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Women as CEOs: The Problems and the Promise

An interview with IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, conducted earlier this month by Walter Isaacson for Amanpour & Co. on PBS, is worth watching. Ginni is one of the most successful CEOs in the United States. One of the questions that jumped out at me had to do with why the number of female CEOs has been declining.

I’ve followed several female CEOs over the years. Most of the ones I’ve followed have failed, largely because they were both unqualified for the job and their boards didn’t back them up. In several cases, the board and the CEO seemed to be in conflict, or the board simply didn’t do anything.

Those failures have created the impression that female CEOs are a bad bet. However, I believe the real problem is that boards haven’t been doing their jobs — particularly with female CEOs. You see, I think women make better CEOs than men, but only if they are trained and supported as well, and often that just isn’t the case.

I’ll explain and then close with my product of the week: the Jaguar iPace, which I finally got to test drive!

The Psychopathic CEO

I think there is an endemic CEO problem, and it isn’t simple. One aspect of it is that we tend to favor psychopaths as CEOs, which I don’t think does anyone any good. A lot of them — Intel’s latest CEO was a case in point, tend to go down in flames for abuse of power. A lack of empathy in a leader, whether male or female, is not a good thing. Rather than seeming to favor this type of personality defect, I think we should be working aggressively to breed this defect out of the race.

Yet we don’t even seem to test for it when selecting top executives, which means a lot of folks who float to the top, male or female, don’t have much in the way of empathy. That lack of empathy has resulted in some truly unfortunate decisions.

I believe both former HP CEOs Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman demonstrated tendencies in line with this problem. Fiorina announced what then were the biggest layoffs in HP’s history, and during the same period enhanced HP’s fleet of limousines (Maybach) and its private jets, both of which were used almost exclusively by Fiorina. The result was that at the end, no one had her back, and the company effectively celebrated her getting fired.

Whitman’s behavior became most clear when she ran for governor of California in 2010. When she found that her housekeeper had entered the country illegally, she fired her — and then blamed her opponent for taking that action. The housekeeper was a woman who had been with her for years, and she tossed her out with no visible remorse (and lost the Hispanic vote and the election in the process).

I think what makes this particularly problematic for women is that we expect women to be more empathetic then men, and yet because we seem to favor a lack of empathy, we tend to weed out the very behavior that will be needed at the top. That in turn tends to drive both men and women psychopaths to the top of the pile, where they fail painfully. Because there are fewer women CEOs, it’s my belief that we tend to focus on the physical differences rather than the problematic behavior.

I’d argue the failures weren’t due to the CEO’s gender, but rather due to their personality defects, lack of relevant training, and lack of critical board support.

The Untrained CEO

IBM is one of the few exceptions where CEOs are groomed early on with a level of rigor consistent with the responsibilities of the job. Two of the most successful CEOs currently in the market in tech are Ginni Rometty of IBM and Lisa Su of AMD, both of whom went through this aggressive program. The program monitors and evaluates advancing executives and typically requires they do time as a CEO Aid to get a sense of the job.

A typical new CEO has almost no clue what the job entails, and many of the skills that got them considered work against them when they’re in the job. One example is self-promotion and seizing credit.

As you advance in a company, you do need to make sure your accomplishments are visible so that you are high on the list for promotion, particularly when you get into management. However, as a CEO, you automatically get credit for what the company does, and successful CEOs become very good at promoting their people and sharing credit, because that results in loyalty. Given the breadth of the job, loyalty is critical to the CEO’s success. Put differently: If you can’t trust your people and they don’t trust you, you’ll likely fail as a CEO.

Take Marissa Mayer. She was certainly a talented and capable manager, at least while she was at Google, but she failed badly as CEO of Yahoo. I’d argue that was because she lacked the skill set to manage a media company (which Google wasn’t) and she had no visible training to be a CEO. The board should have ensured her training and backed her up with a senior media expert who could have taught her about the new (to her) industry she was in. The board apparently did neither, and she failed.

The less skilled a new CEO is, the more he or she will have to depend on the board and direct reports for guidance. Asking for help from a subordinate tends to make a CEO look weak, although I still think that is better than failure. Getting advice from the board doesn’t carry the same stigma. However, new CEOs don’t like to ask their boards for help. I think it’s because they think that also makes them look weak.

In any case, the board typically selects the CEO, so the board should own ensuring the success of its selection. That clearly isn’t the case in most companies with failed CEOs, whether they’re men or women.

Women Should Make Better CEOs Than Men

My early degree in Manpower Management required studying gender differences. One clear difference is that men tend to tunnel and focus, while women can handle a lot of more moving parts at once. Men and women literally are wired differently.

The nature of the CEO role isn’t one of focus — not really. That is for line and staff positions that often are defined tightly. A CEO must watch every aspect of a business, including sales, marketing, finance, manufacturing, operations and line functions.

The job requires that you have a lot of balls in the air at any one time. Further, if you want to keep your best execs, you’d better be empathetic. Otherwise, you’ll likely find you are standing alone, and that typically ends poorly for CEOs.

Women seem to get image-building and marketing much better than men do. This is a critical, though often undervalued, CEO skill — one that Steve Jobs showcased.

Because there’s a tendency to value the male-oriented skill of focus over multitasking, women often don’t advance unless they learn to emulate men, which then hurts them when they become CEOs. In effect, their careers reprogram them, unfortunately, to eliminate their unique advantages as a CEO. I really think that needs to be fixed.

Wrapping Up: We Need More CEOs Like Ginni Rometty and Lisa Su

I constantly see columns arguing that we need more women CEOs, but if we aren’t going to ensure their success, we can expect bad outcomes. What we need are more qualified CEOs, and a program in place to make sure women and men get the needed skills to be successful.

We also need boards to step up and help new CEOs far more aggressively than they have done in the past, and boards should be penalized much more effectively when a CEO fails, to guarantee that they ensure the CEO’s success.

We absolutely need more diversity at the top, but first we must ensure the skills of the people we put into these jobs. Promoting diversity without ensuring skills is what theEqual Employment Opportunity Commission initially did, and we learned that pushing unqualified minorities into jobs was a company-killing practice — though, admittedly, it is a ton easier than providing training.

Companies should establish a rigorous CEO executive resource program, so that rising executives can gain the critical skills they’ll need in case they become CEO. I think these programs should be as diverse as the firm’s customer base, and that talented women should be recruited aggressively into these programs.

It is my view that the more qualified and empathetic women we have running companies, the better our customer experiences, the more ensured our investments, and the more reliable our job security will become.

In short both Ginni Rometty and Lisa Su showcase the capability and promise of qualified women as CEOs. We don’t just need more women CEOs — we need more women CEOs like Ginni and Lisa. It is as much a quality as it is a quantity problem, and the answer isn’t multiple choice — it is all of the above.

Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

Thanks to Dell (Dell did the virtual reality rollout for the Jaguar iPace) I was at the launch of this vehicle in Los Angeles. I almost instantly fell in love with the car and then tried to order one, which eventually took Dell getting involved.

With the company’s help, I got it done — but I never actually test drove the car until last week. The Portland Oregon Jaguar Dealer (the only one in the state) offered a test drive, and we drove three hours to the dealership to give the car a try. It was a preproduction prototype, but it should be nearly identical to the production cars that are shipping.

Jaguar I-Pace

Jaguar I-Pace

Now I’ve driven both Tesla S and X cars and found them wanting. Both were too big for me, and while I thought the Tesla S was amazing, you couldn’t give me an X. I found it both ugly and a nasty mix of overly complex unreliable technology. (For instance, those damn gull wing doors have a nasty habit of breaking, and I’ll likely have scars on my head for life as a result.)

What makes the iPace very different than the Teslas is that it was designed from the ground up as an electric car. The motors are on the axels and the battery runs under the car, so you don’t need a huge hood. The result is a car that is as small outside as Jaguar’s small SUV, but nearly as big as its large SUV inside. This makes it far easier to park and drive, while the big Teslas (S and X) are kind of like driving a bus. They are huge.

The other interesting thing is they tuned the iPace for the road, not a drag strip. This means the high-end Teslas are significantly faster than the Jaguar in the quarter mile, but the iPace won’t overheat on a road course they way a Tesla does. This means you can take the Jaguar on a “spirited” drive and not end up in limp home mode, which isn’t uncommon in a Tesla.

In driving the car, the performance was in line with my Mercedes GLA45 AMG, which is the fastest car Mercedes has up to 30 miles per hour. Room and comfort were very nice — fit and finish in line with a luxury car and generally better than a Tesla.

Like most electrics, the car was dead quiet, with only some road noise making it into the cabin. Negatives were limited to a lack of rear vision through the small (for a crossover) rear window, and a slow infotainment system, which I think is due to the use of Intel rather than Nvidia or Qualcomm.

One other negative is range. Range on the iPace is 250 miles, give or tak, and for fast charging, it needs a high-speed charger. Currently there are few of those installed, although VW has committed to fund a massive increase. Until they are up and running, the Tesla Supercharger network remains a huge advantage for that line.

Overall, I can hardly wait till my iPace arrives in November, and the test drive got me excited all over again about this car. So, the Jaguar iPace is once again my product of the week.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.

Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2003. His areas of interest include AI, autonomous driving, drones, personal technology, emerging technology, regulation, litigation, M&E, and technology in politics. He has an MBA in human resources, marketing and computer science. He is also a certified management accountant. Enderle currently is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a consultancy that serves the technology industry. He formerly served as a senior research fellow at Giga Information Group and Forrester. Email Rob.

1 Comment

  • All the brainwashing in the media now about women being so great and men so bad. Its all rubbish, women can be just as bad or evil as men. It all depends on the person. Of course when it comes to jobs like the police, fireman etc… these are not jobs women should even want to be doing

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