Helping men conquer the boardroom: Seven secrets to success

Almost every other human being on this planet is male[1]. Without any doubt, there are plenty of men whose superior wits[2], ceaseless caring[3], or blissful selflessness[4] are changing the world for the better. Why, then, do men still struggle to find their way into the boardrooms of large corporations (or, for that matter, into other leading ranks in business, politics, and society)? A lot has been written about the value of diverse leadership teams[5], so it is high time this value finally gets realised in practice by helping men actually conquer the boardroom.

The good news is[6]: Mens’ failure to join boardrooms in significant numbers is not caused by an insurmountable lack of relevant skills, such as knowing Hermès scarves by name[7], or being able to design and tailor nativity play costumes for second lobsters[8].

The bad news, however, is: The vast majority of men still do not accept the fact that women and their leadership culture are not going to change to help men succeed. Their illusions need to be shattered. At last, men will have to realise that they themselves, the men aspiring to conquer leadership ranks, will have to change. And this means: Men will have to engage in and master the challenge of intimately adopting the intricate web of attitudes and activities that make up the shining fabric of female-dominated leadership circles.

While this might sound daunting at first, fortunately, there are (only!) seven simple secrets how to succeed in a boardroom full of women. It’s the mens’ choice to live by these secrets and thereby create the opportunities for themselves to enter positions that match their leadership capabilities and aspirations. If they don’t, they are the only ones to blame.

Here are the seven secrets:

1. Look after your body. For women in leading positions (and in general, as I should emphasise), it is unacceptable to not consciously choose how you dress, make sure you look neat and smell good, and regularly reserve time to pamper your physical body. For example: One top executive I know changes her outfit up to three times a day depending on whether she’s presenting to investment bankers, meeting a creative marketing startup, or participating in an internal meeting. For men, a good rule to go by to start on this difficult challenge is: “Don’t wear the same tie two days in a row!”. If you adhere to this, other behavioural changes will swiftly follow[9].

2. Talk about feelings. Women are so omnipresent and successful in leadership positions because they know when and how to talk about feelings, their own and others. They understand the power that lies in addressing the emotional undercurrent of situations and how this can transform the depth and impact of any interaction. Most men are not good at this. Those who dare to try, can begin by identifying emotions as “positive” or “negative” and as “strong” or “weak”. Do it first in your mind, then by using sentences like: “Right now, I feel [emotion].”, or: “It seems, you feel [emotion]”. This will take you far[10].

3. Do what needs to be done. In my experience, this is surprising to many men, however, it is actually true: Women succeed because they do what needs to be done, no matter whether it is their daily job requirements (as in: answering emails, being on time for appointments, keeping deadlines), the office environment (as in: looking after people, plants, and wastepaper baskets), or their personal lives (as in: getting the laundry done, buying flowers for their partner, or arranging an evening at the opera for their parents). For men, a good way to practice this is to set an hourly repeat alarm and, when it rings, just for a minute look at your environment as something that needs your attention (as opposed to something that owes you attention). If you act upon what you see, that will make a difference[11].

4. When you’re delegating or outsourcing, look for the best person for the job. There are so many women in leadership positions, because, as leaders, they are supported by loyal followers, and these followers know that they, in turn, are valued for their contributions to what needs to be done. The root cause for this is that women, from the day they choose their first best friend in kindergarten to the day they hire a “second in command” when they’re CEO of a blue chip company, look for who effectively complements and amplifies their own capabilities. The best friend was the one who would plaid their hair and close the zipper at the back of their dress; the second in command is the one who disentangles the strands of office gossip that could undermine the CEO’s position and fills in the blind spots in her perspective. A practical rule for men wanting to train in this behaviour is: “Whenever you hire someone, hire the person who has what you don’t have”. Don’t worry if this feels uncomfortable at first[12].

5. Talk about what you think, not about who (or what) you know. Discussions among women in leadership teams are fuelled by the thoughts and ideas every woman around the table has on her mind. These can be inspired by recent events, people met, books read, movies watched, or just random associations of childhood adventures and beach vacations. This opens every single discussion to the variety of different perspectives and experiences each woman brings to the table. In such a setting, it is a sacrilege to refer to (seemingly) important people you know or (seemingly) factual knowledge of any kind (be it business-related or other). To practice, don’t ever again utter a sentence like: “Yesterday night, I had dinner with Charles F. Kane, and after sharing two bottles of his 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild, he showed me his collection of vintage typewriters”. You’ll be surprised what kind of conversations you’ll have instead[13].

6. Listen to the people outside the boardroom. Women’s board meetings extend beyond the walls of the boardroom. They actively reach out to hear the voices of colleagues and competitors, employees and experts, politicians and priests, friends, families, and unknown flying objects.  Whatever they hear turns into input to their debates and decision-making which, as a consequence, become richer and more expansive than any closed-door discussion could ever be. Men aspiring to be admitted to such discussions should get into the habit of regularly asking: “What would [any person who’s not present] say?”. Don’t forget to wait for the answer[14].

7. Lean back and look for meaning. Finally, women leaders have a habit of leaning back and looking for second and third order interpretations of what they see. A rose is a rose is a rose, and at the same time, it is a sign that summer is here, thorns are near, somebody loves somebody, a candle burned out, somebody is fighting for socialism, somebody is fighting for freedom, and somebody is fighting against somebody in a bitter war of mutual accusations and finally death. Men who don’t see beyond the rose (or who don’t even see the rose in the first place) will have a hard time getting into women’s boardrooms. If you want to practice, it’s not sufficient to stop and smell the roses. You’ll have to train yourself to never stop asking for the meaning of where the rose comes from. To make things simple, start by giving a single red rose to the person who means most to you in this world right now[15].

Embracing these seven secrets wholeheartedly, men can – and will! – conquer our womanised boardrooms. Those who make it will be rewarded by the genuine smile that lights up on the faces of their – male or female – board colleagues when they return to the meeting after hectically stepping out to make a phone call as they apologise: “I’m sorry, but I had to make that call to tell my mother to go by our house to pick up four empty toilet paper rolls, two half-litre plastic bottles, and a photo of our living room, and to hand all that over to my partner at the airport so they can stuff it into our twins’ backpacks when they pick them up from school and shuttle them to the weekend sleepover with their creative trash class. Without that material, the twins would’ve been inconsolable the whole weekend, and all their friends would have teased the hell out of them. Totally forgot about it when I left home this morning in a rush to get to my yoga class before coming here”.

[1] For a nice summary of world population statistics (not only on gender) see [retrieved Feb 10, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[2] To get a glimpse of outstanding intellectual feats in a (young!) man, read, for example, Runer Jonsson’s biographical accounts of Vicke Viking. BACK TO TEXT

[3] See life stories such as the outstanding achievements of Phil Connors, turned into an amazing movie by Harold Ramis. BACK TO TEXT

[4] Such as in Allan Karlsson’s breathtaking biography, masterfully told by Jonas Jonasson. BACK TO TEXT

[5] One recent example is McKinsey’s 2014 study “Diversity Matters”, see [retrieved Feb 11, 2015]; unfortunately, some such studies still promote the hypothesis that teams with more women outperform other teams, e.g. the research done by by Anita Woolley and Thomas W. Mallone, cited in [retrieved Feb 10, 105]. BACK TO TEXT

[6] The following hypotheses are based on my personal experience from more than 20 years of working as a member of and as a counsellor to diverse as well as mono-gendered leadership teams and of coaching individual leaders (male and female). There’s no quantitative research (yet) to back up my conclusions, and I do not claim any final truth for them at all. However, if there’s interest from qualified individuals, I’d be delighted to help design relevant studies. BACK TO TEXT

[7] This can be trained here: [retrieved Feb 11, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[8] There’s good self-help material on this crucial practical feat in Richard Curtis’ instruction video called “Love Actually”. BACK TO TEXT

[9] As practice material, you can use any high-quality style magazine out there – just go and browse the fashion section of the airport newsstand. BACK TO TEXT

[10] Further practice suggestions: Read one page of Jane Austen per day; watch “Out of Africa” at least five times. BACK TO TEXT

[11] Background reading material: Any of Agatha Christie’s “Miss Marple” mysteries. BACK TO TEXT

[12] For a comprehensive overview of complementary qualities that you might want to look for in others, study Astrid Lindgren’s “Pippi Longstocking” (Pippi Långstrump). BACK TO TEXT

[13] Practice suggestion: Read Virginia Woolf, “Mrs Dalloway”. Mark one memorable sentence on each page. Cite at least one of these sentences next time you’re in a business meeting. BACK TO TEXT

[14] For an experiential instruction on how to do this well, listen to Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides, Now”. BACK TO TEXT

[15] For more practice on meaning, read all of Hannah Arendt’s writing (including her correspondence, especially with men), and make it a habit to spend time thoroughly discovering one religious or sacred site in every country you visit. BACK TO TEXT

One response to Helping men conquer the boardroom: Seven secrets to success

  1. Joanne

    Great witty text
    I enjoyed reading it and passed it on

    Maybe a Lesson 8 Learn how to multitask?… Shifting on and off different parts of your brain continiously

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