Jo Silvester on what makes a good leader | Cass Business School | Video

European CEO interviews Jo Silvester of CASS Business School on women in leadership


What makes a good leader? And is there a difference between female and male leaders? Professor of Organisational Psychology Jo Silvester of CASS Business School answers these questions and more in this interview on leadership coaching and development.

European CEO: So Jo, let’s start with how can you identify a good leader?

Leaders aren’t necessarily born, they’re shaped

Jo Silvester: Most large organisations will have a fairly good idea about what they want from their top leaders, so they’ll implement quite early on leadership pipelines, where they look at newcomers who come in, and they’ve got quite sophisticated ways of identifying what sort of qualities they’re looking for, like motivation, it might be drive to achieve, it might be interpersonal skills, and they’ll try to develop those as those people work through the organisation. It’s a little bit different if you’re trying to identify leaders from outside, because then you have to have standardised selection processes where people might actually take part in exercises, interviews, group exercises, presentations, where they get an opportunity to demonstrate their skills in different areas.

European CEO: Well you have a background in selecting prospective parliamentary candidates, so what can we learn from political leadership to help business?

Jo Silvester: Well most of my experience was with the private and public sector beforehand. I think when I started working with politicians I naively assumed that politics was very similar to business, and in many ways it is, because I think what people don’t realise is that politicians perform work, political work, and they need certain qualities like the ability to analyse information, the ability to communicate. So those are all straightforward, but what they do that’s different is work within quite ambiguous environments where they’re not told what they have to do. They have to persuade, they have to influence, and I think we’re less good in business at recognising those skills that people need to develop, influencing, persuasion, negotiation, perhaps political skills. We don’t call them political skills in business but that’s effectively what people need to make it to senior levels.

European CEO: Well moving on to somewhat of a hot topic now, and that is of course women leaders, and are there certain characteristics that make a woman a better, or in fact a worse, leader?

The old adage is that a man might be described as assertive, whereas a woman is aggressive

Jo Silvester: There is a small amount of evidence that there are certain differences, but there’s an awful lot of overlap between men and women. So ironically women are seen as more transformational leaders, so they’re more likely to inspire, to persuade, to motivate individuals to change, whereas men are more likely to be transactional, which means that they’re focused on managing and getting results. But the overlap is small, and it’s an interesting one because most people will say that in today’s business environment you need transformational leaders more than transactional leaders. How women are perceived, however, it can be quite different. So it’s often the case that women might be presenting the same behaviour as a man, but it will be construed differently. So the old adage is that a man might be described as assertive, whereas a woman is aggressive.

European CEO: Well is it then a perception of women leaders that perhaps holds them back?

Jo Silvester: We all have what we call mental prototypes of leadership, and that’s our own idea about what a good leader is, and those prototypes are so influenced by who is actually out there in leadership positions that it’s often the case that men are more likely to be seen as having the characteristics associated with our expectations of what a good leader would be than a woman. So leaders aren’t necessarily born, they’re shaped. So it’s about the opportunities that you’re given to be in situations in the workplace where you develop the skills that you need. It’s not just about personality, it about knowing how to navigate the organisation, and some of that information, some of those skills are less available to women and other minorities, because they’re less likely to be perceived as having the characteristics that will enable them to make leadership positions.

European CEO: Are there any characteristics that women can then adopt to be taken more seriously as a leader?

Women need to be twice as good, it’s the same sort of skills, but women often need more resilience and more determination to embrace those opportunities

Jo Silvester: At the end of the day, the old adage that women need to be twice as good, it’s the same sort of skills, but women often need more resilience and more determination to embrace those opportunities, to show that they’ve got those skills.

European CEO: And finally then, what are the main characteristics that CEOs have that make them stand out from non-CEOs?

Jo Silvester:What chief executives need, and you find this really as you move to leadership positions higher in organisations, is that the higher up you go, the more that the leader will be expected to navigate conflicting groups. So the leader doesn’t necessarily just have authority to tell people what to do, they have to be able to persuade and deal with the politics that exists between these different groups who’ve got different wishes and needs, so I’d say that chief executives really need the political skill.

European CEO: Jo, thank you.
Jo Silvester: Thank you.