Women's Vision: Making the Strategic Case

Sally Helgesen

Over the past 20 years, the best organizations have come to view attracting, retaining and developing talented women as a business imperative. Women’s skills—their ability to collaborate, build strong relationships, open up lines of communication, work in teams––have proven highly adaptive to the decentralized models that web-based technologies require. And women’s ideas and insights have provided an essential resource for organizations seeking to market products and services to the expanding female customer base.

So the business case for women enjoys widespread acceptance. Yet the strategic case for women’s leadership has yet to be made. For although organizations place more value on female skills and seek to spur female recruitment and participation, they rarely recognize the full scope of women’s value when it comes to shaping the mission and strategic direction.

This is a chief reason that women are still underrepresented in positions of influence and power. Because organizations—and women—have not yet understood or articulated the strategic potential women have to offer, the best of what women have to offer remains stymied. This shortchanges organizations and frustrates women.


Women’s strategic power is vested in their vision—the lens that shapes their distinctive point of view. What advantages might this perspective provide in terms of leading in a diverse, global environment—and in terms of conceiving and executing the mission?

For four years, executive coach Julie Johnson and I have tried to identify the cultural reasons that women still struggle to achieve top positions. We find that organizations can’t leverage women’s contributions until they understand two elements that shape the female vision:

1. What women notice. Women’s attention is engaged by many different things at once, whereas men tend to focus deeply and narrowly on a single perception or task. So, women’s attention tends to operate like radar; men’s more like a laser. Women monitor emotional cues, anticipate what others need, and make constant subtle adjustments to reconcile conflicting agendas. Broad-spectrum noticers are good at judging context and making unexpected connections; focused noticers provide clarity and analytic rigor.

Broad-spectrum notice resists quantification and can seem overly subjective, but focused notice can leave out vital information. Both are essential in an environment driven by shifting customer demands, fast-evolving distribution systems, and products that require continual calibration. As GE CEO Jeff Immelt notes, leaders need to see around the corners. Women offer a strong resource, but their abilities can flourish only in organizations that value broad-spectrum notice.

2. What women value. We see a mismatch between what the marketplace assumes talented people most value in their work and what most women deeply value. Most organizations still offer reward, recognize achievement, build incentive, and decide promotion, using definitions of worth that reflect an all-male leadership culture. The primary carrots in this culture have always been compensation and perks. But women are less likely to judge financial and prestige rewards to be "worth it" if they perceive the quality of their days to be negatively impacted by their work.

Women tend to view compensation as a means to an end—providing a good life for themselves and their families—rather than as an end in itself. Purely numeric gauges of reward matter less to women than the daily texture of their experience, which is shaped by the quality of social interaction, and the ability to control their time and meet domestic responsibilities.

Women are less motivated by what a job might lead to or promise for the future than whether they perceive their work to be enjoyable and rewarding. To fully engage women’s talents, leaders need to recalibrate how they define reward rather than assuming that talented individuals will always value more perks and bonuses. Women’s ways of perceiving value offer a more comprehensive way of calibrating motivation, building loyalty, and leveraging talent.

First appeared in Leadership Excellence www.leaderexcel.com