The heart of strategy

I have become increasingly aware of the fact that women are better at co-creation than men. My friend and co-author Venkat Ramaswamy has been saying it for a while, as we debrief working sessions or speaking engagements we occasionally do together, but I’d never thought about it much beyond those moments. It’s a terrible conclusion to reach, particularly for a guy. I wonder if this makes me a gender racist, and whether I will ostracize one-half of the populations I will address from here on. But I increasingly believe it is statistically true.

When guys think of business strategies, they talk about domination, advantage, rivalry, barriers, forces and power. This is the language of war. Witness for example how Michael Porter, arguably the most prominent business strategist to date, describes strategy in a Harvard Business Publishing video. His language evokes tanks and barbed wire, exploding shells and smell of napalm in the morning. Military strategy is the model for business strategy. One visualizes Patton looking at maps, shouting orders and admonishing troops with quotes such as: “Your job is not to die for your country. Your job is to make the SOB on the other side die for his country.” Soldiers are resources that need to be concentrated to conquer and hold territory.

Women by and large think of business as building relationships. Listen for example for how Anne Mulcahy, recently retired CEO of Xerox, describes the company’s strategy over the last ten years.  Women are interested in engaging customers, not destroying competitors. They believe employees are more than resources needing to be marshaled toward dominance; they matter as individuals. Some female managers even think suppliers are people too, and do not have to be beaten to a pulp. Many women believe that businesses need to define their place in the larger environment in which they operate, leading them to a view of strategy as the development of an ecosystem in which their company participates. I recently spoke to a group of Chief Sustainability Officers of large global corporations and close to one-half of them were women, allowing a very different type of dialogue than with a male-dominated audience.

The male conceptualization of strategy of course comes with an automatic disqualification of the softer, gentler view of strategy as unrealistic, even utopian. There is a “gotta love women” condescension that usually accompanies the female characterization of strategy as building relationships. The CEO of a large European bank, also a brilliant economist, once warned me that business and emotions do not mix and that he did not particularly care about the experience of his retail customers because “retail banking is about access to capital and the number of branches you have.” A year ago, his board pushed him into retirement because the bank had been steadily losing market share. Apparently, customers did not like their experience of the bank. I wonder whether he still feels customer experience is irrelevant.

My dream is that I will wake up one morning and find that a woman has displaced Michael Porter, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli on the Olympic strategy podium. Of course, for this to happen, it will require that the top management of large businesses and/or the strategy department at major business schools around the world no longer be dominated by men. I hope it happens before I die.

Tags: , ,

One Response to “The heart of strategy”

  1. Ivory Bari says:

    I’ve bookmarked, shared and joined the RSS subscription. With thanks!

Leave a Reply