Top lessons from business leaders


I was inspired to write my new book, When Women Lead, by the stories of the amazing women leaders I met and interviewed over the years as a reporter for CNBC and Fortune magazine. The 120-plus group of CEOs, founders and VC investors are unique in the — by definition — male-dominated world of business. I wanted to share both their stories and also find takeaways from their successful strategies.

When I started reporting the book, just before the outbreak, the ability to analyze their approach and follow their progress through the most difficult and uncertain times since World War II.

When I planned back-to-back focus interviews, I had a unique advantage: everyone was at home. Not only did that mean people were more willing to talk to me, but the lifting of stay-at-home orders and the uncertainty over business forced everyone back.

As most of the CEOs I interviewed struggled to keep their company afloat or dive into a new line of business, they were also considering big-picture questions about themselves and their organization’s purpose.

As they worked to motivate (and retain) frustrated and fearful employees and figure out their next steps, I felt like I was watching a master class in cross-sectoral leadership. Stock prices fell (and then rose and fell again) and CEOs struggled with everything from inventory shortages and supply chain shortages, to employee retention and training to daily risks.

Looking at the bigger picture day by day, I discovered three top leadership qualities that seem to be useful for anyone, regardless of industry or position.

The best leaders are true to themselves

Although the majority of CEOs are men (women made up 8% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and female founders took 2% of VC dollars last year), there aren’t just many types of CEOs — check out the 60+ women I’ve profiled. But there are many different types of successful leadership styles in my book—including Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe Hurd and Elevate’s Sally Krawcheck. I’m impressed that these women deploy qualities that seem to be lacking from strong leadership—such as openness, empathy, or gratitude—to their advantage.

Take Jennifer Homgren, CEO of Lanzatech, a Disruptor 50 company that uses microbes to turn pollutants into fuel. Persuading factories and oil buyers to adopt her technology seems to be the downside, a self-proclaimed figure who would rather listen than talk.

But she explained to me how she made it a superpower: she used all that listening to find out what her negotiating partners really wanted and used their empathy to create a deal that worked for everyone.

If Holgren had tried to force herself to be a chatty, big salesperson, she would have failed. But thinking about how to rely on her own qualities and to use them better, she turned her introspection and compassion into superpowers.

Be humble – based on information, not ego

I hear a lot from the CEOs I interview about how painful it is to make tough decisions—like cutting the cord on favorite projects or keeping employees afloat. Leaders are really people, not machines, and it’s easy to get attached to a plan, especially one you’ve invested time, money, and resources into.

CEOs keep themselves honest – that they can make those tough decisions and not get too personal – by focusing on data and working to collect and analyze more. Clear CEO Karin Seidman-Baker told me about the tough decision to pull her $24 million marketing plan for the year in February 2020, weeks before the global pandemic was declared.

While some were hoping global travel wouldn’t come to a screeching halt, the data was telling them they needed to act fast — and they were right.

Find your purpose – perseverance helps

There’s no doubt that running a company — or running anything — is tough, never mind the pandemic or the economic uncertainty we’re currently experiencing. So how did the women I interviewed persevere through all those challenges and the added double standards and high bar of fundraising as a woman?

Reasonable Answer: They were focused on their goals, changing an industry like retail, or creating new products for health and wellness, knowing that other people were doing it.0

Julia Collins, founder of PlanetFWD, is working to increase the adoption of regenerative agriculture. Shivani Siroya, CEO of Tala, said the company offers microloans in emerging markets; Christine Moseley, CEO of Whole Harvest, which works to reduce food waste, told me that when they’re feeling down, they all focus on the importance of their goals to find the energy to persevere.

They’re not alone: ​​Women are 20% more likely than men to start companies with a social and environmental purpose, reports Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. One thing I’ve heard over and over again: By focusing on the company’s great potential to help humanity, entrepreneurs can find great sources of motivation and commitment when the going gets tough; It will inevitably do so.

Plus, there’s a lot of evidence that having an extra purpose is important for attracting consumers and attracting and retaining employees—which is now more important than ever.

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