BOSTON — DO women CEOs lead differently from men? Is the entr'e of women into higher echelons of power making an impact on how corporations are run? While much of corporate America is still rooted in hierarchical management, Sally Helgesen sees glimmers of a new, more humane style, and much of it is coming from women leaders.
In her book ``The Female Advantage,'' (Doubleday, 1990, $19.95) Ms. Helgesen examines the individual styles of four executive women who developed ways of leading that come out of their sense of womanhood and break the traditional hierarchical mold. They are: Dorothy Brunson, owner and president of Brunson Communications; Frances Hesselbein, former head of the Girl Scouts; Anita Roddick, president and founder of the Body Shop, a $300 million international chain of natural cosmetics stores; and Nancy Badore, executive director of the Ford Motor Company's Executive Development Center.
The new management structure, rather than a pyramid with an isolated, insulated boss at the top (with secretary standing guard), is more like a web, with the manager in the center of a series of concentric circles. ``The advantage of the web style, is that anybody can talk to anybody,'' says Helgesen, in a telephone interview from her home in New York. ``With that kind of structure, it's more flexible. You can move them around as you need them to do tasks and it's not seen as a demotion.''
Information is treated differently. In the traditional power structure, information is viewed as power and is hoarded. Here, it's shared. ``I see myself as a transmitter - picking up signals from everywhere, then beeping them out to where they need to go,'' says Ms. Brunson, whose company owns three radio stations.
Helgesen says the old hierarchical mode is becoming obsolete in a time of global competition, instant communication, a work force that includes large numbers of women, and the need for flexibility and fast decisionmaking. ``This is an interesting moment in history,'' she says. ``What businesses most need and what women can supply is congruent.''
This is a departure from the 1970s and '80s when women were criticized for not having enough understanding of the importance of hierarchy, she says. Many popular books of the time stressed the importance of playing by ``men's rules.''
``And yet, here I saw four successful women who had not gotten with the program at all,'' she says. ``They were not interested in the assertions of power so common in their hierarchical organization. They maintained a kind of facility of putting themselves in middle of an organization rather than the top. It was fascinating because I was seeing you didn't have to adapt to the way it's always been, you could maintain your own values and be successful. I found it exciting.''
Among the women she studied, Helgesen found a concern for the big picture rather than merely the bottom line. She's been giving talks at major corporations lately. ``One of the reasons we're seeing an interest in this system is it reflects way technology works; it's more responsive, it allows organizations to take advantage of many talents of people in the organization rather than giving them labels. It's suited for its time.''
There's no secret, all-women's MBA program that teaches ``women's style of management.'' There's not just one style. And not all women managers are good ones. Helgesen does not get into the old nature/nurture debate about the source of feminine qualities.
When asked what women's style of management might look like, Ms. Roddick said, ``Principles of caring, making intuitive decisions, not getting hung up on hierarchy or all those dreadfully boring business-school management ideas; having a sense of work as being part of our life, not separate from it; putting your labor where your love is; being responsible to the world in how you use profits; recognizing the bottom line should stay there - at the bottom.''