Leadership lessons from the most influential female leaders in business

The perspectives of three influential women in leadership on what it takes to lead a business successfully. We explore the views of Marillyn Hewson, CEO at Lockheed Martin; Mary Barra, CEO at General Motors; and Brenda Trenowden, Head of Financial Institutions, Europe at ANZ Bank.

What does it mean to lead effectively? What do the most successful leaders in business have in common?

In this blog post, we explore the perspectives of three influential women in leadership. These are all women who are leading very successful (and typically thought of as male) businesses. 

So let’s take a look at what these leading women in the engineering, automotive, and financial industries have to say about leadership.

Marillyn Hewson: the most successful leaders demonstrate four key traits

Last year, Fortune magazine named Marillyn Hewson, chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, as the most powerful woman in the world. Having started out at the aerospace and defence company in 1983 as a senior industrial engineer, she spent thirty years working her way to the top.

Hewson was quoted as saying that her mother’s resilience when left to care for five children after the death of Hewson’s father, taught her “everything I needed to know about leadership.”

She also maintains a commitment to ongoing learning, writing in a LinkedIn post that, “Leadership skills are perishable. True leadership takes a devotion to listening and learning to build and maintain leadership skills and effectiveness.”

And in an interview from 2016, Hewson surmised that the most successful leaders, regardless of their gender, consistently demonstrate four fundamental traits: trustworthiness, compassion, decisiveness, and innovation.

We talked about the importance of trust in a recent post, and how leaders can earn trust by adopting open communication styles, demonstrating honesty, showing vulnerability, and acknowledging when they are wrong. Hewson summed up the value of a trustworthy leader like this:

“Leaders must exemplify integrity and earn the trust of their teams through their everyday actions. When you do this, you set high standards for everyone at your company. And when you do so with positive energy and enthusiasm for shared goals and purpose, you can deeply connect with your team and customers.”

On decisiveness, Hewson posits that leaders must be able to make clear decisions even in the face of uncertainty. On being compassionate, she says that we need to treat people “as they would like to be treated.” This is all about emotional intelligence. It’s being aware of how people are feeling and showing that you care. And on being innovative, she argues that leaders need to be able to step out of their comfort zone, to learn from their mistakes, and empower everyone to feel comfortable contributing their ideas.

For Marillyn Hewson, these four traits - trustworthiness, compassion, decisiveness, innovation - are the key to leadership and organisational success. What do you think? Would you agree? Is this what it all comes down to?

Mary Barra: the value of quiet leadership

Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO at General Motors, takes the number two spot on Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women list, following Hewson. Barra joined the automaker company in 1980 as a student and in 2014 became CEO. Since taking on the top spot she has driven GM (excuse the pun) into electric vehicles, self-driving vehicles and a ride-share service.

Barra has shown immense resilience as a leader, having faced plenty of challenges during her five-year tenure at the top. Soon after she became CEO, the company were forced to recall 2.6 million cars after a fatal malfunction in older vehicles led to multiple deaths. In fact, Barra believes that this incident altered her leadership style altogether. It forced her to shake up the historic culture where people didn’t feel able to voice their concerns about things in the business. She launched a “Speak Up For Safety” hotline for people to easily and quickly report concerns they have about vehicles.

Barra has talked publicly about empowering people to make their own choices and believing in them to do the right thing: “We have 200,000 employees at General motors - they want to do the right thing. Just make sure they know you want them to do the right thing.” She believes that expending trust and responsibility to people helps bring out the best in them. Leaders don’t always need to make a huge scene to demonstrate trust either. It can be shown in small ways. For example, Barra changed the dress code from a long-winded policy of do’s and dont’s to just one line: “Dress appropriately.” This is not just about trust. It’s about treating people with dignity and respect.

Barra is also a perfect example of how leaders don’t need to egotistical, dominant, and over the top. She demonstrates a quiet leadership, a humble leadership, where she is keen to collaborate with others and will always give credit where its due. No doubt she emulates a calm confidence that makes people want to trust her.

But do people always respond best to a quiet leadership style? Or is there something to be said for those leaders who make more noise?

Brenda Trenowden: it all comes down to attitude

Brenda Trenowden is Head of Financial Institutions, Europe at ANZ Bank. Last year, she won the top spot in the FT & HERoes 100 Women Executives list.

Trenowden is a big advocate and campaigner for gender equality in the workplace, and is the epitome of an inspirational leader, having inspired many to join her quest. She has amassed the support of numerous FTSE 350 chief executives to back her 30% Club organisation, which campaigns to get more women in senior corporate roles. Trenowden has even been recognised by the Queen for her work in promoting diversity in business and was made a Commander of the British Empire.

In a recent article, Trenowden revealed the leadership skills she believes necessary to drive inclusivity in organisations; from really listening to people’s needs and wants, to recognising others’ role in decision making, trusting people to do the right thing, to calling out biases, and showing curiosity towards new ideas.

In an interview with City Women Network, Trenowden was asked what things equip her for leading through uncertainty. Her response was incredibly refreshing:

“That’s easy – I surround myself with great people who are not afraid to challenge me; I try to be very focused on the end goal and flexible in managing the plan to achieve it, and finally I ensure that I have a good balance of positive things outside of work to keep me balanced – good friends, lots of exercise, and a strong sense of purpose. A positive mental attitude is incredibly important.”

What do you think? Is being an effective leader really this simple?

A common thread

There a few common themes that link the perspectives of these three women who are leading very successful - and typically thought of as male - businesses. For one, it’s being human. It’s caring about people, about building relationships, and inspiring others, while still taking initiative, making tough decisions, and driving for results. Trust is another common thread. Leaders need to trust in themselves and demonstrate trust in the people they work with in order to inspire and motivate.

What are the leadership traits that you try to emulate? Can you resonate with any of these women? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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