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A New Take on Leadership

While women have come a long way in leadership over the past decade, there’s still much more work to be done. According to the Center for American Progress, women make up over 50% of the U.S. population, but women only account for 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 10% of top management positions in S&P 1500 companies.

The housing industry is no exception. Though the industry consists of a large female workforce, positions of leadership are still primarily held by men. Most senior leadership teams or executive boards are not truly representative of those they’re leading, which often can create a disconnect. In companies where women are members of executive and senior leadership teams, we see their impact at all levels of the organization in broad public and small private situations.

Women possess unique leadership abilities, especially during times of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic made this especially clear. Understanding how women are uniquely positioned to lead the housing industry not only helps create opportunities for growth, it also informs those opportunities.

Unique Leadership Skills

In crisis, women lead differently. There are multiple examples within and outside the housing industry. By simply looking at how women lead their teams through the impacts of a pandemic, there is a clear difference in leadership style we can learn from. Women tend to be more concerned with safety and were quicker to take action to keep employees safe in response to the pandemic. While under stress or faced with stressful decisions, male leaders usually increase their risk-taking, whereas female leaders tend to decrease their risk-taking, according to Mara Mather and Nichole R. Lighthall’s research.

Working from home has raised the bar for many women as they have used every leadership skill in their possession to balance family and work demands in the same space, and often at the same time. Many women are feeling a lot more pressure to produce the highest quality work while maintaining the overall well-being and daily needs of their families. Acknowledging the many partnerships that exist in the home is important. It also is important to state the obvious and that is that one partner is generally called on more often for meals, homeschool-ing, band-aids, and hugs than the other.

The combination of transitioning to working from home due to a pandemic, absorbing new home situations, and working in an industry under immense pressure due to high production volume and soaring servicing concerns is exposing the strength and resilience of women’s leadership skills. Their customers may be home-owners anxious about potentially losing their home, wondering how they’re going to pay the mortgage, and requesting help or advice to save it. Others are working with first-time homebuyers, and even more experienced borrowers, who are anxious about buying homes in this incredibly uncertain environment. This requires extra reassurance on the part of housing leaders and those in borrower-facing roles to provide not only peace of mind, but also options to assist each borrower with getting into their home and then keeping it during this turbulent time.

Although these extra demands can leave women (and men) feel-ing split between work and home, many women possess and express the empathy that their children, colleagues, and borrowers need during this time. Women in leadership understand how to use that knowledge to effectively communicate, drawing out the core concerns from whomever they are caring for or working alongside. In this way, women are needed in leadership positions if we are to be more flexible in accommodating each audience’s unique set of needs.

Pew Research supports this notion, finding that women in leadership are more empathetic and more inclined to have the appropriate tools to work through compromises and situations than their male counterparts. During the past few months, empathy has been a critical skill, and many compromises have been made to ensure each employee is and feels taken care of. Women in leadership tend to be more open and understanding about these needs, creating a more accommodating work environment.

Because of their demonstrated empathy, women tend to be more in tune with the needs of their borrowers. Whether it be a gap in technology or communication, female leaders can bring a unique perspective to problem-solving and understanding how best to fix those gaps. When issues arise, we first understand the technical side and then figure out the communication language, which opens the door for men and women to pool their skills. Using different communication approaches allow more perspectives and ideas to take a front seat, helping everyone better serve a diverse range of borrowers and co-workers.

Embracing Unique Leadership

Anytime there is a significant shift in the economy, people are challenged and pushed to change. Having more diversity in leadership helps bring to the forefront of new ideas, perspectives, passions, and skills that will ultimately help companies adapt and grow. Having diversity of thought helps create a broader leader-ship view and women must be in the room and a part of those conversations in order to create a more comprehensive approach to managing through change.

When women are left out of important leadership conversations, much of the industry’s workforce is not represented and therefore doesn’t receive information that applies directly to them. A company cannot serve women well unless there are women involved in decisions that directly affect them.

This is not only true of decisions that affect female employees but female customers as well. The Leadership Research Institute states that companies with more women in leadership roles tend to be more profitable. A Pepperdine University study showed that 25 Fortune 500 firms with the best record of promoting women into high positions were anywhere from 18–69% more profitable than the median firms in their industries.

This is because diversity of thought helps ensure all employees and customers are represented and considered when it comes to decision-making. This makes leadership more effective and can contribute to the company’s overall competitive advantage. Having different backgrounds and perspectives on the leadership team also defends against groupthink—an action that is often detrimental to the success of a company.

Companies must recognize and embrace the unique skills women bring to the table. Men can advocate for talented women with strong leadership qualities and should champion talented women in their organization. Especially for men in leadership positions, advocating for what women bring to leadership is essential to taking steps toward equality and helping the company thrive. For example, women need to be included in conversations across the organization to learn and lead effectively. Just as mentors model expected behaviors and coach thought processes, so too should leaders model inclusiveness by bringing women into discussions at all levels of the organization.

Advice for Aspiring Female Leaders

It’s important to identify your unique strengths and talents and how they can help lead others. Hone those skills and use them whenever possible. Take advantage of any opportunity to sharpen your skills. This will make you a stronger leader while also building your confidence in your own abilities.

Keep in mind that these skills do not always have to be hard skills that pertain to your job. It might be that you are a great listener or maybe you are incredibly patient or a great teacher. Do not hesitate to use those skills whenever possible. Each woman has something valuable to contribute to their company and while the direct effects of your teaching skills or patient listening cannot be measured, they can have profound effects that ripple through the organization.

It is easy, as women, to sit back and think that someone else can do something better than you. A woman is often her own worst critic. Each woman’s skills are unique and no one else can do what you do, how you do it. Do not let anyone, especially not yourself, keep you from using your unique gifts and skills to propel your organization, industry, and career.

It also is easy for women to view the ride to leadership as a race, but that’s not the case. When we view this as a competition for specific positions, we lose sight of the true goal. Women in leadership have a voice with which they can support and advocate for other women. It’s important that we all support each other on this journey and lift one another up as we make progress. This is not a race to the top, but a journey we must make hand in hand.

Shifting Focus

Diversity is key to creating a successful business, and women are a vital part of it. Our skills and perspectives are so valuable in housing, or any other industry—from entry-level positions all the way to the top. Instead of focusing on why we are different, we should focus on how—how each of us is unique and how those qualities can be used to continue serving borrowers and homeowners, while advancing our individual companies as well as the housing industry.

About Author: Cheryl Wiebe

Cheryl Wiebe
Cheryl Wiebe is the Senior Manager, Customer Technology at Genworth Mortgage Insurance, where she leads the Customer Experience MI Site and Integrations team. She has over 20 years’ experience developing and executing effective strategies to meet integrated customer and business goals and expectations. Wiebe first joined GE in 1986 as an underwriter and, following nine years of service, she held various roles in mortgage insurance operations, marketing, product management, and systems at Arch Mortgage Insurance Company, United Guaranty Corporation, Essent Guaranty, RMIC, and Freddie Mac before returning to Genworth in 2017. The statements provided are the opinions of Cheryl Wiebe and do not reflect the views of Genworth or its management.
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