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For Women, Taking Risks Is Key to Working Their Way Up Ladder

September 01, 1996|MARTHA GROVES

Whenever Diane Creel balked at running for a class office or going out for a sport in school, her grandmother would exhort her, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

The same risk-reward philosophy helped motivate Creel, 47, as she pushed her way up to the executive suite. As chief executive and president of Earth Tech in Long Beach, Creel now oversees 2,100 employees engaged in such tasks as cleaning up hazardous waste, building and operating waste-water treatment plants and designing manufacturing plants for General Motors Corp. and other big corporations. She is the world's first--and so far only--female CEO of a publicly traded engineering firm.

When Earth Tech named her chief operating officer in 1987, Creel insisted on a vote of confidence from the board, noting, "I have three strikes against me: I'm a woman, I'm not an engineer and I come out of marketing."

Nearly a decade later, being female is still a drawback for anyone seeking the key to the executive washroom.

Jill E. Barad's recent appointment as CEO of toy giant Mattel Inc. in El Segundo spotlighted a grim reality for women. Despite making strides in business and constituting about half the work force, women hold just 3% to 5% of senior management positions, according to the defunct federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Barad is one of only four female CEOs in the Fortune 1,000, up from two in 1978.

Why do women find it so tough to move to the top of corporate America? Creel has a theory that many women might not like.

"We spend a lot of time making excuses why women aren't in executive positions," she said. "We begin to believe it after a while. Women say, 'I can't achieve it, so I won't try.' "

In her eagerness to take adrenaline-pumping risks--a leveraged buyout of the company founder, five acquisitions in 27 months, a push into several new businesses, overseeing Earth Tech's sale to a bigger company--Creel stands in sharp contrast to other members of her sex, according to a study of senior managers and executives.

Although women score significantly higher than men as managers and leaders, they are averse to risk. So concludes the provocative study by Hagberg Associates, a Foster City, Calif., consulting firm. The 3-year-old study, replicated a few months ago with similar results, is titled "Risk, Rescue and Righteousness: How Women Prevent Themselves From Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling."

The data came from surveys of more than 300 senior managers and executives who were asked about personality characteristics and management styles. Their co-workers also provided feedback.

Among the conclusions:

* Overall, women were rated as superior to men in management and leadership abilities.

* Women's management style, which centers on communication and positive working relationships, is better suited to the team-oriented leadership model of the 1990s.

* Some of the strategies that have helped women arrive and succeed at mid-management positions are holding them back.

* Women are far less likely to take risks unless they've covered all the bases.

Here's how the researchers explained some of the study's seeming paradoxes. Although women are deemed by their co-workers to be better communicators and motivators, and to be better at creating a vision and setting high standards, they fall down in three key regards:

* Their more methodical and cautious style is viewed as detrimental when survival in a rapidly changing and increasingly complex business world demands that those at the top tolerate ambiguity and make decisions in the face of uncertainty.

* Women's highly developed sense of responsibility and concern for and loyalty to the team works against them by causing them to take on a rescuing and mothering role.

"Women can easily get mired in the details in an attempt to make sure everything is handled correctly," the study found. "Because women don't focus their time and energy on key leverage points, they work harder and are significantly more tired than the male managers with whom they compete."

* Women's penchant for doing their homework leads to better decisions, but it can backfire by making them seem rigid. Co-workers view female managers as less objective, less flexible and lower in emotional control.

"They may well appear less polished and diplomatic than men, and their presentation style may be getting in their way in situations requiring tact and a 'poker face,' " according to the study.

The researchers' recommendations for women: Stop getting mired in details; continue to communicate with, develop and motivate staff; and, most important, start taking risks.

That last item brought a chuckle from Creel. After all, she loved to pilot high-performance, single-engine Bonanza V-35s--until Earth Tech directors told her they didn't want her taking the risk.

Does your company have an innovative approach to management? Tell us about it. Write to Martha Groves, Corporate Currents, Los Angeles Times, 130 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Or send e-mail to

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