Closing The Gap

I talked to over 100 women leaders—the top 3 things I learned about what makes them successful

Whitney Wolfe Herd speaks during the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit at Detroit Opera House on October 11, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan.
Taylor Hill | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

I was inspired to write my new book, "When Women Lead," by the odds-defying stories of phenomenal female leaders I've met and interviewed over the years as a reporter at CNBC and at Fortune Magazine before that. The 120-plus mix of CEOs, founders, and VC investors are — by definition — exceptional in the male-dominated business world. I wanted to both share their stories and also to find takeaways in their successful strategies. 

As I started to report the book, just before the pandemic hit, I had an unexpected opportunity: the ability to analyze their approaches and follow their progress as they navigated the toughest, most uncertain times since World War II. 

I also had a particular advantage as I scheduled back-to-back zoom interviews: pretty much everyone was at home. Not only did that mean that people were more available to talk to me, but the massive disruption of stay-at-home orders and upheaval to business forced everyone to step back and take stock.

While many of the CEOs I interviewed were struggling to keep their companies afloat, or to pivot into new business lines, they were also considering bigger picture questions about their, and their company's purpose. 

As they worked to motivate (and retain) frustrated and scared workers and to figure out their next steps, I felt like I was watching a master class in leadership across sectors. Stock prices fell (and then rose and then fell again) and CEOs struggled with day-to-day concerns of everything from inventory shortages and supply chain constraints, to employee retention and training. 

Looking away from the day to day at the big picture, I found three top leadership traits that seem valuable to anyone, regardless of industry or position.

The best leaders are most authentic to themselves

Though the vast majority of CEOs are men (women comprise 8% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and female founders drew 2% of VC dollars last year), not only is there a wide variety of CEOs — check out the 60+ women I feature in my book, including Bumble's Whitney Wolfe Herd and Ellevest's Sallie Krawcheck — but there are a wide variety of successful leadership styles. I was impressed to find these women deploying characteristics that would seem like they could detract from strong leadership — like introversion, empathy or gratitude — to their advantage. 

Take Jennifer Holmgren, the CEO of Disruptor 50 company LanzaTech, which uses a microbe to turn pollution into a fuel. She's a self-professed introvert who prefers to listen rather than speak, which would seem to be a disadvantage when it comes to convincing factories and fuel buyers to embrace her technology.

But she explained to me how she made it a superpower: She used all that listening to figure out what her counterparties in negotiation actually wanted and used her empathy for their position to create a compromise that could work for everyone.

Holmgren likely wouldn't have succeeded had she tried to force herself to be a chatty, gregarious salesperson. But by figuring out how to lean into her own traits, and make the most of them, she turned her introversion and empathy into a superpower.

A new book by CNBC's Julia Boorstin examines the strengths of female leaders
A new book by CNBC's Julia Boorstin examines the strengths of female leaders

Have humility — rely on data, not ego

I heard a lot from the CEOs I interviewed about how painful it is to make hard decisions — like cutting the cord on favorite projects or to put employees on furlough to stay afloat. Leaders are certainly human, not machines, and it's easy to get attached to a plan, especially one that they've poured time, money and resources into. 

I found that CEOs kept themselves honest — able to make those hard decisions, and not getting caught up in their ego — by focusing on data, and working to collect and analyze more of it. Clear CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker told me about the hard decision to pull the plug on her $24 million marketing plan for the year, in February 2020, weeks before a global pandemic was declared.

While some were holding out hope that global travel wouldn't come to a screeching halt, the data was telling her that she had to act quickly — and she was right to. 

Find your purpose — it helps with perseverance 

There's no doubt that running a company — or leading anything — is hard, never mind during a pandemic or the economic uncertainty we're facing now. So how did the women I interviewed persist in the face of all those challenges, plus the additional double standards and higher bar they had in fundraising as women? 

The resounding answer: they focused on their purpose, whether it was changing an industry like retail, or creating new products for fertility and health care that they needed and knew other people did too.0

Planet FWD founder Julia Collins, is working to drive adoption of regenerative agriculture; Tala CEO Shivani Siroya, whose company offers microloans in emerging markets; Christine Moseley, the CEO of Full Harvest which is working to reduce food waste — all of them told me that whenever they felt discouraged they focused on the importance of their purpose to find energy to persevere. 

They're not alone: women are 20% more likely than men to create companies with a social or environmental purpose, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. One thing I heard repeatedly: by focusing on a company's larger potential to help humanity, entrepreneurs can find greater sources of inspiration and determination when the going gets tough, which it inevitably does.

Plus, there's plenty of evidence that having an additional purpose is valuable in appealing to consumers as well as attracting and retaining employees — which is more important now than ever.

Check out:

How this 29-year-old is helping Black women land jobs at Disney, Amazon—and increase their pay by as much as $60K

Working moms get 58 cents for every dollar dads earn—and the pandemic has made the pay gap worse

Your workplace desperately needs this type of boss, researchers say—but only 1 in 4 employees have one

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