Monday, July 13, 2009

Thinking about McNamara and the Gender of Management Styles

I've had Robert McNamara on the brain, which is strange. I didn't spend much time thinking about Michael Jackson after the first two days' flood of pop culture tributes, and yet, I find myself gobbling up every article I run across about McNamara.

I'm not a Baby Boomer. I was born in 1965. I have no personal memories of Vietnam.

But I find myself intrigued by his personality traits. I see him as a cautionary tale. I'm fascinated by how confident he was in his own abilities, in his beliefs. It never occurred to him that he might be wrong.

As I read these articles, I think of my own management style. I'm looking for my own personal weaknesses. Are there places in my work life where I've set myself up to fail?

I like to think that because I'm on the lookout, I'll be less likely to suffer from that streak of hubris. But I know that when it comes to our most deeply held beliefs, very few of us are capable of even realizing we might be wrong. Once we get it into our head how something should be done, very few of us can think of other possible ways.

I say that, but I wonder how closely linked to gender and privilege this trait is. I read an article in The Washington Post that has some interesting statistics about successful corporations that are run by women:

"Pepperdine found that the Fortune 500 firms with the best records of putting women at the top were 18 to 69 percent more profitable than the median companies in their industries. McKinsey looked at the top-listed European companies and found that greater gender diversity in management led to higher-than-average stock performance.

Is there a magic number of women? In some cases, it's just three. Catalyst, a research firm focused on women and business, found that Fortune 500 companies with three or more women in senior management positions score higher on top measures of organizational excellence. In addition, companies with three or more women on their boards outperformed the competition on all measures by at least 40 percent."

It's an interesting article, and it makes me want to read the book by the authors, Womenomics. It makes me wonder if my management style is more male or female. I do have a tendency to be ruthlessly efficient: I like to get decisions made, particularly if all the possible outcomes are fairly similar, and get on with it. But I also like to work collaboratively (especially with people who have similar decision making/management styles to mine) and to keep everyone in all the communication loops. Yet I also don't like to spend a lot of time making sure that everyone feels O.K. and no one's self-esteem is damaged, especially if there's a deadline to be met. I realize that we can't please everyone, and that there are often a multitude of agendas at work.

I like to think that I'm navigating all of this successfully. I'm sure Robert McNamara would have thought that he, too, was navigating it all successfully, which makes his life's trajectory such a powerful cautionary tale.

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