Away: Modern Communication and Women’s Leadership

on December 11, 2019

Earlier this week, following an investigation from The Verge that highlighted a toxic culture at AWAY, its CEO Steph Korey resigned. As the story made its rounds, it was fascinating to see how people in the press, invest community and tech were responding to it. It has been a polarizing response for sure that had people split between condemning the toxic culture and people calling out the drive to business success.

The story was centered around employees’ complaints of exceedingly long work hours, high levels of scrutiny for their mistakes, a clique-like nature of a company whose leadership talked about fostering inclusivity. Korey was particularly singled out for sharing harsh comments about employees’ work and for Slacking late at night, expecting a reply.

You might disagree with me that Korey’s behavior showed at a minimum very poor judgment of what leadership should be. But, I am sure you agree that it would have been hard for her to remain as a CEO after getting such a degree of press attention.

There is one part of me that does wonder if this would have also been the case if Korey was a Stephen and not a Steph.

Women Leaders

Women and men have different leadership styles, and that is a fact! According to researchers, most women tend to be transformational leaders, while men are more transactional leaders. One style is not necessarily better than the other, but it might better fit a particular type of organization. Transformational leaders are more effective in people-centered companies, while transactional leaders might fare better in an organization where people are more independent.
Transformational leaders seek to be a role model, inspire their team, and emphasize authentic communication. All attributes that would point to Korey as being an exception to the rule I guess.

But if the management style is not something that necessarily determines the success for women leaders, could we find any evidence that how boards deal with crisis differs depending on whether or not the CEO is a woman? Well, according to a paper called “You’re Fired? Gender Disparities in CEO Dismissal,” published by Gupta et all. in 2018, there is a difference. Female CEOs are more likely to get the boot. In fact, they’re 45% more likely to be dismissed than their male counterparts. Interestingly, the gap is statistically insignificant when the company is doing poorly, but the difference is noticeable when you look at companies that are performing well.

As to why this happens, the researchers share their hypotheses. They suggest that when a company is performing poorly, the decision to fire the CEO is often straight forward. But when the company is not doing well, there is “considerable ambiguity about the CEO’s leadership of the firm and no clear script for the board to follow.” In that situation, board members are more likely to fall back on the gender stereotypes and decide that the female CEO doesn’t have the “leadership qualities” needed to continue the company’s winning run.

According to Away, the company was already looking for a new CEO before the story broke. Whether or not this was because the company already knew about the story or because they thought that sooner or later, Korey’s behavior would have caught up with her is unclear and to some extent, irrelevant. But it seems that, in this case, Korey, as a woman leader, did fit the statistics and was likely dismissed when a male counterpart would have either been lauded for being harsh or admired for being a jerk.

Modern Communication and Collaboration

Another fascinating aspect of this whole story is the role that Slack has played. A follow-up article from The Verge points to the role that Slack and other collaboration platforms play in today’s companies and society when you think of broader platforms like Facebook and Twitter. To some extent, they all make people “more accountable” ironically one of the asks Steph Korey had for her employees.

I am more interested, though, in how these tools, so popular in an enterprise environment, are impacting our communication skills. In a world that is becoming more comfortable with sharing thoughts, often very direct ones, and where no distinction is made whether we are talking to someone we know or to the President of the United States, I do wonder if we are we losing sight of the weight that words carry especially when we lead.

There is little room for formalities in today’s collaboration platform no matter if you are using Slack or Teams, the short and to be point nature of the exchange is what people love. Abbreviations and emojis borrowed from messaging apps facilitate a more relaxed exchange that is much richer in feelings than email ever was. There is nothing intrinsically bad in this way of communicating as long as you are self-aware of how you come across and you think back to whether or not it is appropriate for the role you hold.

The other aspect of these collaboration tools is the expectation they set for response time. In a way, it is not much different than texting over emailing someone. Email is much less real-time communication than messaging, and collaboration platforms are. Most people using Slack or Teams expect a real-time exchange. For my generation, it is similar to when you decide to call someone rather than text, for millennials, it might be more like picking WhatsApp over text messaging. As a leader, while you can choose to Slack at three in the morning, you need to be aware of the kind of bar you are setting for your employees. Startups are often known for driving long hours and work ethics that sees a minimal separation between work and play. The blended lifestyles millennials are having as they pursue their career is often a takeover of their personal life by the work-life. Startups where everybody is invested in the success of the company and where everybody benefits equally could condone such a work style, but larger companies where CEOs or managers exploit their position and ride on the dreams of their employees should think of the long term impact of driving such a company culture.

I am a bit less proud of being an Away owner, and I am saddened by the fact that Steph Korey might have forgotten that, right or wrong, more is expected from us women, when we lead. We cannot be jerks, and to be honest, we really should not be as there are enough jerks to go around, especially in tech and its fringes. Hopefully, this is a cautionary tale for all companies and leaders, but especially those that set out to make the world a better place and fall short of making their own work environment merely a good enough place.