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New research shows women CEOs exemplify leadership style needed in tough times

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New research shows women CEOs exemplify leadership style needed in tough times

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The unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and growing emphasis on stakeholder capitalism have created an exceptional need in the global business community for adaptive leadership geared toward a diverse range of stakeholders — from shareholders to employees to local communities. This point is underscored by new research and by executives who spoke during S&P Global's inaugural Sustainable1 event last week.

Women CEOs may be leading the way in demonstrating such leadership, even as they remain small in number, according to research published by S&P Global in collaboration with the LARGEPA Research Laboratory in Management Sciences at Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas University. Our report shows that CEOs who are women demonstrated different leadership styles than men during the COVID-19 crisis. During a critical period early in the pandemic, women CEOs tended to exhibit a more positive communication style. Over the course of 2020, their communication style leaned more toward empathy, adaptability, accountability and diversity.

These findings are based on a natural language processing-enabled analysis of earnings call transcripts from nearly 5,000 companies in the S&P Global Broad Market Index. The transcript analysis covered the period from March 9, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2020. Our analysis also found that women are still significantly underrepresented in the CEO role at publicly traded companies worldwide. Women made up just 5% of CEOs at companies in the S&P Global Broad Market Index as of Jan. 25, 2021, roughly flat from a year earlier.

Click here to read the full report, including detailed notes on methodology, at spglobal.com.

Click here to download the full report as a PDF.

Authors: Daniela Brandazza, Marion Amiot, Katie Darden and William Watson, from S&P Global, in collaboration with Dr. Gabriel Morin, Associate Professor of Leadership Development for the LARGEPA Research Laboratory in Management Sciences at Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas University

Contributors: Gaurang Dholakia, Lindsey Hall, Azadeh Nematzadeh, Nicole Serino, Rose Marie Burke and Victoria Schumacher

Executive sponsor: Alexandra Dimitrijevic

Prior S&P Global research demonstrates the importance of flexibility and adaptability as elements of corporate cultures and policies. Comments from three executives during a panel at the Sustainable1 event on May 27 illustrate how these characteristics became even more important as the pandemic upended people's lives and almost every aspect of business worldwide. The panel featured Paula Santilli, PepsiCo Inc.'s CEO for Latin America; Dr. Bafedile Evah Chauke-Moagi, vice president for group health at South Africa-based mining company AngloGold Ashanti Ltd.; and CRISIL Ltd. Managing Director and CEO Ashu Suyash. Mumbai-based CRISIL, a provider of ratings and analytics, is majority-owned by S&P Global Inc.

Watch a replay of the webinar: Building Back Better: Female Executive Leadership in a Pandemic. Access the full S&P Global Sustainable1 event: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability.

When the pandemic hit, "I had to trust my gut like never before," Santilli said. While leaning on her company's corporate values, she also had to adapt and take risks, such as arranging ambulance services for employees even as the company's lawyers cautioned about the risks involved.

"There were no rules written, and we had to do what was right for our employees," she said. Santilli also found that "a little quality humor" went a long way in easing tension during stressful leadership meetings.

Chauke-Moagi's team was already familiar with public health emergencies, having faced malaria, Ebola, HIV and tuberculosis in various areas where AngloGold Ashanti has operations. Amid COVID-19, her team quickly moved into the company's spotlight and decided that concise, clear, proactive and transparent communication was key.

Chauke-Moagi said AngloGold Ashanti interim CEO Christine Ramon was instrumental in backing communication with "tangible action," such as by obtaining the liquidity necessary to keep people on payroll when various mines closed during lockdown. Ramon became interim CEO in September 2020, following nearly six years as the company's CFO.

For AngloGold Ashanti, which cannot operate without the cooperation of governments, labor unions and local communities, Chauke-Moagi said "the inclusive stakeholder approach is fundamental to how we do things." Still, there is room for improvement, such as being more inclusive in the way the company engages with local communities, particularly with more vulnerable members, she added.

Suyash emphasized the importance of what she called "the three Ps" — people, purpose and performance — none of which could come at the expense of the others.

At the pandemic's outset, CRISIL's first priority was keeping employees safe and moving swiftly to enable remote work. As supply chain disruptions complicated laptop procurement, they shipped thousands of desktop computers to people's homes. This enabled employees to get up and running quickly from home and avoid delays in client deliverables. Amid this focus on business continuity, Suyash said she advised her company's leaders, when starting calls with employees, to "please, please, please" ask how they were doing first, rather than launching directly into a discussion of the business and cash flows.

"Employees needed support," Suyash said. India's health care infrastructure fell short during the pandemic's first wave, so CRISIL organized the provision of health care services and basic necessities to employees as needed.

"We learned a lot from the first wave, but the second wave has been really devastating," she said. The company opened its office kitchens to provide meals for migrant workers and helped provide oxygen concentrators and cylinders for the local community. For CRISIL, it was necessary to "[look] at stakeholders in a holistic sense," Suyash said.

The pandemic reinforced how important it is for leaders to demonstrate empathy, adaptability and other principles through their communications and actions. To the extent that women — a small contingent of the world's CEOs — are providing such leadership, it may benefit others to follow their example.