Spokane Journal of Business

21st century leadership requirements include the feminine

Male executives seem to want to hire and promote more women, but struggle with processes to do it

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I have navigated the challenges of hiring women into leadership roles and observed the evolution of attitudes and approaches over three decades. 

Working in the male-dominated technology space, women like me were expected to figure it out, to adapt to ‘their’ language, work habits, and communication style, no matter how dysfunctional or limited. 

Early in my career, there were fewer female leaders in the talent pool, and less value placed on their hiring.  Today’s challenges have less to do with the lack of qualified female leaders and more about the people, processes and institutions that are endeavoring to diversify.

Multiple studies demonstrate that diversity is a proven business advantage yet, our leadership ranks have not caught up. They still reflect an earlier industrial economy with command and control management style that is decades behind our current reality in which knowledge workers, technology, data and innovation are essential to stay competitive in a rapidly changing landscape. More than ever, we need a new hiring model that represents the full spectrum of leadership qualities.

Work and the workforce have changed and so have our expectations of leadership. 

We increasingly work in globally or regionally distributed teams, often at home or on the go. Always available data and collaboration tools reduce the need for meetings to exchange information and exert control.  New work rules say diversity, inclusion, collaboration, agility, sustainability, creativity, transparency, and listening are increasingly critical for success.

In most industries, the majority of hiring executives are men, and they seem to have ‘gotten the memo’ around diversity being better for business. They want to hire and elevate more women, but they struggle with how to establish language, criteria and assessment practices to do it. It can feel safer to hire someone who looks and sounds like you and comes from a similar background.  As Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris described, we can be “burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been, instead of what can be.”

With the rise of neuroscience and understanding of Emotional Intelligence (EIQ as explained by Dr Daniel Goleman in his best-selling book of same name) evidence shows that leaders strong in listening, awareness, empathy and compassion have been increasingly proven to create stronger teams, better products, services, and business outcomes. The associated traits of self awareness, self management, social awareness and relationship management, are often well developed in women.  Applied to all candidate prospects regardless of sex, adding these qualities as key measures of leadership strength, broadens and balances the criteria relative to what we might associate as masculine attributes: forceful, commanding, control oriented, dominant, decisive. 

Constructing a more inclusive hiring process: three baseline adaptations you can start today.

We need to question and throw out old assumptions, update the language we use to describe leadership, and include the values required in the 21st century.

What are the key interpersonal traits to identify and assess in leaders? Who should be involved in interviews and how should their feedback be weighed?

Job criteria, postings and feedback templates need language that is value aligned and inclusive. Take a hard look at the cultural norms that are both formally acknowledged and celebrated in practice. Are they all sports or battle metaphors? Do they value collaboration, communication, mentorship? Are feminine qualities named and rewarded as well as masculine? And are male leaders encouraged and held accountable to expressing the full spectrum of behaviors? 

Selection panels are re-designed to be diverse and include women, BIPOC and LGBTQ representation. Interviewers reflect a range of experience levels and functional expertise, not just leaders, but people who will be led by, and in peer and support functions to this new hire. The interview is less about historical resume review, and highlighting key wins, and more focused on real-time problem solving, often involving a cross-functional group. More interest is taken in how the leader accomplishes the goals, approaches driving change, inspires teams to better outcomes, and works through cross-functional conflict.

Feedback monitoring is critical. Managers learn as much about the interviewer as the interviewee by reviewing assessment input.  Enforce written feedback; it’s more auditable, and serves as a coaching tool.  Managers can look for and flag language and analysis symptomatic of people looking for someone ‘like them’ or fitting the cultural norm. Most importantly, leaders model inclusive evaluation.

There is no quick fix. It’s a process of change that happens through awareness, education, and commitment.  It takes everyone leaning in to find their role in helping to build and grow a diverse team. It takes intentional leaders who are willing to do their own research, to ask for feedback, to look in the mirror at their own assumptions, stereotypes and behaviors. 

Over time, operating with these new approaches will encourage the hiring of modern leaders—whether female, male, non-binary—who are well equipped to guide teams and companies through the unknown and choppy waters of the future while solving the critical challenges of our times. 


Nancy Hilpert, founder of Prowess Search Partners, is an executive recruiter and talent coach with experience in global technology, media, services and philanthropic organizations, and also is a Certified Mindfulness Meditation Teacher.

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