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By Margaret Stuart, Country Manager, Salesforce Canada

Of the many truisms revealed by the pandemic, one that stood out was the rise of strong female leaders who successfully steered their organizations through the crisis – in business, politics, and healthcare.

Three years later, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.

Why? With worries about the pandemic displaced by concerns about an economic downturn, the people-first mentality embraced by leaders has expanded to also include the need to prioritize high performance, shrewd decision making, and cost cutting. With this comes an inherent bias suggesting that male leadership is better suited during these challenging times.

The G7 Reykjavik Index recently revealed that only 47 per cent of respondents were “very comfortable” having a woman as the chief executive officer of a major company in their country, down from 54 per cent a year earlier. People’s opinions about women as the head of their government suffered a similar drop. Of the respondents, men were more likely to be critical of a female leader than women, with one in 10 saying they would explicitly not be comfortable with a female CEO.

This downward trend is alarming, considering that as it stands, only four per cent of Canada’s largest publicly traded companies have a female CEO according to one study, while another found women hold 36 per cent of senior level positions in Canada overall.

Many perceptions of leadership are still grounded in legacy attitudes. For women to make meaningful advances, we must show that there are different ways to lead.

The argument of masculine versus feminine leadership is tired, distracting, and unfounded. Simply put, we need to evolve this conversation. Whether during a crisis like the pandemic, or in today’s economic climate, what’s needed is a capable, trustworthy, and values-driven leader. Period.

I’m not alone in this point of view. In fact, a recent survey we conducted in partnership with Angus Reid Group shed light on the values that Canadians believe are paramount to successful leadership today, regardless of gender. Integrity was cited as the top leadership quality (29 per cent), followed closely by trustworthiness (28 per cent). In contrast, decisiveness trailed at just six per cent, followed by assertiveness at a mere two per cent.

Driving change means focusing on how we can enable all leaders today to take an authentic, values-driven approach to leadership.

The CEO and co-founder of our company, Marc Benioff, has said, “Doing well by doing good is no longer just a competitive advantage. It’s becoming a business imperative.”

Leading with values can help drive quantifiable benefits for stakeholders. At Salesforce, our core values guide us. They are our north star and have driven our decisions for nearly 24 years. For example, our value of trust has informed how we build our technology with integrity and transparency at the forefront. It has also helped us build a culture in which employees feel more engaged and motivated to serve customers well, who in turn reward the company with loyalty and increased business.

Ultimately, values create value. Succeeding as a company, and treating your employees, customers, and stakeholders at large with empathy, kindness, and respect, should not be mutually exclusive. As businesses face continued economic disruption, leaders must consider how best to bring their employees along to help find efficiencies, increase productivity, reduce costs, and get ahead of rising customer expectations.

So, it bears repeating: excellent leadership is not inherently gendered. It’s grounded in a leader’s ability to identify and operationalize core values. It is only then, that you will be able to deliver equal parts influence (on your stakeholders), and impact (on the bottom line).

How do your values show up in your own leadership? Here is a framework to help you along your journey.

  1. Define your values: Values determine the person you strive to be. They are your core beliefs: what’s important to you, and what is and isn’t acceptable. And these values typically don’t change radically over time. Clearly identifying your values enhances self-knowledge, and sharing your values with your team helps your entire organization understand the underlying forces that should guide everyone’s behaviours and decisions.
  2. Take action: To have impact, your values must be genuine, and they must be lived – not just by you, but by your entire work force. And that begins at the top. Building a leadership team that upholds a set of collective core beliefs is imperative to bridging the gap between what drives your business’ purpose, and your culture. Without that alignment at the leadership level, you risk strategic misalignment, which may come at a cost with employees going one way and your strategy going the other. It is also worth noting that it will benefit you to intentionally live these values in your day-to-day actions, so that when disruption comes knocking, there is no question about which way to go.
  3. Track and monitor your impact: Setting values may seem simple, but what does it really mean to operationalize them across your team? Businesses need data and shared accountability to realize a set of core values and track the impact that those values are actually having across the business. One example of this is our Annual Equality Update. Equality is one of our five core values at Salesforce, and each year we report on ambitious representation goals to drive accountability in our efforts to become a workplace that looks more like society. Furthermore, environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals are a part of our executive compensation programs, meaning that a portion of variable pay for executive vice-presidents and above is determined by different ESG measures, such as equality and sustainability.

The seismic events over the last few years have greatly disrupted the leadership paradigm – for the better. As we emerge, I encourage us to redefine our measures of successful leadership today. Let’s put our biases aside and make way for the women, those from underrepresented communities, and all emerging leaders who are driving our businesses and future forward with true values-driven leadership.

Advertising feature provided by Salesforce Canada Corp. The Globe and Mail’s editorial department was not involved.