Are Female and Male CEOs Wired Differently?

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    I don’t know how many male CEOs I’ve interviewed over the years, though I can guarantee you it’s in the hundreds. Nor do I know how many female CEOs I’ve interviewed, though it’s certainly just a fraction of whatever the number of males is. One difference between interviews of male and female CEOs is that gender is a natural topic when interviewing a woman, just by virtue of the fact that gender issues invariably play a role in defining their career paths. Among CEOs who are parents, another difference is that, at least on the job, men tend to think of themselves as CEOs who happen to be fathers. Women, on the job or not, tend to think of themselves as mothers who happen to be CEOs.

    That’s not to say that I’ve never heard a male CEO talk about his kids. I recall interviewing Scott McNealy back in the day, when he was the outspoken CEO of Sun Microsystems, about putting locator chip implants in kids. McNealy said if the right technology was available, he’d do it in a heartbeat with his own kids. “If I could embed a locator chip in my child right now, I know I would do that,” McNealy said. “Some people call that Big Brother. I call it being a father.”

    Yet that was, by any measure, the exception. Women, on the other hand, are much more inclined to think of their kids as core to their identities, and to their CEO personas. A couple of decades ago, I interviewed Sandra Kurtzig, founder and CEO of ASK Computer Systems, the first manufacturing management software provider of its kind. Kurtzig went on to become known as “The First Lady of Computers,” and to this day she’s considered one of the most influential software pioneers of either gender.

    Out of sheer curiosity, I asked Kurtzig during that interview how ASK got its name. She said it came from the first initials of the names of her sons. It struck me that it likely wouldn’t even occur to a male founder and CEO to name his company after his kids.

    I was recently reminded of Kurtzig when I was preparing to interview Corrine Sandler, founder and CEO of market research firm Fresh Intelligence Research Corp., and author of the book, “Wake Up Or Die: Business Battles Are Won with Foresight, You Either Have It or You Don’t .” I came across a video clip of an interview of Sandler, in which she introduced herself with these words: “Hi, I’m Corrine Sandler, and I’m first and foremost a mother of four beautiful kids, and I am the CEO and founder of Fresh Intelligence Research Corp.”

    When I spoke with Sandler, I mentioned to her that I’d seen that video clip, and I recounted my interview with Kurtzig. I told her that just as I’ve never heard a male founder/CEO name his company after his kids, I’ve never heard one introduce himself as being, first and foremost, a father. I asked Sandler if that says anything at all in general about any differences in the ways that female and male CEOs think and operate. She responded that she definitely thinks it does:

    From a thought processing perspective, you are 100 percent correct—I don’t think a man would ever think that way. One of the biggest differences is something I talk about in my book, and that is emotional intelligence. Women definitely have stronger emotional intelligence from a compassionate point of view. And I’m really generalizing there—there are incredibly compassionate and kind men, so I don’t want it to be taken the wrong way. But as the childbearing gender, we have more compassion for people, and our emotions are able to dictate more than just our rational-brain thinking. And I think, in a way, it makes us better leaders.

    Funny she should say that. Earlier this year, I wrote about Dr. Gordon Curphy, an industrial and organizational psychologist who maintains that women make better leaders than men do, because they’re more collaborative. Here’s an excerpt from that post:

    I went to school at the Air Force Academy, and the first two years I was there, it was an all-male institution—I was there when women were brought in, in 1980. I went back to the Academy several times to coach and teach there. I was working in the psychology department, and we were doing all kinds of research on male vs. female leadership effectiveness. Research conducted at the Academy, at Catalyst, and at many organizations that are doing work in this area, shows that females generally make better leaders. To me, leadership is all about whether you can build a cohesive, goal-oriented team that gets results. Women do a better job at that than men do. Women are more collaborative, and they do a better job of getting people working effectively together.

    I asked Sandler if she would agree that being more collaborative by nature makes women better leaders than their male counterparts. She said it absolutely does:

    The saying is, men are hunters, women are gatherers—we gather and collaborate. We’re naturally more inclined to do that than to do this autonomous, hard decision-making. So yes, I do agree with that.

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