Why Women Should Watch Clinton and Fiorina

One of these two women could be our next president — one of the most visible and critical executives in the world. (Photo of Clinton by Voice of America. Photo of Fiorina by Antônio Milena, courtesy of Agência Brasil.)

On Monday, another GOP candidate threw the hat into the 2016 campaign ring — her hat, to be specific.

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, announced she will run in the Republican Party’s primary. Although her controversial historyas an executive includes a 30,000-worker layoff, a merger misstep and a $21 million severance package, her campaign has so far emphasized her experience as a business leader. If she gets the nomination, she might face Hillary Clinton, the only Democrat currently running, in the general election.

Fiorina is a Republican business leader and Clinton is a Democratic career politician, but both provide examples for women moving up the executive ranks. They also face the same challenges as women in business, but on a national stage.

A 2012 study conducted by Hay Group found that leaders in matrix-structured organizations — those who must lead functions to deliver bottom-line results without leading direct reports — needed four skills: empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness.

When the researchers broke down whether these competencies were being filled by existing matrix leaders, they found that even though women only made up about 20 percent of the leaders assessed by their peers, they excelled in all four areas:

  • Empathy was found to be a strength for 33 percent of women, compared with just 15 percent of men.
  • Conflict management was seen as a strength in 51 percent of women, as opposed to 29 percent of men.
  • Influence was cited as a strength for 32 percent of women, compared with 21 percent of men.
  • Self-awareness was strongly evident in 19 percent of women, but just 4 percent of men.

“Leading in the matrix is all about influencing without authority,” said researcher Ruth Malloy, global managing director of leadership and talent at Hay Group. The same could be said for the president’s role, which requires a leader to influence policy through the legislative branch.

But if women seem to excel at these competencies, why haven’t they achieved the highest matrix leadership position? Malloy said it comes down to a number of things outside their control, including what she called a double-bind.

Stereotypical femininity includes nonleadership characteristics, like being collaborative, a good listener and willing to work behind the scenes, Malloy said. Although these come in handy when reaching across the political aisle, they’re not what Americans think of when they envision a president. Instead, presidential and business leadership embodies typically masculine traits.

“When women act more assertive or confident, they tend to be disliked because they violate the stereotype,” Malloy said. “They’re judged as bossy, aggressive or called ‘the B word.’ ” If a woman does act feminine, she’s seen as nice and likable but not competent.

What Clinton has learned and Fiorina might still be learning is that they have to know how to balance both sides of their personas without compromising authenticity, Malloy said. That’s something that women in business also have to keep in mind and what makes them perhaps more self-aware than their male counterparts.

“Part of our feminine power is our emotional intelligence to sense what’s happening around us,” said Pegine Echevarria, CEO of leadership development group Team Pegine. “Not all women, but a strong preponderance of women, have that ability to read a room. We have not, in leadership, spent enough time to sense that.”

Both she and Malloy referred to a moment during Clinton’s 2008 campaign right before the New Hampshire primary. President Obama was favored to win by the polls, but after tearing up in a coffee shop interview, Clinton won the state’s support. Echevarria said it was the first time Clinton had broken her “Ice Queen” reputation and became relatable. But voters also knew that she could be as protective and assertive as she had been as First Lady during her health care reform campaign.

“I get that I’m supposed to be strong but sensitive and that I can both fight and demand peace, negotiate and compromise,” Echevarria said. “I can put a line in the sand and get people to erase that line so they can come to the table. Those are our greatest strengths as women.”