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International Women’s Day

“We overlook a mass of human potential”

Munich, 03/08/2013

LMU’s Professor Dieter Frey talks about the demands made on high-ranking managers, the difficulties that aspiring talents face on the way to the top, and the leadership qualities of women.

Photo: Sergey Nivens /

Polls indicate that a large proportion of employees don’t think much of their bosses. What are those in charge getting wrong?
Dieter Frey: Workers need superiors whose approach to leadership is ethically well-founded, who behave with integrity and honesty, and can serve as exemplary personalities. They must be credible proponents of two cultures, a culture of excellence that puts a premium on performance and innovation, and a culture of respect that is characterized by esteem, fairness and trust. The boss’s job is to put together a management team that can breathe life into such a model. To do so, managers must foster an atmosphere that promotes open communication, allows each individual to speak freely about the negative as well as the positive, and is animated by an overriding wish to make things better.

Unfortunately, many chief executives fail to pass the very first test. Instead of being motivated by a vision grounded in ethics, they are narcissistic, Macchiavellian or egoistic personalities. Such individuals have little interest in creating either a culture of excellence or a culture of respect.

The positive traits you describe are generally regarded as typically feminine characteristics. Does this not mean that women are predestined for executive roles?
Of course, one would like to think that women generally have a greater sensitivity to social issues, that they have a better grasp of the so-called soft skills, such as being able to listen and ask the right questions, but there is no such thing as the feminine style of leadership. Experience has shown that women do not make better leaders than men, although they are certainly no worse. Women have the best chance to be successful in business if they are authentic, if they remain true to themselves on the job.

Are firms in which women are underrepresented in the top ranks actually at a disadvantage then?
Research has shown that heterogeneous teams, made up of men and women with diverse backgrounds, in terms of specialized knowledge and age for instance, tend to be more creative and more innovative. In failing to nominate women for leadership positions, we overlook a mass of human potential, and simply plumping for a male candidate is by no means always the best solution. What’s important is to find suitably qualified women for such roles and let them get on with the job.

In her new book, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, portrays the top tier of the business world as a veritable minefield, and maintains that it is still harder for women to choose between family and career than it is for men. Is she right?
It is certainly true that the higher up the ladder one gets, the less time one has for other things. The diversity of roles one must fill, in particular the constant need to maintain one‘s visibility and look after one’s network of contacts, make demands that, very often, can only be met at the expense of one’s family life. In principle, this is true of executives of both sexes. In practice, men are much more likely to have a partner who will make up the deficit.

The way to the top is seldom an uninterrupted sequence of success stories. It most often involves learning from one’s own mistakes and coping with stress – and opposition that may sometimes include intrigue and defamation. The old saying that “success must be dearly bought” is quite often literally true.

Why must senior executives work such long hours? Is it not possible to lead a company on a 30-hour week?
The job specifications for executive positions very often include, by implication, the unstated understanding that the successful candidate should be available to everyone who matters at all times. And indeed, top managers are expected to be available to their colleagues, to company staff and to customers, as well as appearing at public functions. I am convinced that, given enough imagination, one can come up with realistic ways of meeting such demands on a 20-, 30- or 40-hour week. One just needs to get rid of some long accepted clichés. In fact, there are already lots of firms in which this has been achieved, thank goodness!

You yourself headed the Bavarian Elite Academy for a decade and you have trained students for executive tasks. What have you learned about the career trajectories of women in this context?
The women who were at the Elite Academy had all of the qualifications expected of good corporate leaders. And in fact, the record shows that our female graduates have had as much success in their careers, both nationally and internationally, as their male counterparts.

You recently published a study which suggested that a woman’s looks can have deleterious effects on her career. Why is that?
Attractive women find it particularly difficult to get ahead in the business world. Strangely enough, this is particularly the case when other women have a say in how leadership positions are assigned. It sounds incredible, but that’s the way it is. Female managers have a tendency to reject women, especially if the competitors are attractive. So it is not just the fault of men that there are not enough women in top management. Women are also partly to blame because, instead of helping their sisters up the ladder, they often block their advance.

So how much of the responsibility for the relative lack of female executives in the commercial world can be attributed to men?
Men must certainly take the greater share. They see highly talented women as a threat, and they are not sure how to deal with this. They have much more experience in communicating with other men. They have developed an instinct for how one approaches and reacts to other men, whether superiors or subordinates in the hierarchy. When it comes to women, however, the men are still very uncertain about how a woman is likely to exercise her authority within the hierarchy. This uncertainty may then come to the fore in very subtle and barely perceptible disparagement of her professional qualification for the position.

Interview: nh

Dieter FreyProfessor Dr. Dieter Frey is Director of the Institute of Social Psychology at LMU. His research interests include the study of leadership, teamwork and decision-making in work groups of various sizes, and the phenomenon of mental withdrawal by subordinates. He is a strongly advocate of the need for close links between theory and practice, and the speedy translation of research findings into real business settings. The periodical personalmagazin ranks Dieter Frey among the leading experts on personnel management in Germany.

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