An Interview with Christine Lagarde by Adi Ignatius

Christine Lagarde took over as managing director of the demoralized International Monetary Fund in 2011, succeeding the scandal-plagued Dominique Strauss-Kahn. A prominent French politician who once ran the international law giant Baker & McKenzie, Lagarde, 57, has tried to change the IMF’s culture while also coping with the European debt crisis and a sluggish global economy. In this edited interview with HBR’s editor in chief, Adi Ignatius, she talks about leadership, women in power, and how to foster change in a complex organization.

HBR: You’ve had top jobs in government, in the private sector, and now at a big global institution. What have you learned about what it takes to be an effective leader?
Lagarde: First, you have to believe in what you’re doing—to feel comfortable with the institution and its strategy. Next, you have to give it your all, engaging completely in the mission you’ve set for yourself. And finally, you have to care about your staff—making sure you hear them and understand their take on the issues, making sure that everyone feels part of the team and is drawing satisfaction from their work.

Can just anyone achieve all that, or does it require certain skills?
You need a certain kind of energy that makes you get up in the morning wanting to achieve something during the day. And you need the confidence to be able to stand up in front of your colleagues, your partners, and your staff.

Women and Leadership

Why are there still so few women in leadership positions?
Because it takes so much time to reach the top. It takes a lot of energy to stay in the game, and quite a few women decide they aren’t interested in pursuing top positions. I don’t value one career path over another or assume that a woman in business is worth more than a woman raising a family. But I want to make sure women feel they have a choice.

Do you accept the idea that women often hold themselves back?
As a manager, from what I have seen, women are less likely to argue about the size of their raise or bonus, whereas many men argue that they’re worth a lot more. It’s an example, I think, of how some women fail to “lean in.”

But surely it’s not just up to women. What can institutions do to ensure that more women reach the top?
They should focus on numbers—whether you call them targets or quotas or objectives. Measuring performance can help remove obstacles and prejudice and ensure that women have the same career options as men.

Is there a difference between “masculine” and “feminine” leadership?
Studies show that certain characteristics are predominant in female leaders, like the ability to listen, the desire to form a consensus, an attention to risk. Which is why I think women are good leaders in times of crisis.

It’s been said that women are often promoted to top positions in moments of crisis. You came to the IMF during a double crisis: Your predecessor was embroiled in scandal, and the global economy was in trouble. Does this phenomenon present women with unfair challenges?
I look at it in terms of opportunity. When the situation is really bad, it’s a good occasion to prove yourself. And there aren’t that many competitors for such jobs, because people are afraid of being associated with failure.

So you’re basically saying that women make better leaders than men.
In a crisis situation, yes. My favorite example is Iceland. The country essentially went down the tubes. Who was elected prime minister? A woman. Who was called in to restore the situation with the banks? Women. The only financial institution that survived the crisis was led by a woman.


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