March 22, 2009 A recent survey of women leaders in information technology shows that 92% of those surveyed believe that the ability to influence stakeholders is key to their overall success, and view their influencing approach as very different from the style of their male colleagues. The study was conducted The Leader's Edge/Leaders By Design in partnership with a major professional association for CIOs.
Of the 57 respondents, many represented large corporations with over half employed by companies with revenues of over $1 billion. Most held the title of Chief Information Officer. The study, conducted on-line in the fall of 2008, sought to determine how women CIOs use the art of influencing and was a follow-up to CIO Magazine’s “State of the CIO” survey which ranked “influence” as one of the top executive leadership competencies.
“Influencing is a critical skill in today’s workplace. As organizations have become increasingly complex, more virtual, and flatter in structure, the ability to influence in a variety of ways is paramount to success,” said Nila Betof, Chief Operating Officer of The Leader’s Edge/Leaders By Design. “It is apparent from the study that women employ a more nuanced approach to the art of influencing, Women capitalize on their natural talents to get ahead and use styles which are significantly different than the men’s.”
The most frequently-cited approaches used by women to influence others were collaboration, building alliances and actively listening, all of which are considered skills and strengths most often associated with women. Men, on the other hand, are reported to “exert authority” and use the power of their position to influence others. One woman CIO said, “Men use force and power to get their points made.” Another commented that “Authority is a tricky thing for women… unless you use caution when setting a tone, you may be characterized as being overly emotional.” These contrasts reinforce earlier research by The Leader’s Edge/Leaders By Design showing that women not only have very different leadership styles than men but also a narrower band of acceptable workplace behavior.
Women were asked for advice about improving the effectiveness of influencing others. Eighty-six percent said that one of the best resources was observing the behavior of leaders who are effective and using this behavior as a guide to their own. Mentors were also mentioned as a good resource for learning, with 88% of the more effective, experienced leaders having benefitted from being mentored during their careers.
When asked for the most important lessons learned, many respondents cited the need to “understand the interests, position and motivations of those you are attempting to influence.” One woman pointed out the need to have this information well in advance by saying, “Never walk into a meeting without knowing the vote count.” Another piece of advice for women was to listen well and communicate effectively. Men and women who independently present the same material are often treated differently, one senior woman cautioned. She added, “There is still a strong tendency to have greater trust in what a man says or presents than in what a woman says or presents.”
The study showed that the majority of women respondents take advantage of skills and styles with which they are most comfortable and which have provided successful results in the past. Yet fewer than half of those polled rated themselves as “very effective” at influencing. This may indicate that women have much to gain from coaching, leadership training, mentoring and other resources. A comprehensive assessment of their individual styles and a plan to address weaknesses would broaden the skills of women, and make their management and interaction with other executives more effective.