Gendership: A Guy’s View

When I interviewed Mike Howard, Chief Security Officer at Microsoft, on the subject of leadership, we also had a great conversation about the role he sees gender and diversity playing in modern organizations. I listened to understand Gendership – the partnership of women and men working and leading together – from his perspective so I could share his insights with you.

Women in a Man’s World

Mike started his career on patrol as a police officer in Oakland, California in the mid 70’s. He had the privilege, he said, of working with the first female patrol officer in Oakland and this experience has stayed with him through his entire career in the CIA and now at Microsoft. One particular incident stands out in his mind, especially when he hears male colleagues say “women just can’t hack it.”

He was on duty in the middle of the night when his radio blared that a female officer was in a car chase, pursuing some rape suspects not far from where he stood. Running on foot towards her location he arrived and found her – all five foot five inches of her – with both suspects on the ground and a shotgun aimed at their heads. Since that time, when men he’s worked with doubted the abilities of women, he remembered that image and knew they were wrong. “Just because you’ve never seen a woman perform like a man doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” he says knowingly.

In that experience, and over ensuing years of intelligence and security work, Mike has seen plenty of other reasons to admire what women bring to the table. He is particularly appreciative of the ways in which, when men start to let testosterone escalate a situation, a woman can step in and help de-escalate things so they don’t end up badly. “Any time you can resolve a situation without violence, that’s the best outcome,” he says.

His observation tracks with a similar dynamic that Air Force Lt Gen Fedder identified when I interviewed her; when women enter a room filled by macho-types, the men become more polite. When the men become more polite, more ideas are tolerated in the discussion, they are explored in more depth and better decisions get made in the end.

Women and Risk

I was curious about Mike’s experience working with women and men in security and intelligence and whether he’d experienced any meaningful difference in how the two genders handle ethics and honor.

“I haven’t seen any difference in how men and women approach honor,” he responded. “But there is a difference in how they approach risk,” which can have ethical implications.

In his experience, men are more willing to take risks – ethical and otherwise – and this can mean they get into trouble more often. “I’ve seen both men and women try to do more than they should and get hurt,” he observed, “but women approach risk in a different way.” As a result, men tend to get hurt more often. His observations are consistent with my research into the subject of women and risk, in which it seems that women tend to take more considered risk than men in many instances.  Mike and I both observe that women are not risk-averse, they simply approach risk differently.

Women and Leadership

Mike’s primary observation about women in senior positions is that their presence supports his strategic leadership goal to create a diverse decision-making environment. In his experience, whenever there are a diversity of views, thinking styles and backgrounds in the discussion, the decision that gets made is better. He actively includes women in his leadership team for just this reason and encourages all his leaders to do so as well. Women are not well represented in the feeder fields for corporate security such as law enforcement and the military, he notes, but “I suspect we will see more women getting in the field as demographic and age shifts take place with baby boomers moving on.”

In the meantime, I’m glad Mike’s there to help bring up the women that are there now into leadership in such a challenging and important field. Thanks, Mike!

Are you, or do you know, an INpowered woman (or man!) we should consider for an interview? Power isn’t always about title. Contact us to propose an interviewee and subject. (Not sure you or they are INpowered? Get smart on the 5 Principles of InPowerment.)

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