Why Leadership Style is So Important for Women

What does it take to succeed in business by really trying? Women leaders report that adopting a different leadership style depending on the situation has been key to advancing their careers toward the C-suite–even though they said men didn’t need to change as often.

KPMG’s Advancing the Future of Women in Business report polled 550 high-performing executive women from 150 leading companies who are one or two career steps away from the top tier of leaders in their organization. According to the study, 81% of respondents said being more adaptable than men with their leadership styles helped them lead successfully and advance in their careers. About two-thirds also said they changed their leadership styles more often than their male counterparts as they rose to higher levels within an organization.

Results were shared at KPMG’s fifth annual Women’s Leadership Summit in June, designed to help participants discover and enhance their leadership styles, network and meet members of their ongoing mentorship group. The goal, says Michele Meyer-Shipp, KPMG’s chief diversity officer, is to help “catapult them to the next level in their career.”

Meyer-Shipp noted that, during her own career, she has identified with a number of different leadership styles and learned through mentors and experience that shifting her approach helped her move up the ladder.

“This was an incredible [report] for women that mapped out things that they would not otherwise know” and let them identify their own leadership styles, Meyer-Shipp says.

Survey participants reported falling into style categories:

  • Authentic (leading with passion, purpose, and strong relationships)–49%
  • Democratic (facilitating group decision making), transformational (leading change through a mentor-like approach)–27%
  • Transformational (traditional, rule-based performance pursuit)–24%

No respondents reported belonging to the other two defined categories: laissez-faire (hands-off management) and transactional (leadership through rules and regulations). (For more details, visit the 2019 Summit site.)

The women cited societal pressures and cultural norms as the primary reasons for changing their styles, often after receiving feedback that they were “too bossy or demanding,” “not aggressive enough,” “not collaborative enough” and “too direct.” The majority (58%) said a transformational leadership style is the path for reaching the C-suite.

The report offered more than a dozen tips for success, which include considering whether a different leadership style could help solve a challenge, problem or crisis; creating real and honest relationships in the workplace; seeking out leadership experience outside the office; and accepting leadership challenges whenever possible.

With fewer than 5% of S&P 500 companies having a female CEO, HR can play a key role in supporting women’s career trajectory. Meyer-Shipp suggests incorporating the report’s lessons into diversity-development programming. “I wish I’d had the study in my hand six years ago,” she says. “It really resonated with me.”

She also recommended establishing mentorship programs and encouraging women to seek candid feedback on a regular basis to help them evolve their leadership skills.

“HR has to figure out a way to start these conversations, create forums or create opportunities or venues for women to have a conversation about leadership styles and development,” she says. “Everyone is not necessarily a natural-born leader and we don’t necessarily all come to the table knowing how to lead.

“Folks are hungry for this type of learning and education,” Meyer-Shipp adds. “They’re hungry to find the time to step away to focus on this. We just need to make the space for them to do it and provide them with the resources.”


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Maura C. Ciccarelli
Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.