THE BLOG
08/06/2015 04:30 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2016

Spiraling Into Control: How Women Help Companies Compete

Nine years into my consulting practice, I made the bold move to take on a business partner. This person excels at what he does and his expertise in building brands complemented my passion for building up people. Had he not taken a dream offer from a multi-national company, we might have accomplished a lot together.

Or not.

I will never know, but I do know this: after six months, it became apparent that we had a different approach to what seemed to be shared mission. He wanted to turn this little startup into something big. But as he pushed to scale up, my creative spirit withered and my heart for the work began to wane. But still I hoped the new strategy would succeed. This was business, after all.

Or not.

Looking back, I never launched my company in the emerging field of sustainability, in the very ungreen state of Texas, because I thought it made perfect business sense. More than a first mover in a tough market, I created my firm to fulfill a mission. This has involved advising pioneering founders, forward-looking companies, large corporations and prominent NGOs. At the same time, coalition building is critical in my field, so I have also (maybe too often) delivered services at a discount or even pro bono to worthy non-profits and advocacy campaigns.

But my former partner had a point. Any organization that aims to be a player in corporate sustainability must also be financially sustainable. Now back at the helm with renewed vigor and vision, I am focusing on generating revenue and implementing processes necessary for building a viable business. But I also want to retain the enthusiasm and nurturing spirit that led me to start it in the first place. How do I balance these opposing forces?

Thankfully, a roadmap for navigating this messy terrain recently arrived at my doorstep in the form of a new book to review. Spiraling Upward: The Five Co-Creative Powers for Women on the Rise is, in the words of author Wendy Wallbridge, a "doorway to the truth." Her name even reflects her mission: to help women break down walls and build bridges.

As Wallbridge writes, "Women are not designed for the straight and narrow path." More of us are being thrust into breadwinner or leadership positions, and we're discovering the limitations of the "linear, heads-down, forward at all costs" approach to success. Wallbridge offers an alternate path using the symbol of a spiral, based on her 'Spiral Up' method for coaching Fortune 50 executives. She describes the process as unfolding with three "turnings": initiation, aspiration and inspiration.

In our interview, Wallbridge explained, "The bottom loop is problematic because we are limited in our opinions of ourselves. Now we're learning to examine our inherited definitions and understand that we can author these."

"Fortunately for us," she said, "there are these pinches or initiations in the horizontal that take us up to the vertical realm." These "pinches" range from catalytic events to personal crises. In reality, any life situation where emotions erupt can become a portal to new potentialities.

Wallbridge learned about different modalities between men and women through her one-on-one practice. "In general, men thrive on risk especially when surrounded by other men," said Wallbridge. But recent history also shows the downside of this dynamic. In this new environment of transparency, said Wallbridge, "there's a premium on the female's strengths."

She referenced recent studies as evidence of women's potential for transformational leadership:

McKinsey studied 9,000 leaders in the western world from every industry and function and identified nine leadership behaviors that improve organizational performance. The study found that women, more frequently than men, use five of the nine leadership behaviors: people development, expectation and rewards, role model, inspiration, and participative decision-making. (See "Female leadership, a competitive edge for the future" on McKinsey's Women Matter.)

According to a Pew Research Center survey on women and leadership, most Americans find women indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation, with many saying they're stronger than men in terms of being compassionate and organized leaders.

A 2012 study by Hay Group, based on research into a 17,000-person database, found that women have better interpersonal skills and that women are more than four times more self-aware than men.

Workplace-research group Catalyst studied 353 Fortune 500 companies and found that those with the most women in senior management had a higher return on equities -- by more than a third.

Gallup reports that less than one third of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs in 2014. However, 41% of female managers were engaged at work compared with only 35% of male managers.

If these disparate studies point to a single trend, it is that women have unique capabilities that benefit companies in tangible ways, even if their value has yet to be realized. Some research suggests that a double standard prevents the rise of more women, but personal experience has also shown me that we hold ourselves back, too. Rather than wait for validation, our task as women may be to recognize the worth of "soft" skills from engagement to collaboration, and to build on these strengths.

The author's revelation of her own value began with the sudden onset of disease:

The lupus inflamed and magnified the negative voice in my head that I thought was me. It was so loud that I had to find out how to get out of the suffering. The ego's job is to try to give us some sense of an individual self. We need this to earn a degree and to compete, but there's no happiness at the end of that line. What we are really looking for are moments of fulfillment.

Wallbridge's pain helped me make sense of my own - not of disease, but of trying to suppress my feminine instincts in order to fit the classic mold of success. Was it an overabundance of caring or curiosity that led me to resign from IBM to launch a consulting practice in an unknown field with nothing but good intentions? And what of devoting billable hours to low paying non-profit work and writing? Was I really that scared of success?

Well, yes - that is, if "success" forces me to sacrifice activities that bring joy to me as well as the many who benefit from the connections I make for them. Wallbridge reminded me that I'm not alone in this, that every woman who is courageous enough to live her truth can help to others see a new way forward - and upward.

Singular focus on climbing the corporate ladder is not only unsatisfying - it also saps women of the very strengths that are needed in today's business world. Fortunately, more executives are recognizing collaboration, insight, empathy and engagement as assets in the emerging non-hierarchical corporate culture. Given the emergence and evolution of the female economy, I expect that companies will soon be coming to us to learn how they can adapt.

Uncovering a different way to compete and succeed can be a painful path, but now I recognize it as growing pains. During our interview, Wallbridge mentioned that many women have been stuck a plateau: "It's the stalled revolution," she said. And it does feel that way, but my woman's intuition tells me that this revolution won't be stalled for much longer.