Jack Zenge and Joseph Folkman recently fueled a media brushfire when they made public the findings of their 2011 research study of executive management. After analyzing 7,280 of the world’s most successful and influential leaders — spanning diverse geographical areas, industries and including non-profit organizations — they announced, “Though the majority of leaders are still men (64%) …at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows.”
Most surprising, perhaps, is that women scored highest, relative to men, on the stereotypical male traits of taking initiative and driving for results. However, men did score better than women in one single, but significant, category: The ability to develop a strategic perspective.
What do men know (or how do they think) that we women don’t? Here are tips from three [male] experts willing to explain what this “strategic perspective” category means and [listen closely, ladies!], how to improve this leadership skill:
It’s recognizing and processing different point of view
Thought leader Shaun Rein, Managing Director of CMR, the world’s leading strategic market intelligence firm, claims any leader can consciously improve his or her strategic brain function in as few as 15 minutes a day. He suggests beginning by constantly questioning your own opinions and surrounding yourself with divergent thinkers. “Although I almost always disagree with economists like Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf, I avidly read them,” he notes. “On a regular basis I question my own analyses to see if others’ criticisms of my positions make sense.”
It’s making a list and checking it twice
Paul J. H. Schoemaker, Founder and Chairman of Decision Strategies Intl., teaches strategic decision making at Wharton. In a co-authored blog for Inc., he noted that during times of uncertainty — to make sense of the continuous stream of data being pelted at us from every direction, — our mind creates filters so that we can survive and function. “These filters are so effective that only about five percent of the stimuli trickle through. Your mind has become your worst enemy; it only lets through information that conforms to your current beliefs and expectations. When faced with new data and important decisions, that can be really bad, deadly even.”
The solution, to be a better strategic thinker during times of crisis, is to learn to be a better interpreter. To do that, he suggests making a list “of all the important things that have to be true for your interpretation to be correct”, arranged from easiest to hardest to verify. Then “look for disconfirming evidence, starting from the top down,” and adjust your viewpoint accordingly.
It’s getting past late-night worries or pie-in-the-sky dreaming
Change agent Robert Ian, author of “How to Identify, Conquer, and Manage Change” is hired by Fortune 500 companies during times of expansion or retraction. Ian notes that there are three possible outcomes for any challenge or opportunity – best case scenario, worst case scenario, and the most likely outcome. He teaches company strategists to plan for moderated success.
“Identify and give voice to your worst fears and loftiest hopes,” Ian advises, “but plan for middle ground.” One CEO was prompted to wear a thick rubberband inside his shirtsleeve; whenever he mentally revisited a worst-case scenario, a hard wrist snap quickly retrained his mind not to dwell on the negative. “Worry is an unproductive, energy-sapping time waster,” Ian says. “Strategic leaders do not worry; they plan for contingencies, yes, but the majority of time is focused on likely outcomes.”
Bring your strategic intelligence back next week, when we’ll discuss five surefire ways to ruin a meeting.