Lessons from a leadership veteran

Niall FitzGerald, former chief executive of Unilever and chairman of Thomson Reuters, spoke last week at Brandeis University’s International Business School, just outside of Boston, about the qualities of good, strong leaders.

FitzGerald, who was in town to receive the school’s Perlmutter Award for Excellence in Global Business Leadership, had a list of what he considers to be the most important characteristics of sound management. According to FitzGerald, a good leader connects with employees on an emotional level, engages people’s passions and creates a sense within the group that what they’re doing matters.

He added that good leaders are flexible and keep the mood of a group upbeat, and “care about feelings as much as finance”.

These qualities and behaviours are ones that, on balance, women have and do naturally – a point that FitzGerald recognised.

A vast body of research indicates that men and women take different approaches to management. Generally speaking, women tend to be more collaborative and interested in consensus building; they are more relationship oriented, flexible, empathetic and democratic. Women also excel at communication.

I asked FitzGerald if he thought companies were doing enough to promote women to leadership positions. “They’re doing more than they used to, but they’re not doing enough,” he said. But he added that he is “very much against quotas” because they “send the wrong signal”.

He relayed an anecdote from an address he gave many years ago to a women’s group at Goldman Sachs. He told the group that there was good news and bad news. The good news was that new (at the time) research showed that many of the characteristics of good leadership were skewed toward the feminine skill set.

“I said, ‘The good news is that your moment has arrived.’ But the bad news is that you’re all trying to behave like men. Even with the way you dress – you’re all trying to be like men.” (This was, after all, the 1980s when women’s “power suits” – complete with monstrous shoulder pads and skinny ties – were in vogue.)

“You have to have the courage to be yourself,” he told the group.

And what was the reaction to that? “It was a robust conversation,” he said.

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