Con Game

In 2007, McKinsey and Company started a research series called ‘Women Matter,’ in which they set out to understand the role that women play in the workplace and in the corporate world.

The first study conducted for it was called Gender Diversity, a Corporate Performance Driver. What they found was that companies with three or more women in senior management functions score higher on every criteria they were using to measure performance. Now, this was a survey they had conducted on a management level, but even when they studied the financials of these companies, the gender-diverse companies outperformed the competitors. This isn’t isolated to corporate boards either; even hedge funds that are run by women outperform those run by men.

In a game where pennies count, one would think that the corporate world would be falling over themselves trying to hire women into high-level positions of leadership. Obviously this isn’t happening. Even though women are getting more college degrees than men, and have almost reached parity with men as a total percentage of the labor force, only a small percentage of corporate board positions are held by women.

There’s a disconnect here, and there are many ways to explain why it’s happening. I’d posit one reason is our cultural myth of success, or what I call the ‘garage-gamble’ myth.

You can see it everywhere in management studies, the stories iconic entrepreneurs, biographies of famous artists, etc. It is an ideal of success that depends on two things:

  1. That the hero or heroine worked alone in a hypothetical (or actual) garage, in that they honed their ideas with little help from the outside world
  2. That the hero or heroine risked everything on a huge gamble that ended up catapulting them to fame and fortune

Henry Ford, our own resident entrepreneur-saint here in Michigan, seems to fit that mold. Quite literally, he built the Ford Model A in a garage in Detroit, sold it to the masses for millions, and spent the rest of his life being ‘eccentric.’ He put the world on wheels and, rightfully, everybody knows his name.

However, there’s another person whose name few of us know, but should: Alexander Malcomson.

He was a was a wild success in Detroit’s coal industry at the turn of the century. His investment, and his connections with other industrial titans, bankrolled Henry Ford’s first company and his first prototype automobile. He was important enough to the company that it was actually called ‘Ford & Malcomson Motors,’ though it did business as the Ford Motor Company. In 1906, after a dispute with Ford about the direction of the company, Malcomson was bought out for $175,000. It’s safe to say that, without Malcomson’s help, Ford Motor Company would not exist.

It is not to say that Malcomson could’ve started Ford Motor Company, or any auto company, alone. Among the original investors, Henry Ford was the only engineer. However, Ford still needed help from the people around him; he needed their capital, both economic and social, to succeed. When you add Malcomson to the story, though, it’s not as satisfying. It’s not the lone inventor working in a garage that changes the world anymore. It’s Henry Ford, the engineer, and this coal baron fellow, and his business associates, working in an up-and-coming industry.

But it was still a risk, right? Surely Ford was taking a great gamble in starting their company? Surely, the gamble part must still be big. Look at Bill Gates who dropped out of college to start Microsoft, now one of the greatest companies in the world. Surely, that was a risk.

What’s left out of that story is that Gates had access to a computer at a time when computer mainframes were extremely rare. His high-school was one of three in the country that had one. By the time Gates graduated, he had an unheard-of level of training in computing. With him dropping out of college and starting a company, the worst that would happen to him is that he’d move back in with his parents. It’s likely he’d have just gone back to Harvard, graduated, and been a successful computer scientist with the skills he’d already built in high school. He was taking on very little risk, relatively speaking.

So neither Gates or Ford fit the ‘garage-gamble’ archetype. Some people might cry foul, and say I’m trying to take away their successes and foist them on others; that’s not true. The fact that they had help and training does not take away from the fact they were great entrepreneurs, were brilliant, and worked extremely hard for their success. These myths do us a huge disservice, however, because by focusing on the risk, focusing on the solitary entrepreneur, they have given us an entirely false idea of what success looks like.

Success in business is not as much dependent on risk and solitary work, but the mitigation of risk through empirical evidence and the building of excellent teams. You see the same story over and over: Stroh’s, the iconic Detroit brewery, tried to go national in a moment of hubris and failed spectacularly. Borders went the same way, expanding too far too fast in mediocre locations until they couldn’t bear the weight of their expansion and folded. One of the best writers to notice this is Jim Collins, author of Great By Choice, Good to Great, and a few other excellent business works. His research consistently tells the story of companies that methodically found where the sure bets were, made those bets over and over again, and trounced their competition.

Women are best suited to this kind of strategy. They are more risk averse than men. They are more social than men. They are more apt to seek out opinions rather than running blind. They are also more willing to share credit their success than to tell a story wherein they did everything alone.

The problem with this is that when a women tells their story, it is far less likely to fit into the garage-gamble myth we like to associate with high-rising people, even though makes them better suited for real world success and the real world performance of the companies they lead. Culturally, we assume they have less to offer because they don’t fit this archetype.

To correct this, pundits say ‘women need to be more confident. They need to speak up. They need to be loud.’ This is definitely true. But if we are to use performance as our metric, and real world success as our guide, then we must come at this problem from both angles.

As a culture, we need to be able to recognize what success actually looks like, and what hubris looks like, that we do not simply defer to the loudest voice in the room.

It’s a lot like jumping off a cliff: if you don’t see hang glider or parachute strapped to the person’s back, they should not hear applause when they fling themselves off.

One thought on “Con Game

  1. “To correct this, pundits say ‘women need to be more confident. They need to speak up. They need to be loud.’ This is definitely true.”
    And yet if women trumpet their success, are confident, and do speak up, they are called domineering, cold, a bitch, etc.It would be so much easier for everything we could all be blind to gender.


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