The Transformative Leadership Styles of 3 Top Female CEOs
“Change is the only constant in life.” ~ Heraclitus of Ephesus, Greek Philosopher
The complexities of technology, business and modern life make those words--originally spoken more than 2,000 years ago---even more relevant and timely today.
One of the most notable areas of incremental change in this country in recent decades has been the ascension of women to the highest levels of leadership in government, academia and business.
In fact, managing change is now a requisite for leadership.
Three women, in particular, have assumed the dual role of de facto change agents and CEOs at their respective multi-billion dollar enterprises.
In each instance, these organizations are currently undergoing radical transformative change that requires decisive action, deft leadership, innovative ideas and near flawless execution to restore the operational footing of each company back on the path toward success.
Each of these “leading ladies” has had to exhibit a specific transformational leadership style to meet the immediate challenges of their respective companies to secure and ensure long-term viability.
1. The Visionary: Meg Whitman, CEO at Hewlett Packard
Facing eroding share, a commoditized market and growing competitor base, Whitman took the helm at HP in 2011. She instituted a five-year plan that was targeted to save the organization roughly $4.5 billion via a variety measures, which included more than 45,000 layoffs.
With the majority of her plan complete, Whitman announced earlier this month her intent to separate the technology stalwart into two separate businesses. One business will comprise HP’s printer and computer hardware products, while the other will focus on higher margin business-to-business software and services offerings, known as its Enterprise business.
Despite ups and downs since taking over at HP, Whitman has largely delivered on her vision and executed her plans. In fact, HP stock is up 26 percent for 2014, making the company strong enough to split and potentially unlock value in both the hardware and enterprise asset bases. Critics argue “dis-synergies” will occur through higher cost structures for both organizations could erode anticipated growth, but her vision and execution show little erosion at this point.
2. The Fixer: Mary Barra, CEO at General Motors
Barra has worked at GM her entire life, starting at the age of 18 as an electrical engineer. She advanced steadilu for 33 years, culminating with her ascension to CEO in January of this year.
That announcement marked the first time that a woman became the top executive at a top-eight auto manufacturer. But something happened on her way to the corner office, namely the revelation of an issue involving widespread defective ignition switches in thousands of GM vehicles.
Three months into the job, Barra was facing multiple investigative hearings before Congress; allegations that 13 people died and dozens of other were injured from accidents caused by the faulty switches; a multi-billion dollar class action suit and the largest series of recalls in the company’s history.
However, Barra has masterfully handled the crisis thus far by expressing genuine compassion for the victims, transparency with investigators and regulators and a commitment to create a new company culture that will produce the best autos within its competitive classes.
While promising to unearth the root cause of the colossal component failure, Barra has not accepted responsibility for the tragic deaths but has smartly accepted the responsibility to make it right and fix GM. She intends to break information silos and fix systemic dysfunction.
While it’s too soon to tell if she can deliver on that promise to fix GM, Marra seems to be the right leader at the right moment to try.
3. The Maverick: Marissa Mayer, CEO at Yahoo!
At 39 years of age, Mayer is the youngest of the three featured CEOs but she’s arguably the most tech savvy of the trio. She was Google’s “employee #20” when she joined that company in 1999 as its first female engineer. During her career at Google she worked in nearly every division before leaving for the top spot at Yahoo in 2012.
Mayer has since had a tumultuous tenure. She authorized more than $6 billion in buybacks of Yahoo stock, paid nearly $2 billion in dozens of acquisitions, including Tumblr. She's established several original content platforms with high-profile celebrities and put in place a host of new work polices that have been both welcomed and chided by Yahoo employees.
Investors have had a similar love-hate fixation with Mayer. Many shareholders want her to succeed in restoring the company’s fortunes, while at least as many, or more, chastise her for squandering those very fortunes on short-sighted acquisitions and short-term buybacks. As a result, a possible investor revolt is gathering support and could hinge on what she does with the $5.1 billion in post-tax cash from the IPO of Yahoo's original venture investment in Alibaba.
Whether you agree or disagree with Mayer’s actions, she had the guts to take action and restore Yahoo to relevance while trying to slow its earnings slide against critics and fierce competition from Google and Facebook.
Each of these leaders has daunting tasks ahead of them as they use their respective leadership styles to plot a path through their uncertain futures. The key takeaway is that regardless of your organization’s size, every leader can benefit from using all three leadership styles: Visionary, Fixer and/or Maverick, depending on the needs and nature of the change you’re facing.
We can further benefit by learning from the successes and failures of these three "leading ladies'' in real time, providing a veritable Harvard Business Review case study, times three.
When you have strong examples to follow, the best leadership strategy is a fast-follow approach to mimic their best and sidestep their worst. That is one business practice that is unlikely to change in the ever-changing nature of business.