Agility, curiosity top traits in women CXOs

Men and women are wired differently. But the spotlight on leadership models that are followed have been largely male-oriented as men account for a majority of C-suite executives.

Now in a first-of-its-kind study to understand what model of leadership women follow, ‘transformative leadership’ — which involves behavioural traits such as agility and curiosity — has emerged as the dominant one. The study by EY Global Delivery Services (GDS) and Avtar has been conducted on women leaders of EY GDS across varied geographies (India, Argentina, Poland, China, the Philippines and the UK) to understand the key influencers in their leadership models.

Of the 1,245 women leaders surveyed, 79% are from India. The research aims at identifying sustainable career models for women professionals that can be used by them to pursue leadership aspirations. The study brings a new perspective and balance to the attributes associated with leaders.

It says women leaders typically exhibit higher levels of strategic thinking, empathy, ability to influence, agility and teaming potential as against other competencies. Jaya Virwani, who leads diversity & inclusiveness and ethics office at EY GDS, said there’s limited research on women in leadership, especially from an emerging markets perspective.

“The tone has changed because more women are walking into the workforce. They are influencing policy decisions to attract more women towards a balanced workforce. At EY GDS, we’ve enabled successful careers, we’ve helped our women thrive and succeed. But there’s also a lot that these women have done to get there. We wanted to study their journey and the practices that have helped them become role models for other women to emulate,” said Virwani.

“We’re not saying that a certain leadership model will bring you to a place of success. If women practice any of these models that work for them, or exhibit the behaviour of any of these models, they will still be able to meet their career aspirations. What’s clear from the study is the higher the leadership intentionality, the faster you get to the top,” said Virwani.

The EY GDS-Avtar study of ‘Leadership models of women’ identifies five different routes that women take while asserting their leadership style (see graphic). These are 1) Warrior – the resilient leadership model, 2) Bootstrapper – the astute leadership model, 3) Powerhouse – the transformative leadership model, 4) Savant – the purposeful leadership model, and 5) Matriarch – the empathetic leadership model.

Avtar Group founder & CEO Saundarya Rajesh said, “The most critical point to note here is not that these different routes or practices of leadership exist, it is that all women who demonstrate leadership (it might be any one of the above or even a combination) do so only because they have a common ground of self-awareness, inclusivity and leadership intentionality. While self-awareness is a result of the individual’s own emotional intelligence journey, inclusivity is a result of what they experience through role models in the workplace. Leadership intentionality, which we believe is the most crucial one, emerges out of both their upbringing as a child as well as the influences they imbibe in their workplace.”

Women’s leadership does appear to have a gender impact, said Rajesh. “The socialisation of women (predominantly as care-givers, as builders of families & communities and as equitable distributors of resources) often leads to them employing these factors in their leadership model,” said Rajesh. The study reveals how there is more focus on teaming skills at mid-career stage and on problem-solving skills at the mature stage, with other top leadership competencies consistent across career stages.

Interestingly, women on career breaks — 250 among those surveyed — displayed greater leadership intentionality, perhaps fuelled by an urge to prove themselves. This study has not included men and thus there’s no like-for-like comparison. However, Rajesh said from the extensive literature review that was undertaken, there are some pre-existing models that the study compared its findings to.

“It should also be taken into consideration that there is a general difference in the daily behaviour and expectations of men and women in the workplace, which percolates into different aspects of the workplace including the leadership style. For example, women may be more likely to engage in a relational approach to work than men (Matthew, Buontempo, & Block, 2013),” said Rajesh, citing secondary research findings.

An often overlooked aspect of women leadership is that programmes and policies related to women can hold up the mirror to the organisation’s culture. “The availability and utilisation of career enablers has a very important role in the kind of leadership models that emerges. And the effectiveness of the career enablers is determined by the organisational culture. While the current research establishes the transformative leadership model as the most dominant one among women leaders, we must remember that no one model of leadership (used in the context of the research) is more important than the other. Often, women leaders demonstrate a composite of leadership competencies resulting in an amalgamation of leadership models, the net outcome of which is their leadership intentionality,” said Rajesh.