'We' works better than 'I' [Commentary]

The dictator style of leadership is giving way to more inclusive teamwork

March 30, 2014|By Stephanie Beran

Are men and women so different in their management styles? I am beginning to wonder.

For years, the conventional wisdom has preached that to be successful in the corporate ranks, women had to become more like men. Be hard driving. Work long hours, with lots of "face time." Show unbridled ambition. Demand what you want.

I have watched lots of men — and women — try this approach, which I think of as the top-down, military-style model. The funny thing is, I have not seen it work very often. And I work for a Wall Street firm.

Our society has evolved and diversified enough that collaboration has become the paramount value in business. We need different viewpoints. We foster distinctive approaches. We open our arms to innovation, knowing how rare and special that unique spark can be. Whatever legend may hold, it usually comes not from individuals, but teams.

Could corporate America have benefited from acting more like women and less like men?

It is often said that women are by nature more collaborative. Wall Street firms have reams of data reflecting real differences in the ways each gender makes investment choices. Women are deliberate in our decision-making, less prone to snap judgments. We are analytical and want to see substantial data. When we get it, we have a tendency to look deeper and ask others if their conclusions agree. In a corporate environment, or in classrooms, we usually do not rush to the fore and scream, "See what I found!" Women are more likely to move forward in a group (often mixing genders) and say, "Here's what we found."

Over the decades, I have long been accustomed to seeing women being much more collaborative in the workplace than men. Is it "nature" or "nurture?" I don't know, and I'm not sure it matters, because times are changing: In my recent experience, men are more likely to be collaborative, too.

The reasons are unclear. Some suggest that annual performance reviews have evolved to emphasize collaboration and that women are behind those changes. Who knows, maybe the influence of women in work groups — including those at the highest levels — has had an effect. It's possible the nurturing of women has changed corporate cultures historically shaped by men. Or maybe we've all realized that collaborating brings better results than dictating.

Let me note that our chief risk officer, to whom I report, is a man. He is also a collaborative, inclusive person, and he has set the tone for our group. I've learned much about collaboration from him. Besides the fact that he is my boss (ahem), I don't want anyone to think women are the only ones with innate collaboration skills.

Collaboration can change companies for the better. As an example, Legg Mason reorganized our U.S. sales group a few years back. We removed several layers of management and reinvested the savings in more directly client-facing professionals. This created a leaner, flatter corporate structure that has increased productivity.

We concluded these steps were necessary by "listening to learn." It sounds like consultant-speak (and it is), but it helped us understand what did and did not work for us. Management made a real effort to open up and learn from others, recognizing that no matter how much experience you have, you may not know everything yourself. To harness new ideas and craft the right solutions to adjust to rapidly changing financial markets, we had to combine experience, knowledge and judgment with flexibility — and yes, honest collaboration.

That tradition-breaking initiative was championed by an executive group that included women, chiefly our co-head of U.S. sales. Legg Mason's new CEO, Joe Sullivan, was also part of the group. Mr. Sullivan has always valued strong, smart, opinionated women — and he will continue to hear from them, of that we can be sure. Good for him, good for us and good for the company.

Business will always be about people: showing you care about employees and their clients; supporting their career development; giving them opportunities to learn and grow. Data and process can be useful in understanding the behavior of large corporations, but if it teaches us anything it's that individuals do not succeed — teams do. Innovation springs from collaboration.

And don't be surprised when the best ideas come from teams including — if not led by — women.

Stephanie Beran is managing director of Enterprise Risk Management at Legg Mason & Co., LLC. Her email is smberan12@gmail.com.

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