The Real Truth about Soft Skills

Attention to women in leadership comes in waves. This week's BusinessWeek article titled the Hard Truth about Soft Skills reports on a Hay Group study of successful women as compared with successful men and less successful women. To summarize
"The outstanding women," Fontaine notes, "used a better blend of what we think of as traditional masculine styles—being directive, authoritative, and leading by example and as well as feminine ones. They also knew when to be more nurturing, inclusive, and collaborative."
True, but I've seen too many articles like this (including BusinessWeek's own "As Leaders, Women Rule" back in 2000). And I believe they work to the detriment of women.

So, of course, I had to comment. Here's what I had to say (by the way I was the first woman to post - interesting how men dove in first).
  • Part 1: Since the 70's women's "soft skills" have been touted as the solution to the management challenges of the decade - from employee empowerment in the 70s to "transformational leadership in the 80s to the great recession of 09-10. An unintended consequence is that too many women rely on the false belief that soft skills will get them ahead. The hard truth about soft skills is that they are a necessary, but insufficient, element of the leadership success equation for both men and women. The skills that get women and men to the executive suite are those that allow them to align teams to hit key outcomes. These include the "hard skills of" business, strategic and financial acumen. Articles and research that continue to tout women's excellent interpersonal skills as the key to leadership success overstress what women already do well, and under-focus on the hard skills that women are perceived as lacking. They do little to increase the glacial rate of women's advancement.
  • Part 2: There is a second challenge suggested in this article. That is that performance and succession assessments covertly or overtly equate command & control behaviors with leadership. Women who are penalized by statements like, "she's nice, but can she be effective? suffer from the command & control = leadership bias. These assessments and the assumptions behind them have to be directly confronted in order for subtle biases against women (and men who are more collaborative) to be overcome. This requires a shift in worldview/mindset. It's been called for since the 70s. Whether today's crisis will effect the change remains a question.
What do you think?

Lead ON!
Susan Colantuono is CEO of Leading Women and author of No Ceiling, No Walls. She blogs on networking for PINK Magazine. Follow her on Twitter.
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We Did It? Part 1

In Part 2, I challenge the Economist's title "We Did It!". Here's an analysis of the lead story entitled Female Power. It addresses why there are more women in the workforce, the opportunities and challenges.

Why - this is pretty accurate and irrefutable (except for the vacuum cleaner - as far as I can see women spend as much time on housework now as my mother did in the 50s).
  1. Feminists who raised consciousness
  2. Women role models (e.g. Thatcher and Clinton)
  3. Vacuum cleaners - reducing time required for housework
  4. The pill - giving women control over reproduction
Challenges - parenthood
  1. "Many children have paid a price for the rise of the two-income household."
  2. "Childless women in corporate America earn almost as much as men. Mothers with partners earn less and single mothers much less."
  3. Millions of families still struggle with insufficient child-care facilities and a school day that bears no relationship to their working lives.
  1. Women will be the beneficiaries of the growing "war for talent"
  2. Increasing women's participation in the labour market to male levels will boost GDP by 9% in America
  3. Flexible work arrangements
  4. More women-owned companies
Lead ON!
Susan Colantuono is CEO of Leading Women and author of No Ceiling, No Walls. She blogs on networking for PINK Magazine. Follow her on Twitter.
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We Did It? Part 2

The venerable Economist recently usurped the "We can do it" message of Rosie the Riveter to imply that women have somehow "done it" because we are reported to be over 50% of the workforce. Oh, please! Contrary to its misleading cover, the "Leaders" page accurately reports:
"...women are still under-represented at the top of companies. Only 2% of the bosses of America's largest companies and 5% of their peers in Britain are women. They are also paid significantly less than men on average."
In its Shumpeter editorial entitled Womenomics, the author misses the mark in many ways:
"The first generation of successful women insisted on being judged by the same standards as men...and instead insisted on getting ahead by dint of working harder and thinking smarter."
Okay, the contradiction is absolutely clear. That generation wasn't judged by the same standards, but by harsher standards.

"The new feminism contends that women are wired differently from men...What is more, the argument runs, these supposedly womanly qualities [consensus-seeking, collaborative, group-oriented] are becoming ever more valuable in business"
This is not the new feminism, it's neuroscience finding fundamental structural differences in men's and women's brains. This is not the new feminism, it's study after study (very few conducted by women) comparing the perceptions of women and men managers.

I do agree with the editorial on one point. Resting on laurels of interpersonal skills will not get women to the top - nor have us succeed along the way. For that we also need hard-nosed business acumen.

Lead ON!
Susan Colantuono is CEO of Leading Women and author of No Ceiling, No Walls. She blogs on networking for PINK Magazine. Follow her on Twitter.
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