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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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen. www.ft.com/womenblog

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

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Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.