Strength in difference, power in relations

Times change, institutions evolve, opportunities have been taken, and thanks to better understanding of differences and similarities, strengths and weaknesses, progress has been made for women who sit at the negotiation table. When one thinks of great negotiators in business, many people might only be able to single out male leaders. But even if at present, some hangover of inequality still exists in some corners, we have come a long way.

To give a current perspective, CEDR held an event on “Women in Negotiation: Emerging Leaders” on 21 October at the London office of DLA Piper. The panel was composed of six women who’ve led interesting careers: Eileen Carroll QC (hon) (Mediator and deputy chief executive of CEDR), Margaret Heffernan (business author and serial entrepreneur), Janet Legrand (Partner and senior elected board member of DLA Piper), Kathy May (business affairs executive of ITV Studios), Fiona Smith (general Counsel of NEST Corporation), and Diana Wallis (President of the European Law institute and former Vice-President of the European Parliament). It made a fascinating comparison to hear first-hand about their experiences of working in negotiation contexts.

The basic question was how do women become successful leaders in negotiation and what are the obstacles?

To become a leader one needs to be a negotiator, and for women a difference in approach may also be a real strength. Margaret Heffernan started with an interesting anecdote: While writing her first book, The Naked Truth: A Working Woman’s Manifesto about Business and What Really Matters, there was one chapter that just didn’t want to be written. Its subject was power. Spending time and research on it has taught her that women tend to see power differently. They have less passion for power in itself, but instead more of one for power with people and relationship – a more empathetic approach where the relation counts as much as the success. Diana Wallis told how she, when acting as President of the European Parliament had accidentally chosen to sit in a seat where it was easier to have contact with other people rather than the traditional chair of the president at the top of the room.

All the panellists shared experiences in which negotiations were not only about winning, but about maintaining a good relationship by helping the other achieve their goals. Not only does the victory feel more complete, but it also builds a good reputation, which is always influencing the people you meet. Their behaviour will be different from the start if they fear you, or if they have heard about your strength, honesty and respect. By looking outside the pure ‘power’ towards the other parties, these women have built themselves great reputation. People remembered and wanted to work with them again. This ability to build a positive image through collaboration is one of the strongest aptitudes women possess.

Perhaps when you are not bothered with the race for power, you have time to build relations, and real power comes to you.

Before becoming the experienced negotiators they are today, the panellists all had to climb a ladder that was not ideally tailored for them. To do so, some have had the chance to have role models, both male and female, and work with some eminent individuals who have championed them, seeing the Leader beyond the woman. Yet the overwhelming feeling was that the best way a woman to feel empowered today is to build confidence in herself – Janet Legrand of DLA Piper, Kathy May of ITV Studios and Fiona Smith of NEST all spoke convincingly on this. Obtain skills and experience, remember her accomplishments and trust in her abilities. The image of the woman that our society still often carries through its caricatures and pre-conceptions will disappear by itself through the reputation and the example she creates.

The experience of accomplished female leaders in negotiation or elsewhere should inspire. Certainly the speakers, with their different backgrounds and influences, have managed to build their careers in a business world that was not just going to unroll a red carpet for them, and so they have created their place – as women – in a society that was a few decades ago mostly thought for men. Margaret Heffernan in particular singled our Eileen Carroll of CEDR for this achievement.

The lesson that we learnt from this evening, for the generation of leaders to come is that whilst differences may exist between genders, they are not at odds, but rather complementary, and by accepting the inherent particularities of each, we will obtain a diversity of talents necessary for a positive evolution of our institutions. If some people, particularly women, are better at building a diverse social capital around themselves, we should utilize skill this for the benefit of the whole team and its overall objectives, enriching and strengthening our potential to achieve.

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2 Responses to Strength in difference, power in relations

  1. Liz Rivers 30/10/2015 at 16:44 #

    This post reminds me of the the distinction between “power over” and “power with”. Traditional models of power are power over – a zero sum game. We urgently need a new model of “power with” which expands resources rather than competing over them. I believe that women are ideally placed to take the lead on modelling a new relationship with power – and first they have to become comfortable themselves with the notion of power and being visible.

  2. Hilary Gallo 10/12/2015 at 11:58 #

    Great points. I agree that what we often understand as power is – as Liz puts it – “power over” – dominant power which is dependent on a surrender of power rather than being power itself. There is an implicit deal we do in life whereby we give up our real power to dominant structures. This nurturing of power in ourselves and its reclaiming is the approach that coaching is built on. We have to reclaim our true power and then everything works better. It’s not just a female thing though. I’m slightly passionate about this topic having lived through it myself as a negotiator and with a book – The Power of Soft – out on 28th Jan.

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