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Leadership & Organisations

Women and the ‘vision thing’

Cynthia Owens |

The good news is that in a study of executives, women did better than men on several measures. The bad news is that women fell significantly behind in one key area: vision.

Research by INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra and PhD candidate Otilia Obodaru shows that women leaders are not perceived to be as strong as men when it comes to articulating a vision of the future and translating that vision into a strategic direction for the organisation.

Whether true or just a perception, this may be keeping some women from the C-suite in some companies.  Either way, Ibarra says there are concrete things women can do to change this.

“There isn’t a class on becoming visionary,” she says. Women need to get out and network more to see if their ideas have some real traction.

Ibarra says the image of a man sitting on a mountaintop and suddenly gaining business insight is pervasive but doesn’t really fit with reality.

“The way you envision the future is by being out there and trying to understand trends in the industry, in society and talking to people - that’s how you are able to formulate what are threats and opportunities in your business environment and how that might match up to capabilities in your organisation.”

Ibarra and Obodaru studied the 360 degree reviews of more than 2,800 women. In all, they looked at 22,244 evaluations on a leadership assessment developed by INSEAD's Global Leadership Center. They were surprised to find that women did as well or better than men in most categories. The exception was vision and that exception could be one reason why fewer women rise to the top jobs.

“It’s going to be hard to tease out what is perception and what is reality, although when it comes to senior management, perception is reality,” says Ibarra, a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD.

To find some answers, Ibarra and her co-researcher dug deeper and uncovered three possible causes for the view that women aren’t as visionary.

First, women may have a vision but they may be using a different process to develop their long-term strategy. Women may work with teams and collaborate to find direction. In business, peers and managers may not value that collaborative process as much as they value someone who appears to come up with a vision independently.

Second, women may have a vision but may be hesitant to make audacious statements because they don’t have the analysis to back them up or because they are more frequently challenged in business settings.

Finally, women may not value visionary pronouncements. Some women are sceptical of visionary claims and may view them as little more than a sales job. Many women interviewed for the study said they believed that getting things done is what should matter in business.

“From their perspective, what was important was being able to execute, staying grounded, down to earth and making sure things happen without a lot of talk,” Ibarra told INSEAD Knowledge.

The good news is that women can learn to become visionary. Ibarra says women need good role models and they need to make an effort to network more. Networking exposes people to different views and different trends. Through networking, women can watch others develop their vision.

“We push people to get out and not think about how to set strategy in the safety of their own office, but how to start networking in a way that gives them a broader vision of the future,” she says.

The authors also believe women may also need to learn how to communicate their ideas more effectively.

“How do you take an idea and then learn to communicate it in a way that’s going to be compelling - and not just compelling to people with the same training as you, but compelling to a much broader audience?” Ibarra says.

One thing for both men and women to watch out for when they make a career transition is what Ibarra calls the ‘identity trap’.

She says what made someone successful in the past can be a recipe for failure in the future and that the skills that make you very good at one job, may not work in the next level up in management.

“Those aren’t just different skill sets - they are different conceptions of who you are, what you are good at, how you contribute, what you add value on and how your spend you time.  So for both men and women there is that danger of an identity trap.”


Herminia Ibarra is the Programme Director for INSEAD's Executive Education open-enrolment programme, Women Leading Change in Global Business.

You can find more on ‘Women and the VisionThing’ in the January issue of the Harvard Business Review (hbr.org).


Dear Herminia,

This analysis makes me curious. It would be interesting to find out whether a similar finding can be validated by studying another large database of 360s, such as the HayGroup's.
Any plans to do this?

Kind regards,
Veronica Denti,
Basel, Switzerland


Thank you for this discussion. I admit that it gave me some flashbacks from my own career, having been among the early women managers in the Northwest US at IBM for which I remain most grateful.

Today, where I think women prove their innate ability to be "visionaries" is when they stop to look around and see the incredible impact they are having all over the world and perhaps have had since the beginning of time. One such example is made clear at The Center for Women's Business Research in the US. Their list of "key facts" alone demonstrate that women are visionary and bold enough to own 10.1 million firms, employing 13 million people, and generating $1.9 trillion in sales as of 2008 and a whole lot more.

A while back, I did a study of "studies" on gender differences for my book, Putting Our Difference to Work. As I poured through articles and study findings, I realised that for every unique difference noted for MEN "on average," I would flash on a similar characteristic in some WOMAN leader I knew. The work did conclude that we were definitely different, but that we had lots of complementary skills and even some common ground. I was encouraged by Helen Fisher's findings (anthropologist, Rutgers University, author, The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They are Changing the World.) She found, "Men and women show NO difference in 'internal competitiveness' to meet personal goals and display excellence ... The twenty-first century may be the first in the modern era to see the sexes work and live as equals." YEAH!

Debbe Kennedy
founder, Global Dialogue Center and
Leadership Solutions Companies


leaders often having weaker social networks and weaker networking skills has been identified elsewhere too.

It's actually good to see this issue connected to an executive skill like creating and building a vision -- this is an example of why networking is important and not an "optional" skill for executives.

From what I've read/heard, it's not clear why many women leaders have weaker networks/networking skills than many male leaders -- and there are likely a number of different reasons.

It may be that "birds of a feather flock together" and because women leaders are more rare, they're less included and less welcomed in networking. Or, it could be the woman herself refrains from networking, because she's not fully comfortable (it can become tiresome to be the only woman in a room full of men).

Or it could be that because women leaders, more than men leaders, often still carry significant family responsibilities, and in a 24-hour day, something has to get sacrificed -- often that's networking, because it's seen as less immediately urgent.

This is actually the reason I've heard most often from women leaders themselves -- that they can handle the job and their family responsibilities, but adding in X hours every week for non-essential meetings (which is what networking is) --- doesn't happen.

Mary Walker
Silicon Valley, California, USA


with leadership teams using Belbin's Team type model across a range of not-for-profit groups, I have found many female leaders score very strongly on both the Plant and Monitor Evaluator scales, whereas the majority of men seem to be one or the other. This may suggest that rather than coming up with an articulated vision, many women may be more inclined to have the ideas but dismiss them before airing them with others. The solution has generally been to seperate the creative visioning process and the vision evaluation process.

Andrew Cavanagh
Melbourne Australia

Emily Backus,

I think you hit the nail on the head. An area I have yet to see discussed or explored much are working mothers' operational and executive skills. Working women with heavy family responsibilities (like two or more children) get a lot of training in juggling tasks, highly disciplined time management, keeping multiple unrelated projects moving forward, and responding to unexpected contingencies on a daily basis. I would think that a woman who has managed to keep an active work-life going while raising children - and whose children have reached late elementary or secondary school - would be ideal for roles far more important than her resume might make her seem qualified for. I add the caveat, because when the children reach a certain maturity, the time and unexpected demands they require falls dramatically, but the working mother is still in high efficiency mode like an athlete who has been training for years.

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