The hum of 450 voices – of which perhaps a dozen or so were male – packed the space of the Hilton Prague on a recent Thursday. Judging by the hum’s intensity, the networking was in full gear. The official conference hadn’t even kicked off, but no one was left standing alone – after all, never letting anyone stand alone was one of the official rules that the Networking & Learning booklet spelled out.
Organised by Women’s International Networking, the three-day global leadership conference, now in its 12th year, had more than meet on the menu, though. Through workshops, open forums and one-on-one mentoring, as well as some good old’ bodywork such as relaxation and yoga, the conference organisers want to empower women in business.
The stress is on injecting the feminine values of compassion, integrity and community –though, the founders acknowledge that men, too, have the capacity to possess all of these – into doing business and promoting authenticity in leadership.
“We see it clearly in 2009, with the financial crisis, that there’s a need to bring in nurturing and care,” WIN founder Kristin Engvig said. The idea is to move away from knowing and toward sensing and feeling, being present, she noted – a very yogic perspective, especially when coupled with a 15-minute seated meditation at the very start of the conference.
Susanne Heis, vice-president and general manager for Hewlett-Packard’s Imaging and Printing Group in the Middle East and Mediterranean region, pointed out that companies with women on managerial boards are more successful, which becomes an important piece of evidence in convincing corporations to add more oestrogen to their employment rolls. Heis often sees women in supportive functions – in, for instance, marketing and coaching – but, she says, for the state of things to change, they need to be entering managerial functions.
Statistics were introduced to show that women are still underrepresented. Jana Hybášková, a former European Parliament representative, underlined that women make up 15% of politicians in the Czech Republic, and Bridget van Kralingen, general manager of IBM Global Business Services, noted that 50% of females are working low-paid part-time jobs below their potential.
During his Shaping the Future presentation, Nigel Nicholson, a professor and former research dean at the London Business School, suggested that the leadership model that society clings to is to blame. The current system based on the theory of meritocracy in which everyone should rise to their level of competence is very static, he said, and comes from a male ideology that obsesses about this type of linear hierarchy.
Elin Hurvenes, a founder and chairwoman of Professional Boards Forum, suggested that quotas could be the solution to female underrepresentation. She referred to the Norwegian quota law that requires company boards to comprise at least 40% women. “It was the largest transfer of power since people got the right to vote,” she noted.
Eco-feminist, chairwoman of NGO Agentura GAIA
In 1995, Haisová organized the first-ever women’s club in the Czech Republic, among dozens of other projects to forward the eco-feminist cause. Disenchanted with the “tasteless chauvinism in the country”, she believes that hardcore quotas are the way to go.
What role do women play in business in the Czech Republic?
It could stem from my limited access, but the women in business I’ve met were working within essentially male structures, doing their business in a male manner. My experiences vary, but those women most visible, usually highly positioned within larger companies, are very able but merely fill in for men.
Is the issue of women’s representation in businesses neglected in the Czech Republic?
I think it’s a wholly ignored issue. You could see it quite clearly during the government’s session yesterday between individuals from the parties that chipped off, including TOP 09, the Greens, Kalousek with Christian Democrats. As soon as (the Democratic Green Party’s) Zubová stepped in, all were enraged, refusing to sit down with her around the same table. They dared to act this way because she’s a woman. There’s such arrogance around here in the Czech Republic, such a chauvinistic atmosphere.
A male’s life is centred on studying and then creating a career for himself. Uninterrupted by anything, they operate vertically while women do so horizontally, covering multiple issues including providing for another generation. It’s tough for us to make it outside of the mainstream represented by a patriarchal society. If women were more involved in the running of this world, then they would expand the perspective by other dimensions of life.
How can we move toward greater representation of women within leadership positions?
Quotas: hardcore quotas for all structures. I’m currently working for a municipal authority that comprises 80% women, but they are the administrative bees while the board’s representation is much the opposite. It’s not just about taking into consideration numbers mechanically, but looking at the context.
Stories to inspire and chew on
As one attendee suggested during a cigarette break, if nothing else, the conference feeds its guests chunks and chunks of inspiring stories of others who have carved a place in the world doing what they identify with. The words that hovered above the marble floors and extra-cushioned carpets of the Hilton were inspiration, mission and passion. All panellists at a workshop on feminine entrepreneurship often referred to a mission or a calling in their lives. “Do what you see as useful and the rest will follow,” said Haisová, the chairwoman of Agentura Gaia, wrapping up the session. While the women presented success stories of starting from scratch, success is but a fraction of the process, as Haisová pointed out. She has submitted hundreds of project proposals, of which about a dozen were approved.
Sacrifice was apparent in all of the personal narratives. Giselle Rufer, the president and CEO of DELANCE Swiss watches, who also coaches others, laid out her criteria for female entrepreneurs interested in working with her: “I first ask them if they have money, and tell them they could lose it, if they have a husband, and that they could lose him, and if they’re willing to work 15 hours a day 7-8 days a week.”
If you happened to not have a mission or a calling, the WIN conference was not the place to bring it up.
Humanitarian, consultant, speaker, writer and WIN board member
“The word that inflames my life – I mean red – is passion, paradox and peace,” said Rojas beginning a presentation and wearing, yes, a flaming-red dress and a giant red pin-on flower topped off with red-brimmed glasses. Rojas says we need to think beyond feminine values and make humanity the context of business. “My goal is that businesspeople become peacemakers: that they go from accounting to looking at the context.” Rojas doesn’t deny that businesses inherently strive to be profitable, but questions whether that’s all they need to be.
You said the financial crisis is essentially a humanity crisis.
Yes, what I said about the financial crisis as a human crisis is that if humanity had been in the centre of the circle, we never would have had a financial crisis. And we still have a crisis because people in power are only looking to when the economy will get better to go back to the same. There’s a little bit of talk about we have to do things differently and maybe we will have a business course in ethics or something like this. But, when you listen to people, really listen to people, in many countries where I go, it’s almost like they are waiting for the rain to stop so that you can just walk out to the street and do it all over again.
I’ll show you an advertisement that got my attention on the train. (She sifts through her bag and takes out a clipping with the headline Symbols of Power and Success.)
Symbols of power and success: That’s what’s in the middle, and the people who really function in this way are in leadership positions, so it’s not humanity in the middle, it’s still symbols of power and success. I think when the storm is over, it’ll be more of the same because people just get more clever at what they can do to continue amassing power and success. Most of the masses of people who are most hurt most by the financial crisis were already suffering, so they don’t impact what caused it nor how to fix putting their humanity, their value back in the middle
What are the ways to move towards the values of compassion and greater humanity?
I think the first move is internal, so that’s what I aim for in the students. I trust that their professor in economics, management and whatever will teach them those tools they need to know. I teach by touching their experience of greater humanity with lots and lots of exercises and projects; the theory they have to do on their own. Because when you feel for someone, especially for yourself, then you can change. As long as you’re not feeling – you know that’s what neckties are all about – you can remain numb to the consequences of the inhuman way you might be conducting business in or the inhuman way your boss fired you. It’s just that everybody is looking for “let the financial crisis be over” as if that was the solution. No, no, no, no, this has been unravelling for hundreds of years.
Is the time of the financial crisis, then, the time for people like you to step in?
It could be a chance. You hear me hesitate because people like me have always been there. And now everybody is talking these words, which in some ways works against us because people know which words to use. Like false corporate responsibility programs that are really PR to make the company look good, but they’re not really about being deeply and truly more humane.
Beyond soft skills
The time of businesses being just businesses has climaxed and wilted, no doubt. As Hassina Sherjan, the founder and president of an Afghan Boumi Company, said during a panel discussion: “It takes a lot more now than just having a business because there are all these serious issues in the world.” Today’s entrepreneurs, female or male, need to be exponentially more creative, selling the idea not the product, she said.
During a plenary discussion, Helen Erikson, the founder and managing director of Beyond, advocated embracing intuitive intelligence in order to attain more wisdom to guide future decisions. As multifold as intelligence is, our society dominantly employs the language and logic branches. To grasp and overview complexity, she says, we need more than social and emotional intelligence; we need intuitive intelligence.
The old vs. the new in her eyes: career vs. calling; employees vs. co-workers; competition vs. symbiosis; time stress vs. flow.
Erikson said that, if we manage intuitive intelligence, we could in fact become “intuitive surfers” no longer fatigued by day’s work. Once we have employed all our intelligence, we will be growing while giving.
The London Business School’s Nicholson also suggested that we move more between different worlds to reveal our abilities, proposing four meditations to unravel personal values for doing business with authenticity: “Who am I and why am I here?”; “Who are we and what do we stand for?”; “Where are we going and why?”; and “Why must we change?”
President of the IEDC-BLED School of Management, Slovenia, and President of the Central and East European Management Development Association as well as of the UN Global Compact Slovenia.
Purg calls herself a born leader who assumed the organiser’s role at age 5. Her initial suggestion for women is “to take over the companies that men failed to manage”. She sees great value in soft skills during the time of crisis. As key as strategic networking is, she says that women aren’t really part of it.
What role do values of ethics and humanity play in the way of doing business these days?
Up till now, people made everything about reaching growth. And, of course, growth is important but not as important so you’d have to reach it at every price. They are now talking about the social principles of the firms: the ones we were used to in the past. All these words like empowerment is giving more rights to employees; there are many values we had before that are coming back, but in a different way. Also ethics – that you understand the context you are working in, that you are respect more the diversity, the individual. In the future society, it is not important whether you are a woman or a man, but it’s more important that you are human. As the dean of a management school, I can create this culture, and I created this culture. Now, when I employ people, I look whether he or she has a feeling for innovation, whether this person talks about ethics, and if not, I don’t employ them.
I am also including art in leadership development as a tool. In our MBA program we have 8 days of art. The artists are creating an atmosphere in which students are reflecting – “Am I a good person?” – like putting a mirror in front of them. In management, there’s too much routine and people do things without thinking too much. The art are helping us to see more, hear more, feel more. So, artists put us in touch with the human selves; that’s why I see art as an important element in leadership development.
So, it’s about bringing in more feelings into business.
Yes, exactly. This English musician said that a business act must in fact be beautiful, must be ethical. It would be a mistake to think that there’s no emotion in business. I think that the biggest business decisions were full of emotion. I survive all the hard work just because I believe what I’m doing.
What role does the concept of humanity play in business environment in Central and Eastern Europe versus the west?
Again we are returning back to some of the values. In the past, many companies weren’t successful, at least in Slovenia, because they were too much managed for glory, not for profit. That means they were interested in society at large, sponsors to everything, which was very human. Then came capitalism where they threw out all the social aspects. Now we come back to seeing that you cannot be successful without being happy, at least long-term. We have to look at long-term developments. Management schools are also responsible, because everything about management schools is also about money. For example, you receive a good ranking if your students receive large salaries after graduating. They don’t ask you how many things were changed in your town, in your organization because of the graduates. There has to be a radical change, and as Machiavelli said: Don’t waste a good crisis. I am afraid that, because of national injections, this crisis will be over too quickly without too much having changed.
I think that in central and eastern Europe we were more brought up in this social concern, and brought up with education having a greater value than money. I think we have more regional energy and the background of being able to adapt quickly. We are used all these disturbances, so we should implement this human aspect sooner. We should just have more confidence, and work on leadership skills. One of the problems of this part of the world or the former socialist world is that we are not seeing all the opportunities: We’re not thinking big enough and going for it.