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Say “Yes” to Innovation: A Six-Part Series on Cultivating an Atmosphere for Change

How women have been successful at leading change and innovation. What a powerful combination: being an engineer and being a woman!
Say “yes” To Innovation: A Six-part Series On Cultivating An Atmosphere For Change

Part 4: What’s Sex Got to Do with It? How Women Engineers Lead Innovation

In our last blog, we discussed the role of leadership in innovation and how engineers can use their unique strengths to create and sustain an innovative culture. In this one, we’re going to show how women have been successful at leading change and innovation. What a powerful combination: being an engineer and being a woman!

Two studies forcefully demonstrate how women have what it takes to innovate.

The first is a research-based book on gender differences in leadership titled Breaking Through Bitch: How Women Can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly[i] by Carol Mitchell. It confirms that successful women in leadership positions are more likely than men to have the competencies needed to create, to thrive in, and to lead an innovative culture.

And the second is Eve of Change: Women Redefining Corporate America,[ii] an Everest Project study of how women leading transformational change are having a profound impact on corporate (and male-dominated) cultures of invention and innovation.

The conclusion of both studies is that women have a “secret sauce” for creating sustainable cultures of innovation. As with all sauces, there is a combination of ingredients. But what they boil down to is collaborative leadership.

In the last blog we talked about collaboration as one of the six most important innovation behaviors. And we pointed out that as an engineer you have a leg up on this behavior. You tend to be a good collaborator because you spend so much time working on project teams. You understand the need to get along with colleagues, draw out and work through differences of opinion, and otherwise participate effectively toward accomplishing a common goal.

Let’s take a closer look at the ingredients in this secret sauce of collaborative leadership.

Inclusiveness: The women in Mitchell’s study (let’s call them the “Mitchell Women”), “share power and information with their team members, encourage collective problem solving, and allow solutions to develop from among the best ideas of the group.” The women in the Everest Project (referred to in the study as the “Everest Women”) “…take the view from 10,000 feet when they collaborate. They look to access key skills and knowledge from across the organization, and they use it to make smarter decisions.”

Some of the behaviors of a collaborative leader we cited in the last blog are engaging others in pursuit of a challenge and encouraging involvement. Mitchell Women come to the table with their teams to determine the best solution. In other words, they harness the intellectual horsepower of their people.

The Eve of Change study shares this view, saying Everest Women don’t put a premium on having all the answers. Instead, they welcome input and listen actively. In so doing they “convey an openness to new ideas that fuels innovation.”

Erasing hierarchy: Another thing we pointed out in our last blog is that collaborative leaders deemphasize status differences in order to empower people to act. Mitchell Women are particularly effective at this. They build connections with and among staff members, by establishing common ground and creating a platform for casual conversations about mutual interests that builds rapport. This behavior diminishes hierarchy and the boundaries it creates.

Breaking down hierarchical boundaries requires humility. The Eve of Change study says: “Humility, often considered a weakness, is the new power tool in leadership. In this era of flat organizations and a flat world where everyone is called upon to collaborate and work effectively across [functional] silos, humility is a critically important skill. When used strategically, humility fosters a vibrant environment where it’s ‘safe to make change and to break some things’ – fertile ground for innovation.”

But you can’t be humble unless you are confident in yourself. Confidence among Mitchell Women was demonstrated by a strong belief in their ability that allowed them to exercise authority – not by stridently enforcing their position of command, but by sharing power with others. A confident leader credits others for supporting and/or enabling the leader’s accomplishments. Furthermore, that confident leader instills confidence in others, sincerely expressing her belief that others can succeed.

Empathy: Empathy allows Mitchell Women to relate to others. Their ability to sense what others are feeling helps them identify boundary-reducing connections. With direct reports, this creates a sense of teamwork and belonging. With peers and those above them in the organization, making these connections results in a strong ability to influence out and up.

The empathy of Everest Women is shaped by their own difference. They are women in a male-dominated world. And some of them also have identities with racial, ethic, and/or LGBTQ groups. This gives them an “acuity for understanding people who are different” and an ability to easily shift their thinking between contexts.

Self-awareness: Collaborative leaders are aware of how they are perceived, according to Mitchell’s research. This allows them to modify their behavior so others can relate to and engage with them. They are authentic and transparent about their emotions. This lets others know where they stand and in turn builds trust.

Everest Women know how to fit in while still being themselves. They are “skilled self-monitors” who adapt to their environments without conforming. They “adapt their behavior to influence how others respond and act, not out of fear of being judged but rather to advance their own goals.”

Political and cultural savvy: Mitchell Women have a full grasp of culture and group dynamics. This enables them to understand the most effective courses of action. They know how to navigate the politics of an organization and understand the relationships that form the power network. They use this knowledge to guide their teams on the best routes to take to getting things done, and to remove roadblocks that get in their way. They also use it to help the team understand how they fit into the organization’s big picture.

And as we discussed last time, “Culture is the shadow of the leader.”[iii] Mitchell agrees, saying women influence the culture as well as navigate it. “[Collaborative leaders] set the tone for the behaviors of others, a tone that allows innovation to blossom, nurtures the development of [individuals] and teams, and creates engagement.”

According to the Everest study, women possess a high level of cultural intelligence and use it to create “team, leadership, and managerial effectiveness” by making sure people with divergent views have a seat at the table. Researcher after researcher has reported that a diverse group of people, with their different perspectives, generate more and better ideas.

Ability to communicate insights and vision: Mitchell Women connect the dots for their teams, making meaning of an onslaught of complex information. They do this in a simple, straightforward way that others can readily grasp. And they communicate in an unintimidating manner that sparks people’s creativity and willingness to share ideas rather than making them fearful of “saying something stupid.”

The Eve of Change report tells the story of a woman executive who was under the gun to turn around a declining business. She didn’t have the luxury of time: she needed to quickly get people going in the right direction. A male leader might have resorted to command-and-control in this situation, but that wouldn’t have been an authentic style for this woman leader. Instead, “she employed both disruption and collaboration to bring her team to a new reality and a new way of working.” Her number one asset, according to her manager was “the ability to work through complex environments and to bring others on board the boat. It often required ways of communicating that won the hearts and minds.” She inspired people to follow her rather than commanding them to do it, and she got the job done.

Neither the Mitchell Women nor the Everest Women were necessarily born with all these skills. Some of the skills were innate, surely, but the women gained many of them over time, relying on their own natural female instincts and tendencies to guide them.

Whether you are an engineer who aspires to a leadership role or a current leader who understands her responsibility for nurturing engineering leaders for the future, you are probably wondering how to hone these skills in yourself, or help others develop them. That will be the topic of next month’s blog. I hope you’ll tune in.

Patricia Schaeffer

About the Author

Patricia Schaeffer is co-founder of Talent Strategy Partners, a leadership development consulting firm that collaborates with executives to identify and develop a pipeline of emerging leaders ready to fill mission-critical positions. You can reach Pat at (215) 275-7430 or

[i] Carol Vallone Mitchell. Breaking Through Bitch: How Women Can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly. Career Press, September 2015.

[ii] Pamela Carlton and Lily Tang with Erin Lee, Lisa Friedman, and Natividad Hawkins. Eve of Change: Women Redefining Corporate America. The Everest Project, October 2014 – October 2015.

[iii] Larry Senn, expert on organizational culture and leadership.