rite of passage, firing people earned respect and work was measured in quantity, not quality.
But who really wants to work that way? And is it really all that effective? Aren't we supposed to work smarter, not harder?
In researching and writing How She Does It, a new book that explores why businesses owned by women are booming, Heffernan discovered something that made her uncomfortable: Traditionally female characteristics such as empathy and a tendency to nurture - traits she had previously regarded as obstacles - are common principles that contribute to the success of the firms she studied that were run by women.
In other words, soft skills are getting hard results. Heffernan, a five-time CEO and Fast Company contributor, was compelled to seek and examine female-run companies in light of some surprising statistics:
All this, Heffernan writes, at a time when the playing field is far from level: Female-owned firms receive less financial backing from institutions.
By studying some of the amazing firms behind the numbers, Heffernan introduces us to many inspirational women. There's Carol Latham, who foresaw the need to combine ceramics with plastic to keep computers cool as they became faster and smaller. When her employer didn't respond to her proposal for creating a polymer semiconductor, she launched Thermagon in 1992 with a $10,000 loan from her mother and later reaped the reward when Intel developed the Pentium chip and came calling.
We meet Doreen Marks, who invented a gun-cleaning kit and started a company to manufacture it when she was just 16. Twenty years later, her Otis Technology has 30 patents, 70 employees and revenue of $15 million.
Then there's Paige Arnof-Fenn of the virtual marketing firm Mavens & Moguls, which does away with typical agency overhead like "glossy offices" and "expensive addresses" to offer advertisers experienced, senior marketers that form teams by project. In its second year, Mavens & Moguls tripled revenue, then tripled revenue again in its third year.
The pros on her roster live and work wherever they want and don't have to formally answer to a corporate structure.
In analyzing these and other women and their companies, Heffernan concludes that the demands of the new economy frequently match the strengths of women. She calls the effect that more successful female-run firms is having on the business landscape the new norm.
Among some of the characteristics of this new norm are:
- Forty-eight percent of all privately held U.S. firms are owned or controlled by women, for a total of 10.6 million firms
- Their companies are growing profits faster than all firms
- Their companies are more likely than others to stay in business and are creating jobs at twice the rate of all firms
- The biggest growth areas for women's businesses are construction, transportation, communications, public utilities and agricultural services
By supplementing the hard numbers on the achievements of female entrepreneurs with fascinating descriptions on the work cultures they've created, Heffernan ably lays out a compelling case for change across the board.
After all, she concludes, wouldn't anyone prefer to toil in a place where quality and output are valued, rather than hours and face time? Where executives gain as much respect for nurturing as for toughness? Where families aren't seen as threatening performance?
How She Does It illuminates the strengths of female-run companies, and in doing so, perhaps this book will cause some light bulbs to go off over the collective heads of the corporate world.
- Be a good planner but a brilliant improviser. Success hinges on handling surprises, not dodging them
- Intuition, empathy and a sense of zeitgeist are mission-critical talents. Recognize them, reward them and hone them. People with these talents are harder to find than number crunchers
- Asking for help is a sign of strength. If you can't accept help, your business will never be smarter than you are
- Leadership is orchestration, not command. The true test of a leader may be how little they need to do
- External commitments enhance managerial excellence. All work and no play makes both Jack and Jill stupid and burned out
- To understand the market, spend time in it. Every minute you aren't at your desk, you can be picking up signals
- A successful company is built on values and a sense of purpose. People want to contribute to something bigger than themselves
- Sustainability is the true hallmark of business success. Profit matters more than revenue