Deloitte small group

The factors affecting success: what women bring that is different

Last week on the 44th floor of what is (or perhaps once was) the tallest building in Benelux, a group of business women gathered and decided how to spend 250,000 Euros on their new venture. They were told they could not borrow any money from the bank and they had to quickly make a series of decisions which would determine whether they went bankrupt or survived and in the process, do right by the planet.

Not quite a normal day in business but then this was a game set up by Deloittes to test entrepreneurial skills and adeptness in an increasingly fast-changing world that demands profitably AND sustainability.  What made the day a little more unusual was the fact that all the participants were women. This was to be a uniquely female-only venture into successful business planning. I wondered what that might be like…

I’d had the privilege of speaking to these women in a keynote prior to the game (see transcript in previous blog post) and was also given the opportunity to have a bit of feminine influence on how the game was played. I only made some small changes but I could see that they did have an impact.

It was an interesting experiment. Here is my account of how it went with my insights summarized at the bottom…..

  1. Let’s start with the tables – the physical preparation for success!    You have to pay attention to the way the environment creates the atmosphere and shapes the narrative. Are you setting the space to support debate and argument or consensus?   So first off, I wanted to change the layout of the room. As is standard for meetings, the hospitality team had spent some time getting all the lines perfectly straight with the rectangular tables. I just knew it was important to re-arrange everything. Round tables really help to bring people together as a group and build community but that was not an option here. We couldn’t do anything about the table shape so we created a herring-bone V-shape which felt much better. The room was still neat but there was more flow. It’s a subtle intervention which can have a powerful effect on the outcomes.
  2. Turning a room full of strangers into a community:  

    Few of the women knew each other and this game was going to test everyone’s capacity to contribute quickly. That’s a little harder when you are sitting with strangers. When the going gets tough in business it’s the relationships you already have in place that will stand you in good stead. So I devised a warm-up bonding session to help create community very quickly. Read about the Power of Circle below. It worked a treat.

  3. The Power of Circle for community building and bonding:

    For the warm-up, we had four teams, so the women took their chairs away from the tables to make 4 tight-knit groups. This supported everyone having a closer connection without the table acting as a barrier. They were given just 2 minutes each to share what had inspired them to be who they are in life now. I gave each woman an inspiration card with a random word on it and an abstract symbol.  They were to share their story in the context of this image and/or word … whatever it meant to them. That way, their thinking would move into the more expansive right brain which would elicit a get a deeper sharing. When a question makes one think, one really never knows what one is going to come up with so there’s a need to delve a little deeper …. with much richer rewards and insights!   It’s fun, it’s intuitive and it starts to engage other parts of our selves.

  4. Getting everyone primed for attentive listening

    At first, the idea of sitting in a circle for a discussion sounds and looks a bit alien in a corporate setting, but once you are in it, it actually feels very comfortable.  Bring in a talking stick and that is of course another off-beat addition. The idea of a circle is that it supports everybody speaking, everybody being heard one at a time. What the talking stick does is let a person speak when they feel it is the right moment for them.  You can either speak in turn or allow whoever wants to go next as the mood and energy changes with the conversation. You just need to be the one holding the talking stick, or whatever is serving as the totem, and everyone else is attentive and listening. The sharing circle worked well and a community had started to form. They were beginning to get the measure of who they were and what different contributions would likely be made.

  5. Game on – how will decisions be made: 

    So the programme started with each team being asked to make a series of decisions on what kind of business they would be and what strategies they would use so there was quite a lot of debate before the game actually began. The room was filled with discussion. The players later reported on their enjoyment of their democratic approach of letting everyone speak their piece and give input into the decisions being made by really feeling heard.

  6. I had been asked to observe and make comments on the communication process. As the game progressed I noticed one team were further ahead so I paused the process to ask how they were managing the debate. Interestingly they were using the talking stick (in their case a green stone) taking it in turns to hold the veto or casting vote for each decision. They had taken the time early on to discuss how they would manage decision-making and it was paying off.
  7. How female only teams were different:

    To say that the groups were playing a game with a time pressure, there was a tremendous sense of calm in the room. The conversations and debate had been polite, friendly with very intentional listening which had created a very harmonious atmosphere.  The groups were all very engaged and there seemed to be a strong sense of focus and togetherness with barely anyone leaving the room for a break. It was hard to interrupt them.

  8. A lot of space had been created for deep listening. The groups ensured all questions were handled in a democratic way, everybody was heard fully.
  9. A spirit of friendly competition still remained in this very collaborative atmosphere. There was a desire to win but as I overheard the debates, I sensed an even stronger desire to do the right thing. There was a commitment to harmony and the elegance of conversation with everyone’s contribution respected.
  10. What I notice consistently in female-only groups working together is a strong desire to do whatever it takes to preserve the relationships.
  11. How things are done are held as important. Good process is valued and is protected against a strong focus on simply achieving the outcomes, especially if the community and relationships are look like they will be compromised along the way.

In summary:
It would be a mistake to conclude from this exercise that women-only groups are in any way better. What does emerge, is an opportunity to witness feminine energy be more present in the business context in the absence of any men participating. It is a chance for women to have a greater understanding of what happens when feminine qualities are magnified away from the presence of men. As I pointed out to the group during our concluding insights, research shows that balanced teams are more successful than male-only or female-only.

Both genders are bringing something different. This occasion was an opportunity to get a greater sense of what women can bring that is different from the dominant male culture.

  • Deeper listening: The circle style of conversation provided a communication structure that better supported this.
  • Inclusive debate: The groups exhibited a higher level of commitment to making sure that all were heard.
  • Relationships were valued. There was a high level of sensitivity as many participants were working together for the first time
  • Decision-making seemed to be very inclusive with all contributions sought and welcomed; and even those who were against the majority decision were given airtime to check that their views were included.