Making hard decision to embrace soft power

Women’s participation in the property and construction industry has been stalled at the 13 per cent mark for the last decade. Despite an ongoing conversation about how to close the gender pay gap, improve the number of women on boards, and build flexible, diverse workplaces, deep structural barriers are preventing more women from reaching their potential in our industry.

Perhaps it’s time to move away from our industry’s ‘hard powered attitude’ – with its reliance on risk, competition and coercion – towards a ‘soft power’ model based on cooperation and co-creation.

The concept of soft power was first coined by Harvard University academic Joseph Nye to describe the ability to influence, persuade and attract without using force. It’s the opposite of hard power’s money, might and muscle. Soft power is about negotiation, mediation and collaboration – and in the business world, the people most often wielding the soft power are women.

On Thursday 13 February , Canberra’s property industry gathered to explore soft-powered leadership and whether it may provide the secret to creating a more diverse industry.

One of the speakers was Lieutenant General David Morrison – the tough-as-nails Chief of Army who became an internet sensation for his YouTube video ordering misbehaving troops to “get out” if they couldn’t accept women as equals. General Morrison says he didn’t see the video as an “exercise in hard power’” but as a reminder that the army exists “because we live by the ethos of courage, respect, initiative and teamwork” – traits valued by the property industry as much as by the armed forces.

General Morrison pointed out that the gender imbalance in the property industry is similar to that of army. “Having just ten per cent women in a workforce is a waste of talent,” he says.

Carolyn Viney, recently-appointed Chief Executive Officer of Grocon, agrees, but says that while the property sector has been a ‘hard powered’ “command and control industry with a boss who tells everyone what to do”, that this is changing – and as it does, it becomes more attractive to women. Viney says that while most people in her organisation wouldn’t use the term ‘soft power’, they’re engaging each day with a workplace that increasingly values safety, education, collaboration and diversity.

“Modern leaders in all sectors must have a range of skills in their toolkits – and no one can rely on ruling by fear any more. While this may have been accepted in the past, we expect more from others and we expect more from ourselves,” Viney says.

We often hear the phrase that the “construction site is too tough for women”, but as Canberra developer Jure Domazet points out, donning a hard hat and stepping onto the site is just one component of the property industry. “There are many job roles and opportunities. In our business, a lot of what you do requires soft power – managing expectations, consulting, engaging, and taking people on a journey. Soft power is an easier way to achieve results, but sometimes you need to rely on hard power to get the job done,” Domazet, the Managing Director of DOMA Group says.

For Sue Kench, Managing Partner Australia for King & Wood Mallesons, soft power helps to harness the ‘discretionary energy’ that we all have at our disposal. As organisations get flatter, hierarchies are dismantled and the globalised marketplace makes competition more ferocious than ever before, “we need to unlock ‘discretionary energy’ that you can’t do through ordering people around”. Kench believes soft power is about “setting organisational values and aligning people to those values” – but that you “need hard power to set the boundaries”.

But coercion has limited influence, General Morrison argues, because “as an effective leader, you need to recognise that people do things for their own reasons, not yours. People are inspired by others who lead by example. Those who have been successful – in any endeavour – are able to inspire people.”

It’s clear that we need both hard and soft power for success – whether that’s individual, organisational or industry-wide. Hard power employed to extremes is inhumane, while an excess of soft power can lead to lack of direction. The secret is to achieve a balance of the two.

And that balance can be better achieved by embracing the talents of both men and women. Any workplace benefits from diversity and inclusivity. General Morrison says that “men are promoted on potential, women on proven potential”, which he believes says something about how women present themselves, but also about the cultural biases that are holding women back from leadership positions.

Achieving diversity –whether in the army or the property sector – is not about gender or altruism, General Morison argues. “It’s about capability. Workforces that are more gender diverse are more productive – and nations are more productive too.

“We’re all the recipients of a legacy”, General Morrison says, “and for those of us in a position of responsibility, it is mandatory that we consider the legacy we leave behind.” Whether that is transformational or incremental, General Morrison believes that leaving a legacy is “worth both remembrance and celebration – and I don’t think that’s beyond any single one of us.”

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia