Bob Reiner’s Mad Men television series has been a tremendous hit and enjoys a cult following. The command-and-control, male-dominated, US-as-superpower environment provides psychological reassurance and certainty.
But it could scarcely be further from the reality on the ground today.
A new kind of power – one that I call ‘feminine strength’ – is in the ascendancy in 2012. This will be understood and internalised by the majority of people around the world by 2020. And those who have it will rise to the top.
Such people will possess what have traditionally been viewed as ‘female’ leadership traits, with an aptitude for:
• listening and empathy;
• building trust;
• thinking about the group; and
Women are wired in a way that gives them a profound advantage in a world that is built on networks and natural allies, but men can develop feminine strength, too.
Emerging feminine strength, combined with the fact that women have operated without the traditional means of power at their disposal, gives them insight into how to win in entrepreneurcountry.
• If you’re a David building a young company, and you are fighting all of the forces that threaten your firm, you must learn how to build a strategic advantage with meagre resources.
• If you aren’t resourceful and subversive, you won’t win.
• If you don’t create trust in your team, they’ll not follow you.
Leading male intellectuals are publicly starting to highlight women’s role in building a better society. For instance, Martin Van Der Weyer, the business editor of the Spectator, is one of a number of commentators who believe that the financial crisis would not have happened – or certainly would not have cut so deep – if more women had been making the decisions in the banks’ boardrooms. On 26 February 2011, he wrote:
Successful businesswomen may scoff at the proposal of quotas for women in boardrooms – and many men will dismiss it as Euro-correctness gone mad … But I suggest that anyone who hopes to collect a private pension should welcome the idea, for purely selfish reasons.A report by former trade minister Lord Davies of Abersoch this week was expected to call for ‘voluntary targets’ to bring the proportion of women directors of FTSE 350 companies up to one in four by 2015, compared to current ratios of one in eight for the top hundred companies and one in 13 for the next 250. The word is that if voluntary action doesn’t break the glass ceiling for the ladies, statutory quotas could follow.
This means upwards of 600 new senior posts for women over the next four years – matched by 600 middle-aged chaps on the career scrapheap. But male chauvinists who think Davies must have been brainwashed by Harriet Harman and secret agents from Brussels should consider the numerous surveys conducted in recent years that show women to be consistently more successful portfolio investors than men.
Women are more risk-averse, less driven by raw competitive urges, and more likely to stay focused on generating steady returns; and those are precisely the qualities needed in non-executive directors to counterbalance the machismo of thrusting executives. Imagine a Royal Bank of Scotland board made up of the philosopher Baroness Warnock, Dame Maggie Smith in Downton mode, the contrarian investment writer Merryn Somerset Webb, and your own mother-in-law … Then imagine Sir Fred Goodwin telling them: ‘I’m going to pay top dollar for a can of worms called ABN Amro, even though we’re right at the peak of the market, because I can’t bear to be outbid by Barclays.’
The blokes on the real RBS board whooped their approval; women would have told him to stop being silly and go back to his desk. Our major companies, and the pension funds that invest in them, would be a lot safer in the hands of gender-balanced boards. One day, just for equality’s sake, we might even have to impose quotas for men.
Generation Y – the under-thirties, the millennials, the Zuckerberg generation, the individual capitalists, or whatever else you care to call them – bear much more of a resemblance to strong, feminine women than they do to Don Draper in Mad Men.
If you want to understand future generations or entrepreneurcountry, you must understand women today.
So, how do we accelerate the process of building more feminine strength in society? David knows that you don’t win by playing by Goliath’s rules. Nor do you win by trying to break through the glass ceiling of someone else’s boardroom.
You need to build your own boardroom. Drive your own train. Write your own rules.
I encourage my women friends to become entrepreneurs and individual capitalists at every opportunity. I’m convinced that women will achieve their goals faster by working for themselves, rather than trying to justify themselves and their leadership style to others.
Before meeting the internationally minded students and faculty in Fontainebleau, I had always thought that MBAs took themselves far too seriously. But then, at the age of twenty-three and armed with my GMAT scores, I attended an open day at INSEAD and knew immediately that I wanted to go to business school there. Entry was highly competitive and I knew that I would have only one shot, so I decided to gain as much management experience and international business exposure as I could over the next few years.
Fast forward to the mid-1990s, when I was doing just that at Cunningham Communication in Boston. I knew I was on course to receive a big promotion, but then a female manager blocked it. At that moment, I decided I would never again allow my future to be held so precariously in the hands of someone who could arbitrarily decide whether I should move up the ladder or not. Entirely for her own reasons, this female manager had threatened my future career as well as my entry into INSEAD. Unsurprisingly, I was livid. From then on, I was determined to chart my own course and build my own structures in my career. Relying on the corporate hierarchy was clearly a very false form of security.
Now, in 2012, you have more options than I did in the 1990s. You can easily set yourself up in business, and you can easily project a business façade that seems bigger and more professional than it is in reality. This means that you have a genuine choice between going solo or working within a corporate environment. Hence the rise of the individual capitalists. Organisations like Enterprise Nation, Start-up Britain, or indeed entrepreneurcountry – www.entrepreneurcountry.com – who help people build businesses, are making a huge difference in the UK.
Through my work, I meet a lot of successful businessmen in their fifties. On the whole, I don’t think they’ve given women’s leadership an ounce of thought. They would struggle to define ‘feminine strength’, too. However, when their daughters start to work, they are often put in an interesting situation. On more than one occasion, I’ve listened to an upset father talking about how his daughter is suffering discrimination in her new job. At that moment, if you’re quick and gentle, you can get them to make the short hop to understanding that every woman is someone’s daughter. Then, if they are ever going to care, they might finally focus on the women-in-business issue.
I accept that this is a gross generalisation, but I’ve found that most men tend to operate out of rational self-interest. So anyone who wants the world to be filled with strong, feminine women needs to show men that it’s in their interest to raise confident daughters who demand respect and view themselves as their own best investment opportunity. They also need to explain why it’s in men’s best interest to treat all women with respect and fairness. Every man needs to remember that every woman is someone’s daughter. If men are convinced that their daughters will benefit from a world where women have equal opportunities, they will join forces voluntarily and proactively to ensure that such a world comes into being. If men believe that they have something to gain rather than lose as the world becomes full of strong women, they will race to build that world with and for women.
The key to unlocking the future of women’s potential may well be through establishing the right relationship with their fathers.
INSEAD’s ten-and-a-half-month MBA programme was a turning point in my life and career. It allowed me to take stock of who I was, away from the hustle and bustle of the business world. Sure, I learned corporate finance techniques and organisational behaviour strategy, but I think the most important lesson I learned was that I would become successful by focusing on what distinguished me from my colleagues. I also learned how to stick up for myself.
I remember a number of occasions when I voiced an opinion in class but received little or no response from either the professor or my classmates. Then, ten minutes later, a male classmate would voice exactly the same opinion – sometimes even using my words – and would be praised for coming up with an amazing new insight. I was perplexed at the time, and even reached the point of wondering if I was imagining it. I would never let anyone get away with something like that today. I might tease my imitator and thank him for echoing my sentiments or simply remind him – very assertively – that I had just said the same thing. I would leave him in no doubt that he was piggybacking on my thinking and claiming my ideas for his own.
But the larger issue was that I allowed myself to believe that there was a ‘discount’ associated with what I did. I lacked self-confidence, perhaps because I was studying new subjects, or because I was in a foreign country, or because I was in a intense learning environment, or because it was still early in my career. Whatever the reason, I spent a lot of my time in my twenties asking other people for their opinions, rather than trusting my own. As a result, I missed an opportunity to build my decision-taking muscle, which in turn often resulted in my opinions being ignored. I was frustrated about that ‘discount’, but I didn’t realise that I was applying it to myself.
My next lesson would have even greater repercussions for me personally.
First Tuesday, my first venture, enjoyed enormous momentum through the autumn of 1998 and into 1999, such that several venture capitalists offered me millions for a stake in the business. I was also offered opportunities to put together a First Tuesday fund to invest in Europe’s start-ups. It was in the spring of 1999 – having witnessed at first hand the challenges faced by the likes of lastminute.com when they tried to scale across Europe – that I decided to take First Tuesday international and create a business out of what had previously been a glorified cocktail party. I created the City Leader network over the summer, funding it from the £35,000 bonus cheque I had received from NewMedia for my work on the WGSN and lastminute.com funding rounds.
I knew that hundreds of start-ups wanted to be ‘First Tuesday companies’ due to the sheer number of entrepreneurs who approached me to ask for funding. I also knew that we had access to deal flow across Europe, were trusted by entrepreneurs, and had an understanding of how to facilitate internet start-ups. My experience helping start-ups grow gave me considerable credibility in building the network for them. A few months later, I felt that there was a unique opportunity to co-invest with investors in deals that were made at First Tuesday ‘matchmaking’ events – a new service that was launched in early 2000 by Hank Boot. Companies signed up to a 2 per cent fee to be paid to First Tuesday, and some companies wanted to be backed by us so badly that they kept reminding us that we hadn’t collected their fee yet!
My vision, my money, my time and my ability to cajole, encourage and reassure the City Leader network across Europe all contributed to making a phenomenal internationalisation happen in record time with little funding between May and September 1999. As it became increasingly obvious that we were on to a winner, I should have made it clear that, as I was giving up my job, putting in my own money, creating the international network and driving the strategy, I should be the CEO of First Tuesday. The market, the media and the City Leaders all assumed that I was, because they were following everything I did. But my co-founders, who by this stage had left the scene to build their businesses in Silicon Valley, were nervous about losing control of First Tuesday. So they brought in an outside manager who had run a spectacles chain as a means to exert control from California. (Later, in private, they admitted to me that this had been a serious error.)
I had created a situation where I had all of the accountability and responsibility but none of the power to implement my strategy and my vision. I still shudder whenever I think about it. And I still beat myself up for not standing up to the co-founders and saying, ‘The investors are backing me, it’s my money, my strategy and I’ve created the international network. So I bloody well will be the CEO of this business.’
I realised too late that you cannot expect others to hand you a position of power and authority. There comes a moment when you have to stand your ground and seize it for yourself. In 1999, when I first found myself in that moment, I didn’t stand my ground. I failed because I hadn’t developed the correct muscle. I lacked the steel. All I had was a vague notion that I would be rewarded if I did all the right things. I truly believed that my co-founders would rally behind me and appreciate everything I was doing for the business. Wrong. They did appreciate it later, but only once it was far too late.
First Tuesday brought a tremendous spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurship to the UK and Europe in the early years of the internet age, and business people were forced to think about what it all meant for them. We connected 500,000 people every first Tuesday of every month for eighteen months. It started the process of creating a new business architecture for the entrepreneurs and investors of Europe.
However, from a personal perspective, I knew that I had failed to make the most of an opportunity that had huge potential. Losing control of my own company led to a period of deep self-examination during which I learned a great deal about myself. Among other things, I learned that the deal – any deal – is always done at the beginning. You can course-correct later, but you can never fundamentally renegotiate the terms of an agreement between people. When I allowed my co-founders to take my work, my strategy, my brand, my time and my money and become equal partners in First Tuesday, I launched a chain of events from which I would never recover in that iteration.
I refuse to invest in companies that are following a similar path today. Whenever Ariadne Capital, my investment firm, has an opportunity to invest in a firm, the first thing I examine is whether the company has a ‘positive architecture’: that is, are the people who have invested the founding cash, who are driving the value and taking the risks receiving the lion’s share of the rewards? If the answer to that question is ‘yes’, then I might be interested.
The morning after First Tuesday was sold to Yazam, on 20 July 2000, I met Guy Kawasaki for a late-morning coffee. Guy is a legendary and inspirational figure who at the time was in his own talks with Yazam about a strategic partnership with his firm, Garage.com. Still in a daze, I said hello, sat down and ordered coffee. Guy asked how I was, and I replied, ‘Well, First Tuesday was sold yesterday … for fifty million dollars. I’m still letting it all sink in.’ He nearly fell off his chair. I said that I was only just starting to learn some very profound lessons about my own potential and, more importantly, about how I had messed up my first big opportunity. I was – in a word – sad. I had never been depressed in my life, but I may have been then.
However, some of what Guy said that day helped me get through it. He is a great post-deal psychologist, and his words will stay with me for ever. He explained that there comes a time in everyone’s life when you flip from working incredibly hard for seemingly no reward to working a lot less and receiving credit. He said you always wonder why it hasn’t happened sooner! He illustrated this by talking about his time as an evangelist at Apple (a period during which the outside world viewed him as an incredible success), and how, for a variety of reasons, it hadn’t been what he had hoped. But that helped him become a very successful investor in Silicon Valley and a leading advocate for the start-up experience.
In the months and years that followed the sale of First Tuesday, I came to realise that my ‘discount’ had become a ‘premium’. First, in my own mind. I had learned the profound consequences of not standing my ground. But I had also seen what I could create. In less than two years, I had built something that investors agreed was worth millions. I had received some credit for what First Tuesday had achieved. I had earned a small fortune when the sale had gone through. But I knew only too well that I had fallen a long way short of what I might have achieved. I had latched on to some mighty big trends very early. But when it had really mattered, I had failed to put in place the positive architecture to realise the potential.
I’m a great believer in focusing on the things that you can change. You can change the way that you feel about yourself. You can stand your ground when your vision or your achievements are challenged.
I believe that the unique challenge faced by women can be summed up in the road from discount to premium. We have a different way of leading and seizing opportunities. We are more tuned in to the group, less focused on hierarchy. We create trust so that great things can happen. We naturally have more emotional intelligence – a vital skill in a world driven by intellect rather than physical strength. In a network-oriented world, all of these attributes give us an unfair advantage.
We are held back only by ourselves. We have to flip the switch in our own minds as to what we are capable of.
Women are good at moving from perceived weakness to strength. Some will achieve much more than their teachers, family and bosses ever expect because they will believe in their own premium when everyone else is still thinking, ‘Discount.’ They will enter a world that is intimately connected and driven by networks. Their emotional intelligence and innate understanding of how to operate and build businesses in these systems will propel them to the front of the pack. Ultimately, these women will win by refusing to play by the traditional rules of the game. Instead, they will create a new game and write their own rules. Self-belief will allow them to move from discount to premium. I only hope that it’s an easier and shorter road for them than it was for me.
Not too long ago, I read an article by Jay McInerney (of Bright Lights, Big City fame) in which he described how embarrassed he is in front of his eleven-year-old daughter because of all the womanising he’s done over the years. He certainly wouldn’t want some young man to treat his daughter the same way he treated women in the past.
This got me thinking about the circle of life, and about what loving fathers want for their daughters. I was fortunate because my father is a gentleman and he told me that I could achieve anything I set out to do. I tested that second point on multiple occasions during my childhood by announcing what I planned to do: Julie would become an astronaut; Julie would become President of the United States. My father never laughed at me.
When a man is a gentleman, his daughters are both blessed and cursed as gentlemen are increasingly rare in the 21st century, and the bar is raised so much higher for his daughters then in terms of the men that they can consider making their partners in life. It can be very depressing. But you would never want to trade places.
Growing up, as I mentioned earlier, I was very into sports. Playing three hours of sport a day kept me unbelievably fit and built a psyche of strength and winning that I’ve not been able to shake to this day. I think that every father should encourage his daughters to play sport. On top of the benefits mentioned above, girls develop ‘body confidence’ by diving for volleyballs, swimming laps, shooting baskets and sweating profusely. They learn how to inhabit their bodies.
Years later, at the age of twenty-one, I did some photo-shoots and catwalk modelling in Paris. Suddenly, being a beanstalk seemed to be cool. But girls who should have had unshakeable body confidence because of their looks – far more striking than me – were listless and intimidated once you scratched through the make-up. Despite all the discussion in the media about the thinness of models and the ‘obesity epidemic’, I always think that both sides miss the point. It’s not about too thin or too fat. It is about how strong.
Historically, strength in women has always been a tricky subject. Today, we’re in the wonderful situation that we can be both strong and feminine. But many people are still unable to accept that. The problem is not just that misogyny exists. It’s that so many women are complicit in it. Before you can expect someone else to respect your strength, you must ‘own’ it yourself. There’s no question that a lot of women – as well as men – view confident, independent women as a threat, rather than a social good.
When you look at the facts, however – about how women care for the next generation and are some of the most creditworthy sectors of society in emerging markets (look at the success of the Grameen Bank, built on a business model that prioritises loans to poor women) – you reach the inescapable conclusion that men and women should do everything they can to increase the power of women in the world. And that starts by investing in them.
Returning to the theme of Jay McInerney’s article, people slip in and out of so-called ‘relationships’ very casually these days. My personal opinion is that casual relationships have terrible consequences for women’s self-confidence, but a lot of women find this hard to accept. But they are prepared to accept common infidelity and mundane arrangements because many of them stopped believing a long time ago that they will find their perfect match. That’s a pity, because we should all strive for amazing relationships – founded on respect, love, trust and passion.
And that is the dance of the 21st century that we will watch unfold – how men become gentlemen again, and become wise to the value of having strong women in their lives who are ladies as well as wives, business partners, and tennis players.
When girls invest in themselves, they become strong women.
• When men respect that feminine strength, a virtuous circle ensues.
• Strength and power beget more strength and power.
• Ultimately, we all win.
At the moment, though, women still have to contend with a much more vicious circle. The power of peer pressure and poor role models on young women is immense. We need to create an alternative source of inspiration for young women to challenge the media’s obsession with looks and whether they are attractive to men. There should be a safe zone for them to be girls who connect with each other as they develop their talents, sense of humour and futures. There should be prizes to aim for, some use of tech to connect them, some involvement from their very busy dads, who probably delegate most of the parenting to their wives at present, and some alternative examples of what constitutes a successful woman. It doesn’t have to be Paris Hilton or Britney Spears – no matter how much money they have in the bank.
The new rules of engagement are being written right now by strong, feminine women who are doing amazing things – building families, building companies, building countries.
• Some of us will write that code.
• Others will merely read it.
• Still others will frantically try to upgrade their mental software to interpret the writing on the screen.
This is not going to be easy. Each and every woman is demanding the opportunity to make her unique contribution in the world. And they will want the men in their lives to be gentlemen – strong enough to be happy that they have amazing women to treat well.
You can play this one long or short, messy or clean, but the smart money is on women in the twenty-first century.
• Feminine strength is on the rise in both men and women. Successful leaders will exhibit characteristics of collaborative de-risking, building strong relationships and understanding networks. Command and control business environments will yield sub-optimal results.
• The millennials and individual capitalists will have more in common with women’s leadership styles and feminine strength than they will with Mad Men.
• The relationship between dad and daughter is important in building confidence in women, and in helping men understand women’s full potential in society. When the virtuous circle of dads and daughters is optimised, feminine strength increases in both.
• Build your own boardroom; drive your own train; devise your own game; write your own rules.
• The journey from discount to premium is always a personal one. Only you can flip the switch in your mind the lets you make that journey.
The article was written by Julie Meyer