Santa Barbara, California - It's a great time to be a woman. Over the past few decades, the leadership torch has passed from one gender to the other. Not that men are irrelevant in business. (Far from it.) It's just that women's "feminine skills" those inherent qualities that make the fairer sex such great nurturers, connectors, and collaborators—are being recognized for the tremendous value they bring to the global economy. And according to Dr. Nancy D. O'Reilly, these skills aren't just seen at the conference table: They're on full display at play dates and PTO meetings, too.
"When I was researching my book about the secrets of successful women, I realized something amazing (but not surprising)," says O'Reilly, who in collaboration with 19 other female leaders wrote Leading Women: 20 Influential Women Share Their Secrets to Leadership, Business, and Life (Adams Media, 2015, ISBN: 978-1-440-58417-6, $16.99, www.drnancyoreilly.com). "All moms are leading women. Whether a mother works outside the home or not, nowhere are her leadership skills more apparent than when she parents her children."
Lois P. Frankel, PhD, who is one of O'Reilly's coauthors, says that you are a leader if you have ever convinced anyone to follow you. Mothers definitely fall into that category—just think of how they manage to corral their broods into a (more or less) cooperative group while handling a myriad of tasks such as negotiating client contracts, cooking dinner, and organizing the high school fundraiser!
Here are just a few leadership skills women naturally possess—and how they manifest in both business and in the business of mothering:
Mothers are flexible enough to do what works. Whether you're moving forward with a new business plan, leading a team charged with fixing a faulty process, or pitching a new idea to a client, you'll surely run into roadblocks and opposition. Women are great at navigating these situations because, instead of digging in their heels and holding fast, they stay open to other options. They're great at coming up with solutions that benefit everyone. And according to O'Reilly, many women learn this skill in the trenches of motherhood.
"Kids don't respond well to the 'command and control' type of leadership," she comments. "If a stubborn three-year-old is refusing to eat her green beans, it's almost impossible to force her. If you try, you will end up with an ugly scene, at best, or a lifelong aversion to green beans, at worst. A mom knows to say, 'I forgot to tell you, these are special Barney beans. That means if you eat them, you can watch your Barney DVD after bath time.'
"The kid gets a win because she gets to watch her Barney video, which is her favorite," O'Reilly adds. "Mom gets a win because the kid eats the green beans and she, the mom, gets 30 minutes to herself after dinner. Is this a bribe? I call it good negotiation! It has the desired effect and is good for both parties. Heck, the kid might even ask for the 'Barney beans' in the future."
Mothers are giving, nurturing, and empathetic (and yes, these are leadership skills). These "soft skills" are actually quite formidable and difficult to learn. After all, points out coauthor Birute Regine, EdD, no one ever succeeded in mastering relational intelligence during a two-hour seminar! The innate ability to nurture relationships makes women amazing leaders in the workplace. They can have a huge impact on company culture and morale (and thus productivity and growth).
"Even more than business leaders, mothers give freely of their time, energy, and love—usually without questioning it for a second," says O'Reilly. "Of course, this is only part of what it takes to raise high-functioning human beings—parents must also instill a work ethic, self-discipline, and so forth—but it's the caring and encouraging that makes these life skills 'stick.' Why? Because it makes the kids want to master the attitudes and behaviors Mom is imparting.
"Soft skills fuel performance because they speak to the acknowledgment and validation people crave, deep down," she adds. "This is true whether they're five or 55—and whether the setting is the home or the workplace."
Mothers like to talk. Yes, women occasionally get a bad rap for being chatty (which is actually a misconception in business, points out coauthor Claire Damken Brown, PhD, since research shows men talk more and hold the floor longer during meetings). However, it turns out that our talking patterns are actually a huge strength. Feminine communication contains valuable, detailed information that helps us understand the situation and make connections.
"This benefits us not only professionally, but at home, too," notes O'Reilly. "We know what's going on at school, down the street, and in the community—and we can leverage that knowledge to make sure our kids get the support, encouragement, and opportunities they need."
Mothers make meaningful connections (beyond mere networking). In business, traditional let's-exchange-business-cards networking rarely pays off in a meaningful way. Often, that's because participants go into each interaction wondering, What can this person do for me? Instead, connections that result in success happen when we ask, What can we accomplish together?
"Women know that connection and collaboration, not competition, are best for everyone," says O'Reilly. "In fact, a women-helping-women movement is rapidly changing the playing field for women in business, government, education, philanthropy, and other fields. And, of course, this movement has been helping us on the home front for millennia, as mothers reached out to other mothers to share childcare and chores and keep the family economy healthy. Reciprocity and the genuine desire to help are at the heart of these connections."
Mothers know how to facilitate collaboration. Successful collaboration is a valuable business (and life) skill, and as anyone who's ever done it knows, it involves a lot more than just putting a group of people in a room and asking them to work together. To achieve positive results, points out coauthor Birute Regine, EdD, leaders must accurately read nonverbal cues and others' emotions, use empathy, and be sensitive to fairness and turn-taking.
"All of these are feminine skills, and mothers use them every day at home as we rally the troops to keep the house clean, cook dinner together, run a family business, or have fun during family game night," O'Reilly says. "We're experts at making sure everyone does their part while feeling heard, valued, and loved. In fact, it's around the proverbial dinner table that we all learn to first speak up for ourselves and debate issues that are important to us."
Mothers are resilient. In business, female leaders are often noted for their ability to power through tough times, creatively using obstacles as teachable moments and stepping stones. These women shift their focus away from what went wrong (and even away from how they thought the outcome should look) and focus instead on how their current resources can be leveraged to create a rosier future for their organizations. (For example, if a leader's company is failing in one area, she might see that "failure" as a springboard to move in a fresh new direction.)
"Every mother knows what this is like," comments O'Reilly. "We've been through all kinds of struggles with our kids, yet we don't give up on them. We tirelessly work to make sure they have resources and opportunities, sometimes in spite of their best efforts to drive us crazy! We come to see, just by living and mothering, that 'this too will pass,' that life is a work in progress, and that the most frustrating challenges can lead to the most fruitful outcomes."
Mothers don't mind asking for help. For the most part, women are not diehard individualists. That's because they value the greater good—of their team, department, employees, or family—more than their own egos. And on an instinctive level, they understand that utilizing the resources and expertise of others is often the most efficient and effective way to get things done—at the office and at home.
"Women don't feel diminished as individuals when we enlist the aid of others—quite the opposite!" O'Reilly notes. "We understand that tapping into our 'sisterhood's' collective intelligence is something to be proud, not ashamed, of. And this is nothing new; as I've pointed out, women have been relying on each other for eons. It's easy to imagine one of our ancestors asking another, 'Can I drop the kids off at your cave while I gather dinner? How do you get them to eat all their bison?' And of course, we still do this: 'Do you know a reliable babysitter? Where's the best place to buy stick-on labels for summer camp?'"
"Even in our increasingly enlightened modern age, motherhood and career are all too often seen as two separate, and usually conflicting, arenas," O'Reilly concludes. "And while we'll probably never come up with a magic formula on how to 'have it all' (if such a thing is even possible), we can make meaningful strides in this direction by acknowledging that these two areas of our lives actually depend on many of the same skills.
"By seeing mothers as leaders whose parenting experience can translate profitably into the professional realm, all of us—moms, families, and organizations—stand to gain tremendously," she says.