3 reasons women will pave the way for a new type of leadership
By Project Director of the Global Opportunity Network Marianne Haahr
When UNGC, DNV GL and MMGI made the Global Opportunity Report we asked more than 5,500 leaders worldwide about their views on systemic change. Looking at the answers through a gender lens reveals new insights about how female leaders think, and especially how they look at opportunities for systemic change. This data reveals three reasons why women can rock entire systems, and help define the new type of leadership required to turn the Sustainable Development Goals into concrete action.
After all, the 17 Goals are essentially the new job description for business everywhere, requiring leaders to be systemic thinkers, realistic optimists and to see opportunities for change even in difficult situations.
1. System thinkers
The ways our societies are structured have become massive stumbling blocks to how we develop systemic thinking. From early on in school we deal with different parts of the world in different classes with different teachers. Some students develop a love for math and natural sciences and we, as parents, tend to think of our child as a ‘mathematical’ child who may grow up to become a doctor or an engineer.
A silo approach continues in work when we enter organizations, businesses and public offices divided into silo structures and distinct teams which act as barriers to innovation, co-creation and information sharing. Departmental silos are a growing pain for most organizations of all sizes. It leaves a mark on our mode of thinking – we become silo thinkers when people say ‘my department’ or ‘my unit’ thereby identifying themselves with small parts of a business solution rather than with its entire mission. Unfortunately, this way of thinking is showing no sign of going out of fashion.
Business leaders who challenge silo thinking are what we need in this new era of the Sustainable Development Goals. We need leaders who can analyze, understand and communicate how their business (big or small) contributes to the large systemic changes called for by the 17 new SDGs. This is the core of system thinking – being able to see the tree and the forest at the same time.
The survey of the Global Opportunity Report tests the levels of belief of leaders in 15 concrete opportunities for systemic change. Of all the 15 opportunities in this year’s Global Opportunity Report, it is women who hold the strongest belief in our ability to pursue such opportunities compared to men. Women also strongly believe that these systemic changes will benefit society. In fact, only one single opportunity found greater support amongst men than amongst women, which is the opportunity to develop a new business model for bringing new antibiotics to market.
From the data set it is clear that women show an ability to see potentials for systemic changes when faced with concrete opportunities for action. In short, they appear to be inherent systemic thinkers.
2. Realistic optimists
In the survey we asked both female and male leaders about their belief in the 15 concrete opportunities for action and the data shows that women portray a more optimistic mind-set than men by rating all but one of the 15 opportunities higher than their male counterparts. In addition to this, women also demonstrate a strong belief in the more immature opportunity spaces presented in the Global Opportunity Report 2016.
One example from of an immature market opportunity that we highlighted is the potential for antibiotics-free meat production, which is about removing antibiotics from our farms and stables. It requires an entire system overhaul, from the design of our stables for livestock, to the fact that small piglets will require more ‘mum time’ as antibiotics cannot longer be used to speed up the process of shifting them from milk to a solid food diet. It would also mean the end of antibiotics being poured directly into the feeds and the drinking water of livestock. There is no doubt that it will create systemic change. In the survey women display greater belief in this immature opportunity than men, in addition to more mature opportunities such as a new global diet.
In short, our survey shows that women believe in the entire spectrum of opportunities. This is exactly what characterizes a realistic optimist – that they do not only have one plan to tackle a problem but that they have plan A, B and C.
3. Difficult – not impossible
Looking at SDGs through a gender lens matters in terms of which SDGs we expect to be new market drivers. The table below shows which of the SDGs female leaders’ rate more highly than men in terms of their potential to drive new opportunities.
If the SDGs are grouped into the five P’s 1) People 2) Planet 3) Prosperity 4) Peace and 5) Partnerships then the trend shows that SDGs which focus on ‘people’ present the greatest business potential for business leaders. Investing in people is a complex issue as it requires change in institutions, cultures and norms, all of which is inevitably hard work. It will be difficult – but not impossible in the eyes of the women leaders surveyed.
Women see lesser business potential in the SDGs related to the planet than men, but they see greater business potential in peace, whereas men and women both rate jobs and inclusive economies as the greatest drivers of business potential.
Finally, the fact that women rate SDGs related to people and peace highest as new opportunity drivers shows that women see opportunity even in the most intractable places. There are no easy or quick fixes to these complex challenges but women believe in opportunities for change – and with belief follows an ability to rock entire systems.