Many women ARE showing their back to corporations – that is a fact. They look for something more fulfilling than fighting irritating battles, need more freedom, want to cooperate. And so: they often decide to leave behind the world of elegant costumes and dwell into a risky adventure of their own small businesses – might it be flower shop, bakery or IT consultancy. Numbers confirm this trend, consequences of crisis seem to speed this up - and it all could bring a significant shift in our economies, many experts agree. But – is it only about women? First typical criticism you would maybe think of. If we explore more in depth, there appears to be a lot of evidence suggesting that an important holistic change has taken off. It is not only about them, but women for sure have a very important role to play in this exciting upheaval.
Amy Selwyn is an American intellectual with bright eyes, sharp sense of humor and impressive resume she can proudly show around: CV displays names like Salomon Brothers, New York Times, APTN or BBC where she hold high executive positions. Now she is happily installed in her own consultancy helping companies to build their brands. How has this happened? It all started with typical corporate behavior that she could hardly bear for ever. As a structured person she offers immediately a very precise description of her feelings and findings: “1. The absence of any kind of meritocracy. People who worked incredibly hard and who cared deeply were not necessarily rewarded (usually weren’t); people who politicked, played golf with the director and kissed ass were the ones who got the opportunities. 2. The deep distrust of artists and intellectuals. Those would be called Design people were seen as fruitcakes (people without any business sense) and intellectuals were perceived as troublemakers or theorists. Or both. 3. The emphasis on hierarchy.”
Amy does not avoid talking about unpleasant things like mobbing too: “Yes, I have been the victim of bullying. I was bullied so badly by one male boss (an alcoholic who came in to the office every day around 11:30 and worked until midnight, smoked in the office although it was forbidden and who openly detested me because I am Jewish…) that I threatened a lawsuit. I was transferred to another department. He later tried the same behavior with my successor; she sued and won.”
Having two decades of experience from corporate sphere, Amy did not want to spend rest of her career like that. After a journey to Italy where she dedicated her time to the beauty of Renaissance art she launched her own company: “I was tired of being told that the best I could hope for was to make my boss look good. Screw that!“
It is tempting
More of traits mentioned above might sound familiar to other women executives. Aspire, global leadership development organisation for women, made a survey with 1200 ladies. It brings to the light a very strong number: almost 8 out of 10 women (78%) on managerial or executive positions are considering leaving and starting their business. What frustrates them most? Dr. Sam Collins, Aspire founder & CEO, answers this question for us from London: “ It is a combination of factors but most prominent is organizational politics, lack of humanity in some corporations and the difficulty of being yourself – personal authenticity.” In other words – this trend proves to be not just an impression, but something very real. Women leaders in fact often not only consider this - but do DARE and jump.
The Crises: corporate manners “upgraded” to survival mode
Let’s move to the heart of Europe – Prague - and meet Marie Petrovova. Former head of communication at Komercni banka and GE Money, two big players on banking market in the Czech Republic. Now co-owner of Osvobozena domacnost (Free Household), company designed to reduce home care worries. Her story is characteristic for post-communist economies. She was directing top bank’s communication already at the age of 30. Working directly on a high-level position, she did not go through typical corporate power battle. “I loved my job. I saw important changes coming for clients like introducing internet banking for them and others. It made sense. But the financial crises changed the climate completely. Cuts, cuts, cuts. Less managerial positions to fight for. It reinforced the worst corporate manners and brought survival behavior. It took part of pleasure of working away, many people started to be frightened regarding their basic needs. They had cash flow habits from the times that were gone. When you are vulnerable, you are driven by basic brain instincts – fight or run. Stress hormones then are doing their work. And all this definitively does not support creativity and cooperation at your workplace.”
Marie took it slowly with her husband, Michal. They decided to have a year rethinking deeply and in a mature way both their lives – to identify where they wanted to be headed. She has a balanced point of view, according to her corporation takes from you whatever you are willing to give, suggesting that the control over it is a lot in our hands. At her case, may it sound as a kind of paradox, the final impulse that gave her courage was a program that her employer - GE Money had. It was called Banking on Women. It was an initiative to help women entrepreneurs. “When I saw all those brave ladies, I could not resist leaving and trying to start my own business – I was just too inspired” – says Marie with a typical smile on her face.
Czech Republic: explosion of women businesses
She started this year and is one of many in her country. Report released at the end of June by Association of small and medium enterprises shows that during past year, in the Czech Republic the number of women launching the business was 10 times higher than men doing so.
Jan Bubenik – former McKinsey consultant, now headhunter has noticed it from his experience too. According to him “women have more pillars to stand on – for men it is usually just one – their job position. Women look around, they observe what is cooked in school cafeteria, what could be done differently…analyze quickly where there are any needs. So if they loose their job or decide to leave, they spot market opportunities in a natural way – they know what product or service is missing in the community. It can be fresh bread…whatever, they start with their friends as first clients and that is how their small business is expanding. They need some value, being useful – that is the most rewarding feeling for them.” Jan is describing men as often selfish – and has a simplifying term for that: “we usually live in ME – while women in US philosophy.“
MEN AND WOMEN – what is going on?
Let’s keep up with this topic, which is definitely bringing an interesting question: how is men-women dynamics developing in corporations nowadays? Isn’t gender problem much more serious than we would like to admit? Amy Selwyn is bringing her experience again: “ In almost all cases, the most senior people were male. I was looked at as smart and capable…and a great deputy. Never the senior person, just the deputy. More recently, I have experienced this very worrying habit of men commenting on women’s looks and suggesting that being pretty is a key ingredient for success. It is completely inappropriate.” Now, being on her own, she considers the clash of energies being solved for her: “I have values and a purpose and they determine where and how I operate. I’m not concerned with male and female roles now because I ONLY work with people who share my values. “
Dr. Sam Collins, Aspire CEO, adds her observations: “Many large organizations have a masculine dominance. There is a stereotypical perception of men and women being different and therefore in conflict, many men and women are starting to appreciate each other’s difference and cooperating successfully, evidence shows that balance of men and women on boards brings about financial success. Where it does not happen, women will leave. I believe we need to understand gender dynamics to get to a point in future where it is more about individual difference”.
Jan Bubenik does not think that companies have come to conclusion there is a danger of loosing potential of women and their strong sides. “At least in the Czech Republic the maximum is to start flexible hours programs and similar activities. Which does not address the problem itself. And that is only talking about the smartest organizations. I don’t believe corporations would generally reflect on this in terms of a possible future trouble” – says Jan.
Hey, it’s not only about women!
I can hear some of you saying: wait, wait – there are also frustrated men leaving corporations. I had a few comments like this immediately. Libor Maly is one of those who would put their argument exactly this way. Libor has started a very successful website www.jobs.cz in 1996 – and in 2011 he sold the company called LMC that runs the portal for 35,4 millions euros to Alma Media, media group from Finland. He has been studying Buddhism or working on an application for a life in money-free society. “What I can perceive is that there is more and more disgust concerning working for large corporations. Both between men and women. A lot of smart capable people leave and go for a start-up. It can be possibly a problem for big organizations in the future because they are losing talents. But HR departments will hardly do something about that. A fish stinks form the head – and the change in company culture must be started only by the highest manager. If not, it can never succeed.”
Let’s hear another man – dr. Jan Hnizdil is complex medicine evangelist. He would be also one of those to believe that this is not gender issue. “Aggressive, insensitive, inconsiderate psychopaths can also wear skirts. What I would say is that socio-economic development leads us to small companies, cooperating with each other. A lot of people understand already that we cannot have never-ending economic growth within a limited space. Managers who have not understood that so far, feed themselves with insane amount of anti-depressives and queue desperately in front of my office.” And referring to banking sector he has no mercy: ”The majority of Titanic passengers refuse to accept the reality, they support each other in an illusion that the corporate banking boat can’t sink. God protect them.”
Smaller is better
Dr. Hnizdil sees the future in companies up to 120 people of size – he believes the trend is towards smaller companies. “The capacity of social channel is limited, 120 is maximum of human beings with whom you can be in a relationship. Smaller teams work more effectively, there is not a complicated hierarchy problem. Probably women are more interested in relationships. This principle works perfectly for example for one of successful companies in US – Gore. They found a funny solution. The parking lot has always 120 spots. If there is no space where you can park the car, they start another division.”
That makes sense also for Marie Petrovova. What she believes is that big institutions got too far from direct contact with clients. And this is something you do more easily being smaller size. She finds the system of large organizations limiting in many different ways. She expresses herself by another example: “If you want people to think outside the box, you cannot put them sitting inside the box - meaning common open spaces. There are systematic characteristics that make it impossible for people to give the best out of them in corporate environment.”
Back to “business femminology”
It would seem then that we have to put the women leaving corporations to a wider context. According these testimonies there are more processes going on here at the same time and being in interaction: generally women on rise in starting businesses, talents leaving corporations, majority of them being again - women, and - growing appetite for smaller entities cooperating between them. Plus large corporations that seem to ignore in many ways possible consequences of this change. This brings us again to women force anyway: evidence that has been mentioned suggests they are more often protagonists in this holistic upheaval.
Out of old routines
And thus: we should ask at this point what difficulties are they facing while being on this transition? It is not always about fairy tales. Yes. They have fear. Of organizing everything, of not being able to pay their checks, of having enough quality information to operate in business. Also, daily routine changes, which influences or relationship habits that have been deeply rooted. Family and friends may seem to be aloof, tension can grow. In these situations women appreciate company of other female entrepreneurs. They can share their worries, experience, hopes…which definitely helps them to get through. Dr.Sam Collins confirms that too speaking about their transition plans. She is optimistic though: “Mistake is to think too small or to have limiting beliefs that they won’t make money. More women owned businesses make more money than they did working for large corporation and in less time - that is a potent mix!”
Where will all this take us at the end?
Sam puts it this way: “It will be a revolution that will change the way we think about business, businesses will become social enterprises that value humanity and making a difference and the entire model of long hours and a slave to the system will change. We are already seeing a rise in women-owned businesses that are collaborating with other women-owned businesses to pitch for big pieces of work - and are extremely focused on more than just the bottom line.”
Will women bring significant change to business? How would men react on this development? Will the dynamics of work relationships between men and women change? Is this a problem for large corporations or not? I will be happy to hear your views. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!