Menswear brand Bonobos is run by a woman—me—and has an executive team that is dominated by women. For some, that may be surprising. After all, you might imagine that in order for us to truly understand our audience, cater to them and drive business results, we should live in their shoes.
I believe that for any business, success is predicated on your ability to live in other people’s shoes. The juxtaposition of different perspectives unlocks creativity, innovation and growth.
Study after study shows that teams and organizations with diverse populations deliver a higher pace and quality of innovation, driving in turn higher financial return. To quote just one from Boston Consulting Group, companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues, specifically due to innovation.
Obviously, this refers to diversity of all types—age, race, socioeconomic background, gender, religion—but what is fascinating to me is understanding the particular power that comes from bringing together men and women to solve problems.
So why is that? And how can we foster it?
“Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus.” Maybe not an original statement, but one that I find to be startlingly accurate. In my experience, there are just some things female leaders do better than male ones, and vice versa. Women are multitaskers; they tend to be more empathetic, question more, focus on the how as much as the what while men tend to be more focused, analytical and risk tolerant. Bring them together and enable them to play to their strengths, and you have the best of both worlds.
This is not a new idea. Looking back in history, there are actually some great, albeit little known, examples of male-female partnerships driving some of the greatest innovations of our time. Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage with the genesis of computer programming, or Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn giving birth to the concept of nuclear fission. These brilliant minds—one female and one male—partnered together to offer humanity some of the most incredible inventions and discoveries.
How can we develop similar partnerships that people will look to as an example in the future?
Clearly this starts with ensuring both men and women are at the table to begin with. This relates directly to gender balance in recruiting, which starts with a diverse slate. After creating a fair recruiting process, ensuring that advancement and engagement opportunities are available in equal measure is imperative for showing your team a path forward.
However, you also then need to make sure that all voices are heard. It’s all too easy for the dominant voices to dampen, or even silence, the softer ones. As a CEO, I have started to experiment with a few different ways of ensuring that all ideas are heard.
First of all, is taking turns, the simple act of making sure that everyone has spoken in a meeting. What is often more interesting, though, is reverse turn taking, where the meeting organizer asks the quieter folks in the room their opinions first. This may seem a little intimidating to them but actually ensures they are heard, unfiltered.
Another is to break people into smaller, gender-balanced groups when in a large meeting to discuss the content and give collective feedback to the larger forum. Or for those that are intimidated by a perspective in a public forum or take longer to formulate an opinion, giving them a channel to share their thoughts as a follow-up, either in person or in writing. This recognizes that everyone is different and creates a safe space for everyone to express their opinion.
As the tide starts to turn for gender equality as women find their voice and men give them the opportunity to use it, it’s time for leaders to fuel that momentum.
In the spirit of the theme of Women’s History Month, my ask of other CEOs—male or female—is that they create a team and culture where they bring these different perspectives together around the table and actively enable the dialogue. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes good business sense.