Why An Executive Leadership Role Isn’t Worth the Sacrifice


In large corporations, women continue to be under-represented in executive leadership roles, with many self-selecting out of the running for these jobs by mid-career. What can we learn from this continuing trend? Could it be a call to re-evaluate the corporate culture and potentially even how businesses are managed?

The dominant paradigm of today is that the primary purpose of business is to maximize value to the shareholder. This thinking is often coupled with the view that the value available to distribute within a business ecosystem is limited, and therefore, to meet the short-term demand of value to the shareholder, it is necessary and acceptable to trade-off value from another stakeholder – such as the employee, customer, supplier or partner. In its extreme, this model of business can drive short-term thinking, cannibalize the viability of the other business stakeholders and put the long-term sustainability of the business system in question. It can result in a resource-lean environment that challenges the ability to get things done, encourage competition over collaboration, and leave little white space in which to foster innovation.

Are women simply rejecting this model of business and the often fear-based, competitive, 24/7 culture that it creates? I’ve written before that women tend to view their careers from a different lens: they tend to define success differently than men, and they feel more freedom to choose a different path. These differences offer insight into their choices.

Men tend to define success as hitting the target – winning in some fashion. Making trade-offs in order to achieve a target is a generally accepted approach to life. Women are far more committed to living a multi-dimensional life, encompassing career, family, friends and other interests. They prefer a collaborative and open work environment, and are more motivated by the need for meaning and to make an impact, than just by financial reward. In short, many women do not find the experience of executive leadership in a traditional corporate culture to be worth the necessary sacrifices.

Women at the same time feel more freedom to choose a different path. They are more willing to challenge the status quo, and when they don’t feel their perspective is valued, they feel less pressure to conform. They do not feel the same societal expectations to follow the traditional corporate ladder path to success, and as a result feel free to choose differently.

Of course, this discussion of the differences between “men” and “women” is based on generalities. Women are certainly not the first and only contingent of leaders to question the current business paradigm and culture. However, maybe women’s choices are more visible? They are a distinct demographic, rendering visible a trend which has certainly been in place over time.

So, what are the potential implications of this trend? For businesses operating within the traditional paradigm, one of two things will likely happen. For some businesses, the visibility of this trend may highlight the need to question the current business culture and the business model behind it, hopefully prompting change.

However, for many businesses, the attachment to the current business paradigm may run too deep to see its frailties. They will continue to operate in this model, squeezing as much margin as possible from the system. They likely won’t recognize the erosion of their talent, their inability to innovate, their hostile partner relationships, their poor supplier quality and their unhappy customers until it is too late.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story; it’s simply a new beginning. The most significant implication of this trend may be that many of the women who have chosen differently, along with the heretics who came before them and the millennial leaders just beginning their careers today, are actively building new businesses. Businesses which operate according to a new set of rules, based on purpose and the recognition that value provided to employees, customers, partners, suppliers – society ¬– is the only sustainable way to provide long-term value to investors and facilitate the overall growth of the system.

These new businesses are quietly proving to the world the validity of a new model… they are the future of business, and it’s looking bright.

Passionate believer in people, systems thinking and conscious business. Curious explorer of ideas and connections. Recovering corporate executive helping leaders align and engage their employees… awakening organizational excellence.

  • Lisa, you hit it right on the head! I see eye-to-eye with you here:

    “They will continue to operate in this model, squeezing as much margin as possible from the system. They likely won’t recognize the erosion of their talent, their inability to innovate, their hostile partner relationships, their poor supplier quality and their unhappy customers until it is too late.”

    …And your conclusion is RIGHT what I see as well: if women are opting out of top leadership positions in legacy enterprises, I think it would be wrong of us to think that means they are opting out of leadership entirely. Many that I have observed are leading more progressive organizations instead. I’m also glad you pointed out the Millennials, many of whom I’ve observed leading in more progressive companies where they don’t have to wait their turn for the old white guys to retire, and where they can have a life outside of work, too.

    When I meet the C-level leadership of a company and it’s a bunch of white dudes my age and older, with maybe one woman and one minority in for good measure… well, I hear the distinct tune of “Taps” playing off in the distance.

    Folks, you can’t lead if you don’t have a broad array of talent represented among your leadership. All you can do, as Lisa says, is ignore reality and wind your company down. Stockholders beware.

  • Kate Brookes

    I completely support these comments, but can women already in the chain towards more senior leadership roles afford (time or financially) to wait for this change to become widespread?
    I have recently started working with the CMI’s Women in Management’s national advisory committee to try to accelerate change for women.
    I an really keen to have a network of like minded people who are willing for me to stay in contact with, for ideas, challenge, support and anything else we come up with to make change happen.
    Please let me know if you are with me and let’s keep posts like the one above coming to provoke new thoughts and challenge old beliefs.

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