The first to study female leadership 30 years ago, Sally Helgesen wrote a ground-breaking book titled The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership. As she studied a number of America’s most successful female leaders by following them around and closely watching them, five observations stood out.
She found that women leaders:
- place a high value on relationships,
- have a bias for direct communication rather than following the chain of command,
- put themselves at the center of the people they lead,
- are comfortable with diversity, and
- are skilled at integrating their personal lives and their lives at work rather than compartmentalizing.
Back in 1990, when The Female Advantage was first published, Helgesen’s findings were not viewed as well-established attributes of successful leaders. Today, in the fast-paced, interconnected world we live in, each of her five observations are now viewed as ideal leadership traits of the best leaders, male or female.
Fast forward to 2012. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman wrote in Harvard Business Review that year about their research of more than 7,000 360-degree performance reviews that found women leaders outranked male leaders in nearly every one of 16 leadership competencies, including taking initiative and driving for results, competencies that are stereotypical male strengths.
In 2015, Gallup research found that female managers are better at engaging employees (both male and female) than male managers. Look deeper into the Gallup research and you’ll find that female leaders were rated higher in areas that required connecting with the people they led, such as giving recognition, providing helpful performance feedback, and getting people in the right role so they would learn and grow.
Another way to think of these findings is that many men are focused on achieving task excellence and results but many women have a broader focus on task excellence and relationship excellence, and that combination is producing higher employee engagement and better results.
As a guy who grew up mostly around guys and became a father of all daughters, I can tell you anecdotally that women are in fact stronger at developing relationship excellence. As a former Wall Street executive who left the Street to become an author, speaker and consultant on leadership and organizational culture, I can also tell you that in a knowledge economy, relationship excellence is especially critical to employee engagement, productivity and innovation.
Now I have a confession to make: Although I’m a recognized expert on connection and connection culture, my wife, Katie, is the more natural connector of the two of us. I’ve learned so much from her watching her in action that I’ve asked her to mentor me to become a stronger connector (which she’s doing).
Guys, I encourage you to find someone in your life who can mentor you to become a better connector. It may be a significant woman in your life.
And to women, I would say be confident in your desire to connect with people at work and pursue relationship excellence.
The best-performing organizations foster a sense of connection and have leaders who care about people. Most women, it seems, have known this was the key all along.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
More from Michael Lee Stallard
Michael Lee Stallard is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work.