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Expand your definition of leadership


Despite only 8% of Fortune 500 companies with women CEOs, women leaders more often utilize leadership skills that are perfectly suited for the current business climate. Julia Boorstin, who created CNBC’s Disruptor 50 platform, argues in her new book When Women Lead that counterintuitive approaches used by women leaders can have a great impact on business, and can be learned by anyone. Julia, as a senior tech and media reporter, also offers her in-depth knowledge on big tech from Twitter, Meta, and TikTok.

“In order to succeed in this incredibly uncertain environment, the skills and strategies that women have always deployed are more valuable than ever for everyone.”

— Julia Boorstin
About the guest:

Julia Boorstin is author of When Women Lead and CNBC’s Senior Media & Tech correspondent. She reports and conducts CEO interviews across CNBC programming, and plays a key role on CNBC’s bicoastal tech-focused program TechCheck. In 2013, she created and launched the CNBC Disruptor 50, an annual list she oversees, highlighting private companies transforming the economy. She also helped launch CNBC’s “Closing the Gap” initiative, covering people and companies closing diversity gaps. Before joining CNBC, Boorstin was a writer and reporter at Fortune magazine, as well as a contributor to CNN Headline News.

About the host:

Bob Safian is the host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, and the editor-at-large for Masters of Scale. He’s the founder of The Flux Group, a media, insights, and strategic advisory firm. He was previously editor-in-chief of Fast Company, where he won the National Magazine Award for Magazine of the Year in 2014.

Julia Boorstin’s research shows how approaches taken by women leaders are ideally suited to today’s business climate.

— Bob Safian
Transcript of Masters of Scale: Expand your definition of leadership

JULIA BOORSTIN: It’s time to change the definition of what it means to be a great leader. In order to succeed in this incredibly uncertain environment, the skills and strategies that women have always deployed are more valuable than ever for everyone. 

Not only will we see more women succeed because women traditionally do quite well in times of crisis, but also we’re going to start to see more men adopt these traditionally more female leadership styles, and I think everyone will be the better for it.

This is not a question about philanthropy. This is not a question about what’s ethical. This is just people wanting to succeed, and they should look at all the data. And there are dozens of studies showing that more diverse businesses are simply more profitable.

BOB SAFIAN: That’s Julia Boorstin, CNBC’s Senior Media and Tech Correspondent. Julia created CNBC’s Disruptor 50 platform and is author of the new book When Women Lead.

I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux Group, and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response. I wanted to talk to Julia because her research shows how approaches taken by women leaders are ideally suited to today’s business climate.

While representation of women at the top of big companies and start-ups has improved in many ways in recent years, the gender gap remains stark. 

Julia notes that only 8% of Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs, and just 2% of venture dollars go to female founders. She argues that that reality limits the potential impact that business innovation could be having at a time when challenges are seemingly everywhere.

And she offers lessons any leader can apply, male or female, to improve their efforts.

Julia also offers clarifying insights on the state of big tech, as an in-the-trenches reporter on businesses from Twitter to Meta to TikTok.

Julia admits that business culture can be slow to change, particularly at moments when external risk factors seem high. Yet those places that seize the moment can set themselves apart.


SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian. I’m here with Julia Boorstin, CNBC’s Senior Media and Tech Correspondent and author of the new book When Women Lead. Julia, thanks for joining us.

BOORSTIN: It’s great to be here. I’m a huge fan of the podcast.

SAFIAN: So, you and I worked together back in the day at Fortune Magazine before you made the full-time jump to television — well before I started working in audio. Business has changed so much during that time. Business overall has changed a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever asked you: what prompted you to go into business journalism in the first place, and what’s made you stay in it all this time?

BOORSTIN: I’ve been a business journalist for 22 years now, the past 16 years at CNBC. I applied to dozens of magazines, wanting to work in the magazine business in 2000 when I graduated college. And the best job offer came from Fortune Magazine. I was the last person hired before the market crashed. The reason I fell in love with business journalism and still do today is it’s such a great window to tell serious stories about the people, the companies, and the trends that are most important in society. The business lens is such a powerful and viable way to look at what really matters and what is really impacting people’s lives.

If you look at the power of the tech giants, I mean it’s just remarkable. They’re really transforming the way we live, interact with each other, et cetera. So, I feel very grateful to get an opportunity to talk to their leaders, and examine not only how they’re growing, but how they’re really shaping society. I mean, if you look at what Mark Zuckerberg is trying to do with Meta or the idea that Amazon is not just an e-commerce platform, but it’s turned into this super app of sorts, these things have really long-term implications for how we live.

Chapter 1: Julia Boorstin on her new book, When Women Lead 

SAFIAN: Yeah. Well I’d love to and want to ask you more about some of these tech leaders and tech companies, but first I want to congratulate you on the book, When Women Lead. It is a different kind of cultural window that you’re using as you look at the book. What prompted you to take on the book at this point?

BOORSTIN: I’ve always been really inspired by entrepreneurs, and at CNBC I created the Disruptor 50 list, which is a way to look at start-ups within the context of CNBC’s focus on public companies, the 50 fastest growing private companies. I’ve gotten to interview fascinating entrepreneurs. And literally thousands of CEOs. Over the past five or so years, I’ve noticed that the female leaders started to become a little bit more common. And I was seeing in the data that these women were certainly exceptions to the rule.

As of May, female CEOs represented eight and a half percent of the CEOs in the Fortune 500. Last year, female founders drew just 2% of all venture capital dollars. Co-ed teams drew about 15.5%, and male-only founding teams drew 82% of all venture capital dollars. I was seeing these crazy gender gaps, and I was so impressed by the women who had defied the odds and managed to succeed despite having very little access to capital. And I also thought if we could identify the strategies and strengths of this small group of women that had managed to defy the odds, then there would be valuable lessons for anyone who wants to succeed in business.

From there, I ended up doing 120 interviews with women. I realized there were these common threads, common characteristics, strategies, skills not only found to be more likely to be adopted by women, but are actually incredibly valuable if anyone deployed these strategies.

SAFIAN: Are there things about this moment in the economy or the world that makes the characteristics that you found more valuable? Or we just underappreciated them before?

BOORSTIN: I think both. I think both. I really believe we are in a moment of time right now coming out of the pandemic, looking at record inflation, looking at all of the economic uncertainty. Are we going into a recession? What’s going to happen with the war in Ukraine? How do you retain employees, motivate employees? In order to succeed in this incredibly uncertain environment, the skills and strategies that women have always deployed are more valuable than ever for everyone. I’m actually optimistic that not only will we see more women succeed because women traditionally do quite well in times of crisis, but also we’re going to start to see more men adopt these traditionally more female leadership styles, and I think everyone will be the better for it.

SAFIAN: So, the men who are succeeding today are succeeding using techniques that you would describe as women characteristics?

BOORSTIN: Not necessarily. But women tend to rank much, much higher on empathy tests. Women are socialized to be better at empathy, but it doesn’t mean that men shouldn’t be deploying it. You want to retain your employee base, you want to motivate your team, you can’t not be empathetic. Nevermind being empathetic to your customers or any of the other people you’re interacting with, your investors, you name it. In uncertain times like these, empathy is essential. Another key one, vulnerability, women are a lot more comfortable demonstrating vulnerability to their teams. And vulnerability is a key way to invite collaboration.

As Katrina Lake told me, “Nobody wants to work for a know-it-all boss.”

SAFIAN: Anything in the research that really surprised you?

BOORSTIN: A big surprise for me is finding that there’s a correlation between long-term thinking and planning and gratitude. There’s a lot of research showing that women enjoy practicing gratitude, whereas men, it makes them a little bit more uncomfortable. But gratitude correlates with being less focused on the near term fix, and more focused on the long term gain. These are things that, though women are more likely to do, men should be doing.

And women are much more likely to lead in a communal way, bringing in perspectives from across an organization rather than a top-down approach. The more uncertain the times, the more these skills need to come to the forefront.

SAFIAN: There’s a stereotype that the classic leader is someone who’s “tough.” And if I’m hearing you the right way, being tough in this environment, being vulnerable is part of being tough.

BOORSTIN: 100 percent! Humility is a tough thing to have. But if you’re humble, you’re going to learn so much more from your team. It’s time to change the definition of what it means to be a great leader.

Chapter 2: The power of elevating success stories

SAFIAN: Some of the women guests on the podcast, some are eager to talk about leading as a woman and others kind of bristle at the topic. They just want to talk about leadership, period. You’re nodding a little bit. I wonder how much of that you get and how you deal with that.

BOORSTIN: I really wrestled with this in writing the book because I don’t want to be known as a great female journalist. I just want to be known as a great journalist, period. The challenge is that female leaders are so unusual, especially at the most powerful companies, that it’s important to elevate the success stories, and we’re still at a place where female CEOs are in such a minority still. We need to start elevating the positive elements of being a female leader to change the conversation and make it so female leader isn’t a derogatory term, but it’s a compliment. But I didn’t want to be othering female leaders by emphasizing too much their femaleness. I think it’s more about explaining the value that comes with that other perspective and using that to sort of change the broader conversation. I mean, we do live in a world where the more unusual someone is, the more they draw scrutiny and attention from the media, which isn’t always a good thing.

Female CEOs know that the more rare they are, the more that they’re going to have a target on their back. The study that comes to mind first is this research that shows that when a company appoints a female CEO, the stock actually drops in the first two days after the appointment. It ends up going up over time. But that immediate drop, which you don’t see when a man is appointed, indicates that the attention to her femaleness is perceived as a negative to investors.

SAFIAN: There’s so many great stories you have in the book. I’m curious whether there are any particular ones that stick with you more?

BOORSTIN: There’s a study that I cite in the book that I love about jockeys. Horse racing is a rare sport where men and women actually compete nose to nose directly against each other. These academics based out of the UK found that the more unusual women were in a certain horse racing category, the more the betting public assumed they wouldn’t be good in that category. Women don’t compete often in hurdle races. So people bet against women in hurdle races, and these horse race betters ended up losing money. I think understanding that that’s what’s happening is really powerful to help change that.

There’s one story that I think sums up a lot of the underestimated advantages of female leadership. And I think about the lessons daily, and that is a woman named Toyin Ajayi. She’s a doctor, CEO of a company called Cityblock Health. She was inspired by her experience working in Sierra Leone trying to fix a pediatric hospital. And she realized that with all these problems, the fundamental issue is there was no running water in the hospital. She was like, “We can’t fix anything until we fix the water supply.”

They got a plumber to fix it ultimately, but she says whenever she’s dealing with a problem, she says, what is the water supply that we need to fix? What is the fundamental issue?

She founded Cityblock Health because she saw in Boston low-income patients were coming into the emergency room month after month and not really getting any healthier. Cityblock Health totally reverses the power dynamic — oftentimes having doctors visit patients in their homes. They have people who are effectively social workers working with Cityblock to help their patients get social services, get housing, and helping them really become big-picture healthier. And unlike many healthcare systems which get paid on the volume of care, Cityblock gets paid on the long term outcome.

So to me that’s a totally different way of thinking about something that is so fundamentally important, Toyin’s empathetic view of getting to the underlying root of the problem and just not being afraid to do things really differently.

So many of these women have been outsiders to the traditional business power structures, they’ve been able to use that outsider perspective as a kind of superpower to bring a new fresh set of eyes to solving a decades old problem.

SAFIAN: Before the break we heard from CNBC’s Julia Boorstin about how the business world would benefit by embracing the approaches of women leaders. 

Now she shares insights from her in-the-trenches reporting on tech and social media, from Elon Musk to TikTok.

Plus she shares some final lessons about diversity, destiny, and the role of networks in generating lasting positive change.

Chapter 3: Are traditional, longstanding businesses changing?

There’s been a lot of talk about business changing and more emphasis on purpose and longer-term impacts. How much from your perch at CNBC do you see really changing among the traditional, longstanding businesses?

BOORSTIN: Our Disruptor 50 list is a good way to get a look at this. We have noticed that every year more of those companies say that they have an additional purpose beyond just generating revenue. So at least in that unicorn start-up space, they are very much thinking about the importance of having an additional purpose.

In terms of the big public companies, it depends. I think younger workers are really speaking out more and have higher and different expectations of what their corporate leadership is going to do. 

SAFIAN: Commitments to these other non-strictly-financial issues are easier when the economy’s doing well and the stock market’s doing well. But when things get harder and suddenly you’re facing cost-cutting, and other things, how strong is your commitment to those priorities now?

BOORSTIN: I wonder if you can think about it as a business imperative. I would say DEI is important because it helps retain top talent. I mean, there was just this McKinsey Lean In study that came out a couple of weeks ago, and it talked about how senior women, so VP level and above, are leaving companies in record numbers. That is not good for those companies. That’s the talent they need to retain. Women are leaving because they don’t feel like their work is being adequately valued. They have a great graphic showing the shrinking pipeline of women and people of color into the senior ranks, and it really visually demonstrates why the C-suite does not have more women and people of color in it.

Chapter 4: Elon Musk and Twitter 

SAFIAN: So you and I were talking a little bit before we started about your day job. You’re covering tech and social media, disruption generally. We were talking a little bit about Elon Musk, a constant character. I was asking you like, what’s going on with him and Twitter? And you were sort of like, “Who knows what he’s going to do in the next 20 minutes?”

BOORSTIN: He’s an unpredictable character, he’s unpredictable.

SAFIAN: Do you feel like this is a good thing for the world or a troubling thing?

BOORSTIN: I’ve been watching the advertiser reaction to Elon Musk taking over Twitter because Twitter relies on advertising revenue to operate. Elon Musk has said that he is a free speech absolutist, and there are reports that in the first 24 hours after he took over the platform, there was a 500% spike in hate speech on the platform.

The question is: is Twitter going to be a safe place for brands? So whether or not it’s a safe place for people, whether or not it foments hate speech and racism, or whether or not it’s an open town square for conversation, that will be important, not just for humans and democracy, but also really will be important for advertisers. And if advertisers back off, they’re not going to be able to keep operating. So it is in Elon Musk’s best interest to create a place that is safe not just for its users, but also for brands. Otherwise, those brands are going to go running.

A number of comments from big advertisers saying that they are pausing their advertising until they have a better sense of what Elon Musk is planning. Elon Musk has also met with some groups like the NAACP and Color Of Change. He understands that it’s important to have advertisers, and also some of these advocacy groups, feeling good about being on Twitter, feeling like it’s a safe place. And so I think his incentives are actually aligned with doing something that will be beneficial, not just for advertisers, but also make sure Twitter doesn’t become, what he described, as the fear that it’s going to become a hellscape.

SAFIAN: Yeah, I mean, I’ve heard these kinds of discussions with some other CEOs before that what they may believe personally, or morally, may not end up driving what their business decisions are because they have to do what’s effective for the business. And if I’m hearing you right, Twitter’s business relies on people feeling like it’s a safe and trusted environment.

BOORSTIN: If I had to guess what’s going to happen, I think he will put in guardrails to make sure advertisers feel safe being there. Where those guardrails are laid, where the lines are drawn, I don’t know. And it’s too soon to say, but I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what role capitalism ultimately plays in what this company ends up looking like.

Chapter 5: The difference between acquiring a social media company vs traditional media

SAFIAN: We’ve seen other rich guys take over media platforms. Jeff Bezos with the Washington Post, Mark Benioff with our old place Fortune. Is it different when it’s a social media platform?

BOORSTIN: Totally different. Those are news outlets with journalists who are paid to be objective journalists. And I would say they’re not really platforms. Isn’t a platform like an open place for people from all sides to come on and share their opinion? It’s user generated content. He’s buying an open platform, which currently has some rules moderating what is allowed to be shared on it. And the question is whether he gets rid of those rules, puts in new rules. To buy a newspaper is just saying you’re funding journalism. I mean, to me, that’s a very different situation with different potential outcomes.

Chapter 6: Julia Boorstin on the future of TikTok

SAFIAN: The other media operation platform in the news lately has been TikTok. The talk about can it be disconnected from China or not? Are you an avid TikTok user yourself?

BOORSTIN: I’m not an avid TikTok user myself, but I am a student of the platform. And I reported on all of the news around the Trump administration wanting to make ByteDance, divest TikTok. It was one of the weirder stories I’ve reported on in terms of it being very unpredictable. We’ve been reporting on the fact that one of the five FCC commissioners has been very outspoken saying he does not understand how TikTok could possibly keep operating the way it is. And he’s advocating for it effectively to be shut down. I don’t think that’s likely to happen, but it’s possible CFIUS will force a divestiture and make it be owned by a U.S.-based company.

SAFIAN: Can you briefly explain what CFIUS is just in case some listeners aren’t familiar with it.

BOORSTIN: CFIUS is the Treasuries Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

They’re the only ones who can decide what to do with TikTok. It’s not up to the FCC, it’s not up to Congress. It’s up to this Treasury Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.

SAFIAN: But no one knows quite what’s gonna happen.

BOORSTIN: TikTok, it’s an incredibly popular platform. So whatever politician decides that it’s going to be shut down, that person would not be very popular. I think there could be some sort of regulation of TikTok. I would not guess that it would be shut down entirely, but it’s in the hands of CFIUS right now. From what I understand, they’re in the midst of this review process that they will neither comment on nor confirm is happening. But it’s really fascinating, and it’s really been incredibly popular. I mean, not only taking eyeballs but also ad dollars from all of these different platforms.

SAFIAN: Yeah, no, it is a bizarre story, the prospect that it would be shut down. But in the competitive field between U.S. tech companies and Chinese tech companies, TikTok became like the poster child, right?

BOORSTIN: It’s going to be interesting to see how it’s used as a pawn in this U.S.-China negotiation. At the end of the day it’s working from a social media standpoint, but it doesn’t have the same oversight as a U.S.-based company does. And it is making efforts to tamp down on misinformation and disinformation around the election, but I think it’s increasingly going to face scrutiny about that.

SAFIAN: So you bounce back and forth between covering all of this news about these companies and individuals who we’re all fascinated with and working on the book. And I’m curious what kind of feedback you’ve gotten from your sources from the book and how they’re reacting to their stories being out in the world.

BOORSTIN: There’s just been such an energy. There is a sense that this is a moment for women to take more control of their lives and their careers in the business world. We’re all watching the revolution that’s happening in Iran and the role that women are playing in leading that revolution. And so it’s just been thrilling to connect with women around the country about their potential, their sort of underestimated superpowers.

Chapter 7: “More diverse businesses are simple more profitable”

SAFIAN: And in this moment, some people might say, “Well, it’s destined to change.” You’re shaking your head a little bit.

BOORSTIN: I don’t think anything is destined to change. I think about what my mom told me when I was 13 years old, which is that by the time I was in the working world, things would be equal. There would be no gender gaps, there would be no pay gap. But here we are, and there are persistent pay gaps, particularly for women of color. Look, the Fortune 500 is 8.5% female CEOs, and that’s an all time high. I mean, change is not happening. There are all these studies showing that it’ll be over a century before there is gender equity in the workplace, and that timeframe has been elongated by the pandemic. So I don’t think anything’s inevitable. And I think men and women need to be aware of what financial opportunities are missed if there is not more diversity in leadership and diversity in business.

This is not a question about philanthropy. This is not a question about what’s ethical. This is just people wanting to succeed, and they should look at all the data. And there are dozens of studies showing that more diverse businesses are simply more profitable.

SAFIAN: So not destiny then, but reasons for hope, data that fuels hope.

BOORSTIN: For all of my concern that the pace of change is glacial, I am incredibly optimistic not only because there are all these phenomenal women who are role models who I write about in my book, but also because there’s so much happening in terms of networks and communities to help women help each other.

There’s so much research about the power of these communities to not only defeat the negative impact of bias, but really help women advance in the workplace. So whether it’s organizations like All Raise, which are creating these cohorts of female founders to support each other or companies like Chief, which are networks for women at the VP level and above, these are tools for women that didn’t really exist five or 10 years ago.

So I think that’s a reason for optimism. Obviously technology is an amazing, amazing thing. And when it can bring people together and help them help each other, that’s when it can be a game changer.

SAFIAN: Well, Julia, this has been great, and thank you so much for spending the time with us.

BOORSTIN: It’s totally my pleasure.

Masters of Scale’s mission is to democratize entrepreneurship. Launched in 2017 as a weekly podcast featuring Reid Hoffman, we’re now two weekly podcasts — Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, and Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, hosted by Bob Safian — as well as an award-winning daily learning app, a best-selling book, virtual and live events, and more, serving a global community of founders, funders, and leaders looking to innovate at scale.
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