An Interview with John Gerzema

Apr 27, 2015 5:10 PM ET
Campaign: The CSR Scoop

CEO Danielle Holly recently sat down with John Gerzema, best-selling author of “The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future,” to discuss his perspective on why the leadership qualities often seen as feminine must be ascendant in the 21st century workplace. John is a pioneer in the use of data to identify social change and help companies anticipate and adapt to new trends and demands. His recent work explores the rise of feminine skills and competencies and their impact on leadership, policy and innovation.

In this interview, Danielle and John discuss what workplace skills are commonly associated with women, how Millennials are redefining our conceptions of leadership, and why companies must integrate these feminine qualities into their business to stay competitive in a new economy. 

What first inspired you to write the Athena Doctrine? How did you come to this topic as one of import?

As I studied social trends in order to understand how companies can better position their brands, I started to develop a belief in the idea of mindful consumption. Consumerism coming out of the economic crisis had started to shift. Capitalism was now about “better,” instead of “more.” When we looked a bit deeper into this shift, we found that many of the values that society was increasingly favoring, such as long-term thinking, passion and empathy, are typically considered “feminine.” So, for The Athena Doctrine we surveyed individuals across 13 different countries about what traits they identified as masculine and feminine, and what their attitudes were towards these various traits. Ultimately, there emerged a clear, albeit perhaps implicit, consensus that feminine traits are vital to making the world a better place.

It’s fairly accepted that today’s companies must look beyond growth and profit to create a positive experience for their employees and think about how their work feeds into what’s happening outside their office doorsteps. How have you seen companies and employers really integrate that work into their day-to-day operations?

One area in which we see this shift is in companies learning to be more flexible by allowing and empowering their people to pursue the important work that they believe in, even if that work doesn’t fit neatly within the scope of their job description. Millennials are all about “hyphenated living” – everyone is an actor-writer or a banker-philanthropist. They don’t want to compartmentalize their personalities to before and after 5:00, but rather want to bring their whole selves to work. The workplace must now figure out how to accommodate these workers in order to tease the most skills out of them and to retain their talent.

Candidly, it’s still a big struggle. You have a lot of these “big and heavy” companies that are finding it really tough to make those adjustments. We see lots of large companies like Intel, GE, and IBM to name a few, that are collaborating with external innovators to learn how to be more nimble and adaptable. More and more we are seeing that it is not just wealth and money that drives people to happiness in their careers, so it’s increasingly important for companies to figure out how they can satisfy their evolving workforce.

From your research, it sounds like Millennials are the most ready for change on the issue of women’s leadership. What is it about Millennials that makes them more inclined towards the feminine operating system you’ve outlined?

It’s really interesting to see in our data how much more closely aligned young men and women are in their attitudes than the men and women of previous generations. We saw far more progressive attitudes towards women, even in countries you wouldn’t expect. For instance, in countries like India and Indonesia, on questions such as “we need more women leaders” or “society would be fairer if we had women in power,” young men were even more progressive than women over 50 – exposing some pretty striking generational gaps.

More anecdotally, when we travelled around the world meeting with these innovators, nearly all of the Millennial-led start-ups had a values component to them. They were built on the principles of ethos and ethics. For instance, the peer-to-peer models of Friendsurance and Zofa exemplify this concept of incorporating elements of youth, purpose, and connectedness into business design. The success of these organizations speaks to the fact that our society is becoming more values-driven.

There is a lot of focus right now on the power and importance of female leadership, but you are one of the few men we see at the pulpit on this topic. Why aren’t more men in this conversation, and how can we get them there?

This was actually the irony of The Athena Doctrine. We debated long and hard about how much to put a gender lens on it, but ultimately the data came back with the very clear message that the ethos of the modern leader is more feminine. We needed to highlight to the public that 2/3 of people around the world think that the world would be a better place if men thought more like women and that the core emerging modern leadership skills are actually more feminine, in the eyes of men and women around the world. The resounding message we learned from our research – both empirical and anecdotal – is that in this open, social, interdependent economy, leaders need to evolve. They still need to be aggressive, resilient, decisive and all those more male-associated qualities that leaders are known for, but they also need to build in more of the feminine qualities such as empathy, transparency, collaboration, selflessness, passion, etc. We all have masculine and feminine traits and we need to embrace these feminine traits in order to survive and thrive in today’s economy. In fact, The Athena Doctrine is a book for men in particular. Some of the most innovative people we saw were men that were breaking out of lethargic masculine industries and thinking differently by leveraging these powerful feminine traits.

At Common Impact, we work with individuals across the private, public and nonprofit sectors. Do you see a difference in how the sectors are incorporating female attributes of leadership?

We definitely found far more “Athena thinkers” in start-ups and NGOs, in part because they aren’t governed by stocks and quarterly reports, so have more space for these newer, more experimental modes of thinking and leading.

Surprisingly, we also found some really big thinkers in places you wouldn’t expect, like politics. For instance, we spent time in Reykjavik after the financial crisis and interviewed the provisional government who was crowdsourcing a new draft of their constitution – emblematic of the inclusiveness and candor of Athena thinking.

The larger message in the book is to not get dissuaded by the malaise of any given industry or challenge; there are lots of innovators out there disrupting the status quo and using these feminine skills, whether they’re in politics, business, or nonprofits. And these innovators will continue set the example and scale their initiatives as Millennials are coming into the workplace and as people, frustrated with the state of things, seek new solutions.

Our readers are largely the individuals – within both big companies and small nonprofits – who understand the imperative for change and want to create more conscious leaders with a fuller spectrum of leadership qualities. Do you have one piece of advice for these folks in terms of getting started on this large task?

My one large piece of advice is to have the ethos of a student. Core to this ethos is a wonderful sense of vulnerability and humility that creates the catalyst for disruption by allowing you to open your eyes and see the world with new possibilities. We saw this overarching trend among nearly all of the innovators we spoke with across the world; vulnerability is a huge disruptive force. It is very feminine and yet it is a huge way of studying the world, trying to understand pain points and seeing that connection to innovation.

With the hint of summer we got this past weekend, we’ve got ice cream on the brain. What’s your favorite flavor?

Definitely Mint Oreo from Ben and Jerry’s. It’s my Friday night indulgence!