Culture

Female leaders teach us growth isn’t the only way to measure success

By Molly Flatt 23 June 2015
Female leader Martha Lane Fox
Summary

Molly Flatt explores how diversity and integrity can make all the difference to building a sustainable business.

The majority of Britain’s small businesses are founded and led by men, none more so than in the tech industry.

It is also no secret that many earlier stage tech businesses are vastly over-hyped, under-monetised and myopically focused on short-term growth, with Bloomberg reporting that eight out of 10 new companies fail within 18 months, and social media crawling with “entrepreneur burnout” stories.

Is it really so bold to wonder whether these phenomena might be linked? If more women were in charge, might we have a more realistic, sustainable and robust economy?

Jo Ellis, co-founder of innovative publishing collective The Literary Platform, suspects so.

“There’s a dominant and, I think, quite masculine narrative in business which presents ‘growth’ as the be-all and end-all,” she says.

“It may well be if you want to create a certain kind of business, or if you’re developing something with one eye on selling it. But realising that you can strike a balance that you don’t have to be in relentless pursuit of growth is very liberating.”

This year, TLP was listed in the Fortuna 50 Index as the country’s tenth fastest-growing female-led small business. But Ellis and her co-founder Sophie Rochester have decided to forgo aggressive expansion in favour of a model which balances the commercial with the creative, the personally satisfying with the publicly profitable.

“We had a bit of an epiphany eighteen months ago when we sat down to discuss our strategic direction,” Ellis explains. “We have to make a living, but we realised that remaining hands on and doing work that interests us is also important.”

Focus on relationships

Rochester believes that, as young business, it is as important to nurture social, emotional and creative capital alongside the financial kind. “Ultimately we have kept our heads above water by developing long-standing relationships with clients, developing solid partnerships and striking the right balance between our commercial work (such as running in-house app development workshops for Hachette) and funded projects (such as The Writing Platform Bursaries, which facilitate collaborations between writers and technologists).”

But does such a suggestion reinforce yet another unhelpful stereotype – that women value balance and integrity while men are all about money and power?

“I don’t think the pace of tech development is linked to any gender specific facets of the industry,” says Eileen Burbidge, one of London’s most successful venture capitalists. “I respect wanting to run a company which also affords work-life balance, and have seen many male founders with the same interests and priorities. All founders have different motivations for starting companies, which is great. The ecosystem benefits from diversity — of people, views, approaches and philosophies.”

Burbidge also believes that a focus on growth is both inevitable and valuable when it comes to tech companies.

“I wouldn’t say most businesses try and grow too quickly” she says. “I think one of the alluring aspects of the tech space is how quickly products and services can be developed and refined. One can prototype and even release an idea and resulting app in relatively little time as compared to other industries. However, this means competitors can do the same, so it behooves companies to work as efficiently as possible.”

But a more collaborative and measured trajectory could be a better fit when tech is combined with older, more conservative industries which are still struggling to balance legacy with innovation.

“Our clients are changing all the time,” Rochester explains. “We started out working with mostly UK publishers, writers, libraries and literary organisations. But as storytelling converges on mobile devices we’ve worked with international theatre companies, advertising agencies, digital design agencies and games designers.”

There’s been a lot of debate from the likes of Martha Lane Fox around how tech products and services could be improved by integrating more women on coding, design and engineering teams.

However, there is surprisingly little on whether the dominance of masculine leadership styles might be holding back success – especially within sectors that are still experiencing serious growing pains.

One thing’s certain: by seeking out business models and value systems that deviate from Silicon Valley’s fetishised norm, leaders of all genders might have something to learn.