Feminine Leadership
By Antoinette Klatzky, Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute

Recently, Isabel Guerrero and I co-hosted our webinar on Feminine Leadership. She’s written a powerful article about her experience with organizations that operate using feminine leadership. For the last ten years, I have been working with one of the exemplars, EILEEN FISHER. 

EILEEN FISHER (EF), which started in 1984, has become an ethical women’s fashion company that operates as a force for good focusing on a quadruple bottom line (measures of success: people, planet, profit, and purpose). Having recently entered the "large" company category with 1200+ employees, it is also an ESOP, meaning the employees have a stock option to buy into the company, thereby becoming owners. While Eileen maintains the majority ownership, the company now operates with co-CEOs and has operated under a circular leadership structure, creating a collaborative and co-creative environment. The company, with all of its unique leadership practices, is successful by all conventional standards. It is also made up of approximately 80% women. 

Is it being a woman-owned and led company which makes it an exemplar of feminine leadership? The short answer is, no. While being women-owned and led is the major key to bring feminine qualities to the forefront, it, alone, is not what makes the company exemplary. The reality is that it takes daily practice on an individual and collective level to embody the positive aspects of feminine leadership and when it is practiced well, it can bring balance to our predominantly masculine way of operating in the world.

Here are just a few of the EF Leadership Practices: 

  • Communicate our vision 
  • Keep it simple 
  • Inspire creativity 
  • Nurture growth in others 
  • Nurture growth in yourself 
  • Create a joyful atmosphere

While some of these practices might seem light and fluffy, they are actually what allow everyone to function on the same page. In our young women’s leadership programs at the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute, we call some of these practices our ‘Community Agreements.’ They are our guidelines for how we want to operate individually and together in order to achieve our collective goals.

Here are some additional characteristics and qualities that make up what I would call "feminine leadership", which we often experience at EF:

  • Focusing on what matters 
  • Following intuition 
  • Letting go of ego 
  • Generous listening 
  • Operating in the grey space
  • Collaboration

These practices and characteristics are what have enabled EF to become a BCorp (and one of the largest women owned BCorps) focusing on a quadruple bottom line and believing business can be a force for good. By focusing on the four areas of the bottom line as measures of success, (people, planet, profit, and purpose), the company can focus on what matters with visions like becoming fully sustainable or supporting the lives it touches in more ways than being profitable.

One of the many ways EF, as an ecosystem, has taken steps towards that vision is to create Renew/Waste No More, an initiative to call back gently worn EILEEN FISHER clothing, dry clean it and either resell it or turn it into something new (upcycle it). Initiatives like this one have started to catch on in the industry, which is part of the vision and the practice of collaboration. Even if EF reaches 100% sustainability, it will only be a drop in the bucket of the industry as a whole. We need to work together.

While there are a number of examples to share about feminine leadership at EF (good, challenging and in between) here’s one thing to keep in mind; It’s not just about grey clothing! Often, when we’re in the midst of trying to move forward large initiatives or try something new, we’re operating in what we sometimes think of as grey space - a place where we can value saying, “I don’t know.” When we were initially starting Renew (formerly known as Green Eileen when we first started it under the Eileen Fisher Foundation) we received hundreds of thousands of garments and piled them in boxes lining the walls and stacked in rows of the storage space we had to rent. One of the scariest things for a leader to say in that moment is “I don’t know what to do with this problem.” However, once it is said, it opens up a world of possibility. In the case of this situation, we were able to bring in a trio from the CFDA and other thought leaders who were able to pilot and prototype the possibilities of working with the recycled textiles. It’s opened doors we could never have come up with on our own (including a recent show in Milan of the beautiful felted textiles created from non-wearable EF clothing and scraps).

Now, we continue to share these practices by educating younger women and young people of all genders through the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute’s summer programs and support adult women to come together and explore the ways we can 'be the change’ in our Women Together series and online/ in-store conversations.

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