Author Sally Helgesen challenges organizations -- and individuals -- to rethink the role of leadership.
As a premier thinker on the role of work and leadership in the knowledge economy, author Sally Helgesen understands how profound changes in technology, demographics and the marketplace are creating unprecedented opportunities for women.
"The meshing of public and private (worlds) forces us to think about our lives in less compartmentalized ways," says Helgesen. "As the work world becomes more fragmented and unstable, we must learn to be more adaptable and flexible and to incorporate learning throughout our adult lives. We need to identify our passions and personal interests, and then find ways to integrate those things into our work and our lives."
For Helgesen, this new way of relating is more like a spider's web -- circular in structure and led from the center out -- than the rigid hierarchical structures of the industrial age, which are led from the top down.
The Wall Street Journal hailed her bestseller, "The Web of Inclusion: A New Architecture for Building Great Organizations," as one of the best books on leadership. It explores how innovative organizations surpass the competition by utilizing their employees' full potential.
The book focuses on five organizations and their ability to solve urgent business problems, such as redefining their market, motivating employees and integrating diversity in the workplace. Intel was profiled as a model for harnessing and encouraging nonpositional power -- power that does not derive from or reflect an individual's formal position but is instead based on relationships and connections, expertise or personal authority and charisma -- which Helgesen says is imperative for a web to be effective.
Organizations wanting to retain knowledgeable workers while unleashing their capacity for innovation rely on Helgesen's expertise. Her earlier book, "The Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership," is used in colleges and universities around the world as a model on women's management styles and is the first book to focus on what women contribute to the workplace rather than on what they lack or how they need to change.
"I wrote the book simply because I felt that women were getting bad advice," Helgesen says. "They were being told to leave their values at home and conform to whatever they found in the workplace -- to adapt, to fit in, not to try to change things.
"I'm very proud of being able to say that since it was published, the book has undergone many printings, been translated into six languages and become a standard text in colleges and universities. I have given hundreds of keynotes and workshops as a result, speaking to women in corporations, business and professional networks, to women educators -- even the women of the CIA."
In her most recent work, "Thriving in 24/7: Six Strategies for Taming the World of Work," Helgesen offers tactics for achieving personal and professional balance. While conducting interviews with men and women who "have found ways of fulfilling their responsibilities while achieving a real measure of satisfaction and joy," she noticed all her subjects had taken the time to discover their passions and prioritize their values.
She believes the development and marketing of highly customized products and services requires a parallel commitment to the practice of custom work -- work that evolves to fit the needs and interests of those who perform it and transforms the organization in the process.
"A lot of companies are under the misconception that the war for talent is over and that the attraction and retention of talent is no longer a big issue," she says. "Being able to attract and keep really talented people with superior ideas and insights is, in a knowledge-based economy, the greatest challenge for every organization.
"And as more people in the workplace demand customized experiences, organizations will have to head in that direction if they hope to keep innovation and creativity alive."
Helgesen has served as a consultant for The United Nations, where her pioneering studies on inclusive leadership and the increasing power of individuals in shaping their own work was the basis for the creation of a group of "Centers of Experimentation" that administer leadership programs in developing countries.
She also is co-founder of The Exodus Dialogues, a group that studies the exodus of high-level women from corporations.