A recent magazine, exploring the subject of women and leadership, carried an article titled, ‘Women can beat men at their own game’.

My question is, “why would they want to do that?”

Trying to ‘beat men at their own game’ is not only a foolhardy tactic but one that will simply ensure that women leaders who succeed in this will merely join the majority their male counterparts on the ‘irrelevant leadership scrapheap’. Not a pretty place to be.

Why is it that so few women are to be found in the ‘corner office’. South African statistics in 2004 confirm this to be the case in that only 1.9% of CEOs and MDs in the Rainbow Nation are women. A far cry from the progress being made within Government circles! In fact the United States, Britain, Australia and Japan do not fare much better when it comes to the relevant statistics.

This question is all the more intriguing when considered against the backdrop of women participation in leadership Graduate programmes. Here the statistics are far higher which only serves to highlight the question as to what happens between these programmes and arrival at the corner office? Women, having got to (or at least got close enough to sniff) the corner office, have decided it is not for them. The demands placed on life at such altitude means that most women leaders are simply not prepared to pay the price. The cost to life away from work is considered too high and in fact that is the point, there apart from work. These are the positions that demand both heart and soul and whilst providing rich rewards, the irony is that there remains little time to enjoy the rewards! Women who see the demands associated with occupying the coveted corner office are simply not prepared to pay the price that is required. The power and prestige associated with such territory seemingly does not hold the same magnetism for women as it does for men. While the current business context sees that as a regrettable negative, I believe it to be a commendable attribute.

Whilst women remain every bit as capable as men in the competition for the corner office, Linda Tischler, the author of the article referenced above, asserts that they are also not willing to as hard as men for the right to occupy that space. This is partly due to society’s allowance to men to focus entirely on competing whilst being less forgiving on women who wish to do the same. Perhaps this can be illustrated in another way through a recent conversation I had: Chatting to a woman in a senior leadership position within a large retailer, she reflected on the contrasting responses from employees towards a male colleague and herself.

“When he does something that is not liked it is excused as ‘well that is just the way he is’ and people get on with it – but when it is me, I am referred to as ‘the bitch’ and the response is often less that cooperative. He can get away with things that I cannot…it is as though it is expected of him but not of me and this is very frustrating.”

So the natural response is for women to ‘toughen up’, get their guards up and when the bell sounds, come out swinging with a, “I’ll show them” kind of attitude cheered on of course by a vociferous ringside chorus of, ‘sisters are doing it for themselves.’ They are encouraged to, ‘beat the men at their own game’. Compete, hunt, kill… after all it is the survival of the fittest, a winner takes all scenario and so women are drawn into employing tactics that are, for the most part, doomed to fail. Men have made competition an art form over centuries of bloody practice during which their skills in applying such tactics, combined with what seems to be some natural genetic engineering at work, gives them (us) an unfair advantage. After all, if it is a boxing ring we are talking about, no authority would even consider allowing a lightweight in the ring with a heavyweight. It just wouldn’t be a contest.

But what if it wasn’t a boxing ring? What if the corporate environment was changing from a ‘boxing ring’ to something else, something where bulk, killer instinct and gloves where attributes about as helpful as a snorkel in the desert? And while some MacGyver out there might come up with an application for a snorkel in the desert the point is, it would indeed take a MacGyver to do so!

“Changing to what?” you ask. Well it could be anything actually but let’s go with a children’s . A ‘children’s playground?’ is your incredulous response to this seemingly ludicrous analogy which induces some involuntary winces from the men readers and I suspect, just the hint of a smile from the women readership. . A place normally more frequented by mothers than fathers and certainly the undisputed home of the ‘little people’. This is the place where ‘serious play’ occurs daily. A place of laughter, tears, painful lessons, chaotic activity, imagination, respect, variety and above all, fun. The little people want to be there, love being there and the hours melt away in the midst of the frantic activity and noise that attracts onlookers, inducing in them memories of a long forgotten playground attitudes and activities. So what if, instead of viewing the corporate environment as a boxing ring, we reframe it as a playground?

I believe that the corporate environments that will succeed in the emerging Connection Economy will resemble playgrounds more than they will boxing rings. Yes, they will still be competitive and naturally the odd scrap will occur, but the environment will resemble that of a playground. The February 2004 edition of magazine (10 Best European Companies to Work For) noted that each of the companies chosen were considered to work by their employees. In essence, people wanted to be there or as Jim Jannard of Oakley framed it, “I want our people when they walk in to be so stoked they can hardly stand it. I want them to be dying to come back tomorrow. I want them to be desperate to find a place where they can use their own particular talents to add to us and make us great.” Jannard could be describing a playground.

So, if this is where corporate environments need to be heading, why would women who get to occupy the corner office, want to keep things the way they are? Why would they be lulled into trying to ‘outbox’ their male predecessors and counterparts? Change is needed and who better than women leaders to introduce such changes. Now, I am not saying that men won’t or can’t lead such change but it is just that they will battle the prevailing winds of tradition as well as their own make-up (or even instincts) in doing so. Of course there are some notable exceptions with Richard Branson coming to mind almost immediately. However, the reality is that no longer can we maintain the current status quo in our office environments as we shift into a Connection Economy. This reality is compounded by the arrival of Generation X (the Bright Young Things – those between 20-35) and their move deeper into the corporate changing rooms. The challenge will be to make the necessary changes and my message to women leaders out there is simple: Don’t follow the way it has always been done – don’t box! The rules of the game are changing (just as they have done throughout previous changes from one economic context to the next) and savvy leadership will be required.

I remember chatting to a senior Vice-President of an international pharmaceutical company in Moscow about such matters. Her response was one of resignation that bordered on despair, “I know what you are saying about women in leadership is true” she commented, “but if I really wanted to introduce the changes I know are so needed in the corporate environment, I would have to leave and start my own company”. More and more women are doing precisely this and it will be worth watching the results of these companies as they grow and find their feet in the Connection economy.

Smart women don’t box and savvy leaders focus on building playgrounds. You might not be able to do anything about the former but certainly leaders everywhere can engage in the latter activity. My advice: Go on… be a Player!

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