Strategy: Leadership

Women are unique, says Susan T Spencer. They lead in a different way from men—and that’s a good thing for business.


Susan T. Spencer is one of a kind; an entrepreneur and business professional who competes in male-dominated industries. She learned about football from her father and business from her parents and grandparents. Before the age of 40, Susan was a mother, junior high school teacher, a tennis dress manufacturer, a lawyer and general manager of football’s Philadelphia Eagles.

After several years at the Eagles, she left to start her second business—a food distribution company, Allegro Foods, which she grew into a successful global company. Susan continued to expand her business empire by buying two more exclusively male businesses—both in meat processing. Her companies had combined annual revenues of $50 million, and she attributes her success to 12 natural talents that all women possess. Here, she shares five of the twelve female skills that help women lead and succeed.

Perceptive communication
Women are natural communicators, she says. Men listen, and women talk . . . to everyone. Women’s ability to communicate is not just their ability to talk; they are also aware of what others are thinking. All of their senses contribute to their special talent, giving them a decided advantage in evaluating a business situation. These traits, along with other observations that women instinctively notice, such as body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and body movements, collectively represent what women in business uniquely possess—the ability to be perceptive communicators.

Being empathetic
The ability to identify with and understand someone else’s feelings or difficulties is a female leadership skill that engenders employee loyalty and trust, says Spencer. “The best way to describe empathy is to share with you a brief story that happened to me when I was forced to shut down one of my meat plants because it was losing millions of dollars with no end in sight.

“As a leader, I knew not to have a buddy-buddy relationship with my employees. I felt it would compromise my ability to be objective and manage effectively. I followed this principle throughout my career; and in most cases it served me well. My plan was to call a meeting of my employees in the cafeteria and tell them that I could not fix this broken company that I purchased and operated for several years. I intended to tell them that I was truly sorry but the plant would be closed in 60 days.

“My plan was to tell the story in a calm, clear, unemotional way. But when I stood in front of the workers and looked into the eyes of the men and women I worked with every day, tears filled my eyes and the tears continued to fall until my speech was finished. I feared that an angry crowd of workers would mock me, but as I dried my eyes and tried to gain some composure, one of my workers shouted out, ‘You’re not so tough!’ and the rest of the employees applauded and laughed warmly in appreciation.”

It’s a rare moment when a figure of authority shows this side of their personality, but if it’s sincere, it’s a moment that will be appreciated forever by everyone who witnesses it, she continues. “Because I communicated openly and honestly with all the employees, every worker stayed on and saw the company through until closing day, saving me from even greater losses. Empathy is an awesome skill when it is used carefully and wisely in business situations.”

Being engaging
“Have you observed the way most businessmen greet each other?” asks Spencer. “I have. They immediately extend their hand and wait for the other person to do the same; then they grasp hands firmly and give a shake or two. Generally, they don’t make eye contact with each other, and if they exchange words, they’re often mumbled or perfunctory.

“When women greet each other, they hug, they smile, and they look each other in the eye and say how good it is to see the other one. This is true even if they’re business colleagues. These gestures are more than symbolic—it’s how women use body language to communicate the importance of relationships.”

Spencer emphasizes that when you meet a businessperson in the ordinary course of business, being engagingincludes the way you meet and greet the other person. It begins the moment you extend your hand and continues throughout the greeting. “Don’t miss an opportunity to make a great initial impression by using your natural skill of being engaging, it can be the most powerful “Briefcase Essential” that you carry.

Being inclusive
Businesswomen are ‘people persons’, she says. They fill this role naturally because they are comfortable relating one-on-one with people at all levels of an organization. “We make it a point to know the names and faces of people we are working with; we want them to know us and we want to feel comfortable with them as well. Sometimes, your customers or suppliers will feel so comfortable with you that they share personal information which brings the relationship closer and gives you the opportunity to be candid and straightforward with them about business problems when they arise.”

In contrast, she maintains, businessmen tend to act impersonally and do not interact at all levels; in other words they are exclusive not inclusive. “For women the term ‘inclusive’ carries with it an implicit acknowledgement that ‘people come first.’ By being inclusive with every business contact—whether customer, supplier or employee—the natural talents that women apply to business give them a decisive edge. Never underestimate the strength of leadership that we possess by championing the maxim of being inclusive, which carries with it an implied understanding that people come first.”

Being resourceful
“Every business has its ups and downs and in one of my companies the downs seemed never ending,” Spencer proclaims. One of the most important business skills—and a talent that women seem to be able to handle better than men, she says, is juggling a lot of balls in the air at one time. “Women think about several options instead of zeroing in on one, toss them around in their head, weigh alternatives, consider several points of view, and come up with more than one way to proceed. Being resourceful temporarily solved a business problem for me when I discovered I couldn’t cover payroll for the 200 employees that worked in my company.

“My solution was to stretch payment to my large suppliers past their seven-day terms one day at a time until my company was actually paying them in fourteen or twenty-one days. I figured out that if they demanded payment in full immediately, and we could not pay it, they’d eventually force my company into bankruptcy, which would end their chance of getting paid in full. Their only other option would be to accept my offer and extend my payment terms—and it worked!”



Susan T. Spencer was the first and only female to hold the position of general manager of an NFL team, The Philadelphia Eagles. She currently consults with small business owners when they are ready to "take off", and serves as an advisor to several international non-profits as an “expert in growing a small business.” Susan’s recently published business book, Briefcase Essentials,, includes all 12 of the natural talents that women need to succeed in a male-dominated workplace and includes lots of personal stories. She says the book will teach women how to deal with men in business instead of trying to act like them.