How female powers played an essential part in the founding of the MACH Alliance
Why empathy and other perceived feminine character traits matter
I am the first to run for the hills when faced with stereotypical male / female classification of leadership skills. Over two decades in the male dominated tech world quite naturally lead to gender comparison fatigue.
So when I was asked to do a write-up on last year's founding period of the Alliance from a female leadership perspective, I will admit I hesitated. I made a cup of coffee and reflected. Indeed, there were moments when female energy may have made a difference during the founding phase. So here is my personal rear window view on founding the MACH Alliance.
Empathy and Thoroughness
The MACH Alliance started in a London Pub, late summer 2019, when Matt Bradbeer, I and a few of the founding members came together to discuss how to work together better to help enterprise organizations see the business value in moving to a composable technology paradigm.
I listened to the commercial folks talk about technical features and feasibility. It is easy to conclude that technical buying teams generally just didn't get the power of microservices. It is much harder to acknowledge that moving to composable is, primarily, a shift in philosophy. Consequently, for the success of a MACH transformation, organizational aspects around people and process are critical. Maybe even more so than the technical ones. I encouraged the round to face reality: This isn’t so much about features. It is about people being scared of change.
When we zoomed out, we collectively knew: Enterprises are people too. People make decisions based on emotions. Change is scary, especially if the outcome is perceived to be uncertain. A fundamental change as moving to a composable business requires courage as well as a clear roadmap of the path ahead.
This was the birthing hour of the MACH Alliance mandate: giving the dream makers in enterprises the map, the tools and the peer support for their journey. On the plane back to Amsterdam, I wrote to Kelly Goetsch and things developed from there.
Active Listening and persevere through rejection
It became clear to us founding members very quickly that in order for the alliance to be meaningful, it had to be vendor agnostic. The higher goal of education and enablement requires ditching your company agenda at the door, thinking from the perspective of the people at an enterprise. The risk of falling into the trap of self-promotion was real and so we consciously decided to found an NPO.
A recent American Psychology Association article calls out that “[...] female leaders tended to be more democratic, collaborative, and participative than male leaders—that is, they more often invited input from others and attempted to build consensus [...]. Women thus did more of what is sometimes called “leading from behind,” that is, working with others to reach collective decisions.” And there certainly was a lot of that - countless calls with trusted peers at software vendors, agencies, with customers and analysts. Some fell in love with our baby right away, but many were sceptical.
From the polite “We have other priorities right now.” over the non-committal “yeah… .no… well maybe…” to one analyst telling me ‘Oh my goodness Sonja, don’t....’ : rejection was felt heavily. I breathed, I cried and then I detached myself from the feedback. Because I respected each and every person I spoke to for their experience and expertise, so consequently their arguments were meaningful.
On the bright side, there were the extreme positive reactions. “This is really what we´ve been waiting for.” And from “I want to be part of it now. What do I have to do?” to “You are really brave, I wish I had your courage.”Not internalizing, not taking it personal, seeing it as advice rather than judgement gave me the opportunity to sharpen the story, understand the objections and work on my own arguments. It allowed me to become really clear on what I personally and we as the MACH Alliance wanted, which proved to be extremely important going forward.
Admit and pivot when you are wrong
One such critical moment of active listening came just a few weeks before the original launch date in February 2020. Originally, we had planned to go live with far less members and build out from there. With the best intentions, we sent an email to those companies that we had been talking to, letting them know that the MACH Alliance was about to launch and inviting them to join. In my naivety, I anticipated excitement - so when one CTO of a potential member got very harsh with me on the phone, I was very much in shock. I remember pacing up and down the porch, letting his anger rain down on me. Through all his frustration, I somehow managed to still hear him out and hear what he had to say.
When debriefing with my fellow-founding gents, the conversation quickly became defensive. The conversation did not revolve around WHAT was said, but HOW. An endearing protectiveness of me as a person was paired with a stubborn ‘we don’t need them’ counterreaction. It felt like mediation by proxy.
We refocused the conversation to the cause: an Alliance to bring people together rather than dividing, one to give those who have driven change and appreciating the passion that was clearly underlying the heated debate. This CTO had a point. One we better listened to - no matter the delivery.
In hindsight, this was a pivotal moment for the alliance. The request was to not launch with a few members only. But that only with a larger group, a more diverse group, only with direct competition in the MACH Alliance right from the start, would we be perceived as the vendor neutral and not-for-profit organization that we are. Perception is reality. This coincided with the start of the first pandemic and we decided to push the launch forward to June - which at the time seemed like a reasonable timeframe for the world to get back to normal. We listened, we pivoted and launched with a dozen of launching members. I am confident that this change was instrumental for the rapid success of the MACH Alliance. It was able to take a step back and listen, even though the initial response was to argue back or call it off.
Ladies, dare to take the lead
Female leadership matters - not just in an alliance like ours, but across the board. In the MACH Alliance, we are continuously striving for more diversity in all its facets.
We are honored to have some fantastic ladies in charge, like Natalie Gross and Leoni Jannsen who made launch magic happen. Like Gordana Vuckovic as Head of Growth Council, Anna Hopp as Head of Community Council, Jasmin Guthmann as Head of Marketing Council, Pascale Dewane as Operations Manager and Nina Jonker-Voelker who made the first MACHathon ever happen. These women are rockstars and I am thankful for getting a chance to work with them and all the other hard working ladies in the councils.
And if you think ‘Hey, tech is still for guys’ - you may be as surprised as I was by this recent Harvard Business Review study that found that “Women were rated more positively on 13 of the 19 competencies in our assessment that comprise overall leadership effectiveness. Men were rated more positively on one competency — technical/professional expertise — but the difference was not statistically significant.”
So If you are not yet involved: Resist the urge to say ‘no’ and dare to take an active role in the MACH Alliance. Join our councils, become an Ambassador - go SHAPE the future of technology.