The Exchange

Bill Belichick, Sheryl Sandberg and the Truth About Leadership

The Exchange

By Robert A. Damon

Bill Belichick has coached the New England Patriots to five Super Bowl appearances, with victories in Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII, and XXXIX. He has been referred to as one of the toughest coaches, if not the toughest, in the league. He has been called “cold and calculating” and will dismiss any player who isn't helping him win. Case-in-point, in 2011, he traded five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders.

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While the late, great Al Davis of The Oakland Raiders famously said, “Just win baby.” Belichick, year after year, does win.

He sets a tone at the top that is about the team above all others. In fact, Belichick is proven to be a brilliant manager who combines discipline, sound economics, and teamwork. The end result: success.

The Facebook Case

This week Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook (FB), is having her book and communications platform released: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Sandberg’s book description on Amazon reads: “In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential.”

It has created some backlash. As New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd wrote; “Sandberg has already gotten some flak from women who think that her attitude is too elitist and that she is too prone to blame women for failing to get ahead.”

For sure, there have been few women CEOs, especially in technology: Carol Bartz, the former head of Yahoo! (YHOO) and Autodesk (ADSK); Carly Fiorina, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) from 1999 to 2005; Meg Whitman of eBay (EBAY) from 1998-2007 and now Hewlett-Packard since 2011; and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! since 2012.

While Sandberg’s observations may be true at the Fortune 500 level, the number of women running small businesses is growing according to an American Express OPEN-commissioned report that revealed the number of women-owned firms by size: $1 million to $4.9 million, $5 million to $9.9 million, and $10 million+. Of companies with more than $10 million in annual revenues, the number of women-owned firms has grown by 56.6% since 2002, fully 47% higher than the 38.4% increase among all $10M+ firms regardless of gender, it was reported.

It's About Culture

But, give Sandberg credit. She is actually trying to change a culture – even bigger than her company. She is working to evolve the culture of business to be more egalitarian – where men and women are on equal footing.

Remember, culture is a set of values and behaviors. And the best companies like Starbucks (SBUX) and Under Armour (UA) have inspirational cultures. Built into the culture is “to do the right thing.” I have found that the most exciting companies have the thinnest employee handbooks. These companies don’t have to rely as much on policies – the culture regulates the behavior.

And since Sandberg has written a book, she does have the world talking about women in business. She has reignited the subject. It is bigger than she.

So, pundits may chastise her in the press. But, in the end, executives are measured by results every quarter based on decisions in leading their companies. And, remember, few of the pundits and talking heads I watched over these past few days have run a company. Maureen Dowd, and other great columnists and commentators, certainly understand what it is like to express a strong opinion and be a single voice against popular opinion – but few of them understand the loneliness of the CEO of a major company.

And, in my working with hundreds of the top leaders for decades – and especially many women leaders – I know one thing: they have to create winning teams.

Women CEOs may be under unfair scrutiny, or have defectors and protestors regarding their decisions. But, like Belichick, they don’t need to be loved – each just needs to be a brilliant manager who combines discipline, sound economics, and teamwork to just win baby.

Robert A. Damon is President, North America for talent management firm, Korn/Ferry International. Mr. Damon has more than 25 years of experience in executive searches for CEO, COO, president, board director and general management positions.

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