Orchestrating Leadership

by Maureen Kanwischer

I recently had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Margaret Heffernan, a five-time CEO and author of How She Does It - How Women Entrepreneurs Are Changing the Rules of Business Success. Whether you are a male or female business owner, corporate executive or a corporate refugee turned entrepreneur like me, Heffernan’s thoughts on leadership for our new economy can apply to all.

Heffernan states that leadership is an orchestration not a command. In fact, an entire chapter of How She Does It is dedicated to this concept. In an orchestra’s performance, the conductor - the leader - is the only one not making a sound. She or he directs each performer, each instrument and each note to come to life. This simple analogy depicts leadership at its best. Conductors, without the orchestra, can not make music. Leadership is not one of dominance achieved by being the smartest, the toughest and hardest working overachiever in the room. Leadership, by orchestration, is achieved by putting the right people in the right place and getting out of the way.

Orchestration is a female form of leadership. Successful leaders combine all types of people with differing strengths to build their team. Successful leaders are not threatened by their employees’ strengths, but rather, thrive on it. They know that a smart team is better than any single mind. The old model of command and control corporate management is waning. Successful leaders cultivate the potential of many instead of focusing on the power (and ego) of one. Being able to hire smart people and allow them to get even smarter is a trait of many women leaders and clearly a business advantage. This orchestration form of leadership is comfortable for many women and an immensely effective way for women to run their businesses. Successful leaders weave collaborative efforts through the company.

I experienced the opposite of this a few years ago when I was a consultant with an eCommerce firm. No one in the company could make a move without running it by the division VP. This was his version of collaboration. As a result, smart people’s ideas were squashed, productivity was awful, intercompany politics was rampant (as managers jockeyed for a favorable position with the boss), trust was barely measurable and honesty was not admired. It was a toxic place to work.

The model for business excellence is changing. And, women possess strengths suited for this new economy. Heffernan’s research shows that women place values at the core of their businesses and take culture very seriously. In her interviews, she found that most women business owners describe their companies as a family. They strive for workplace flexibility that does not make employees (women and men) choose between a family and a career. As such, work becomes a part of their employee’s life – not something that takes away from the things they care about. Employees who feel nurtured by their leadership also feel stretched and challenged by the goals that are set. Recognition and rewards are integral parts of company culture for employees at all levels.

Successful leaders don’t measure creativity, productivity and commitment by a time clock. They are serious about growth and profitability and believe that by breaking down barriers between work life and home life, they can create cultures that are flexible enough to sustain both.

Research shows that women tend to reflect more, considering options and outcomes more broadly when making decisions. Once thought of as a weakness, asking for help or input is considered a strength. Women are gatherers. They multitask all day long and as they go along, they gather ideas, information and perspectives and develop their response accordingly. Collaborative problem solving results in better outcomes.

Unlike the corporate hierarchies I unhappily labored in, orchestrating leader’s organizations aren’t achieving excellence through internal competition and politics, but rather, through collaboration. This “female” quality was once viewed as bad for business and used as an excuse for women’s failure to reach the top.

Heffernan argues, “far from being a problem, such behaviors represent a solution because when we run our own businesses where ownership already bestows power and where we can more easily determine the values of our companies these same characteristics turn out to be tremendously advantageous. We are not dominant, which means that we aren’t threatened when our employees know more than we do. We are collaborative and understand that part of being collaborative is knowing when to bite our lips. By not singing our own praises, we leave space for more than one hero in every company. By not hogging the spotlight, we let the whole team shine. Only an idiot would mistake this for weakness.”

According to the Center for Women’s Business Research, as of 2008, there are 10.1 million women-owned firms (50 percent or more women owned) employ 13 million people and generate nearly $2 trillion in annual revenues. These firms represent 40 percent of all firms. The 2008 figures validate the success and progress women businesses have made as they continue to be the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurship in the country.

Clearly, the model for business excellence is changing. Are you part of it?


This article was written with the permission of Margaret Heffernan. To find out more about the author and the book, please visit to www.mheffernan.com.

Copyright 2011
Feel free to publish this article to your own site as long as you give credit: Maureen Kanwischer of Momemtum Business Consulting and link to my website: www.momentumbc.com. Thank you.