Learning the Secret Sauce of Leadership

Learning the ‘Secret Sauce of Leadership’

Dr Melrona Kirrane and Andrea Dermody

Navigating the territory of leadership for women is not easy. There are unwritten rules that are not often shared naturally with women in the workplace or in political life. In Dublin City University Business School Dr Melrona Kirrane, Associate Professor of Organisational Psychology, together with Andrea Dermody Programme Director with Balance for Better Business have been running the ‘Let’s Lead’ programme for senior women leaders for several years now and their ambition is to give women an insight into those elements of leadership that women do not have easy access to. One of the things that the course does is give participants time to reflect on their leadership practice.

Dr Melrona Kirrane  says that the earlier you get into thinking of yourself as a leader and building an identity as a leader, the better.  “That requires dedicated attention and focus and that’s the purpose of our programme,  to give women time to do that. The reason why it’s also a women only program, is that the literature suggests that women tend to be across domains quite risk averse, and especially risk averse to trying out something new in a context where the consequences matter. Our program is a kind of greenhouse, where women can develop and then try out their leadership identity in a context where the consequences are not significant.” The learning environment she says is the class, the module and the women on the program,  “so it gives women an opportunity to build up their sense of themselves as as an identity, or their sense of themselves as leaders”

“There’s a whole lot in it for organizations, you’re looking at a potential untapped source and future leaders that can bring something different to the table than maybe what you’ve experienced to date.” Andrea Dermody

Benefits for Employers

Andrea Dermody used to work for State Street Bank and worked in Human Resources. She sees huge benefit for employers for sponsoring women to participate on courses like these. “The conversation around getting more women into business tends to focus an awful lot around ‘let’s recruit more women’.” However Andrea advises them to look within, “what are you doing with the ones you have in your organization? Are you fully utilizing them, are you giving them the best opportunity to fulfill their potential?  There’s a whole lot in it for organizations, you’re looking at a potential untapped source and future leaders that can bring something different to the table than maybe what you’ve experienced to date.”

Defining Leadership Not About Being The Next CEO

Dr Kirrane says that most people who come on the course do not necessarily want to be the next CEO. What they do want is to manage their career and develop their potential at work which can be intimidating. Melrona’s advice is to embrace this new territory. “If we’re not pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone, and challenging ourselves even a little bit on a regular basis, then we would ask, are we really fulfilling our potential.”  She  says that conversation comes up again and again, on the program, where people talk about this idea of expanding beyond their comfort zone.  Melrona says we need to challenge ourselves to say, within that time that I’m spending in the work environment, am I continuously learning? ” You need to ask yourself am I putting myself forward for a project that gives me that little bit of edge on an ongoing basis or broadens my experience.”

Andrea believes we need to grow and challenge ourselves  even within current roles. “I think we need to challenge ourselves to say within that time that I’m spending in the work environment, am I continuously learning?

“Female leaders tend to be a bit more benevolent,  they tend to use complex moral reasoning when they’re making decisions” Dr Melrona Kirrane

Managing Conflict

‘Why can’t everyone just get along’ is a common enough feeling of women in the workplace. Society conditions women to hold society together through cooperation. Whereas men are seen as combative.  Dr Kirrane says men and women lead more similarly than differently. Where they differ is significant. “Female leaders tend to be a bit more benevolent,  they tend to use complex moral reasoning when they’re making decisions. They think about employee development a little bit more, they are good at building cohesive teams. What they don’t do is confront conflict, anything like as much as men do.”

Being agreeable has its advantages according to Dr Kirrane. “There’s a framework called the Big Five of personality traits. And they are conscientiousness, openness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Two of the last two, agreeableness and emotional stability is where there are sex differences, small sex differences, but nonetheless, differences. Agreeableness such that more women will be higher in agreeableness than men will be, doesn’t mean men are not agreeable. It means that people with the highest scores and agreeableness will be female.” She says women leaders are less likely to confront conflict, however they need to get good at that. There are all sorts of strategies whereby you can get good at addressing conflict and she goes into these in the podcast.

Balance For Better Business

We often hear that diversity and inclusion is good for business and the bottom line but the reality of making the workplace a better fit for women today is still challenging. Culture is slow to change unless it is measured and monitored and becomes a KPI Key Performance Indicator for a company or organisation.

Andrea Dermody is the Programme Director for Balance for Better Business and is also involved with the 30% Club in Ireland and she says things are definitely improving in the numbers on boards and senior leadership teams but the culture in organisations has to change. “In the publicly listed boards have we’ve gone from 18% women on boards in 2018, when balanced for better business started to 39% now, I’m hoping we’ll get to the 40% -in publicly listed companies.”

There is still a lot of work to do she believes. “I think there is still a hard road to travel. organizations can be making great progress in terms of getting women on to leadership level numbers, and but will they stay? In terms of the generations coming up through organizations particularly in terms of female career journeys, they want something different from their organizations and I’m not sure all organizations are understanding that. They don’t want to work 70 or 80 hours a week, they want to work in a different way.”

It’s Official Things Are Improving

There is hope on the horizon according to Dr Melrona Kirrane referring to an international survey  on recruitment*  conducted using data from the last 44 years with respect to discrimination against males and females.  “What this study showed and it had a sample of over 364,000 job applications, and they were looking at are females discriminated against for male type jobs or for gender neutral types jobs, actually since 2009 what we have found is that the level of discrimination has actually gone down.”

Pearls Of Wisdom

Both women share their five Pearls Of Wisdom and they are worth listening out for. They also talk about the best financial advice they ever learned and they talked about what they are doing for the environment.

Their go to tunes are brilliant and unexpected … if you want to know what they are well you will just have to tune in to the podcast available here and on apple podcasts google podcasts and wherever you get your podcasts.





*Dr Melrona Kirrane Reference to Study  Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes,     On the trajectory of discrimination: A meta-analysis and forecasting survey
capturing 44 years of field experiments on gender and hiring decisions
Michael Schaerer, Christilene du Plessis, My Hoang Bao Nguyen, Robbie C.M. van Aert, Leo Tiokhin, Daniel Lakens, Elena Giulia Clemente, Thomas Pfeiffer, Anna Dreber, Magnus Johannesson, Cory J. Clark , Gender Audits Forecasting Collaboration, Eric LuisUhlmann



Angela Mezzetti
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