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Male or Female, the Best Leaders Know How to Do This

Creative business people meeting with coffee and paperwork in circle of chairsCreative business people meeting with coffee and paperwork in circle of chairs

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for “How do you excel in a male-dominated industry?” is written by Dawn Zier, CEO of Nutrisystem.

You would think the $60 billion dollar U.S. weight loss industry, in which roughly 85% of the customers are women, would have a fair amount of female CEOs. You’d be wrong.

In fact, you’d be more wrong than you might imagine. There is actually only one female CEO at the helm of a major, publicly traded commercial weight-loss company — and that’s me. The fitness industry fares slightly better with several female exercise moguls, including the founders of SoulCycle and Barre3 and numerous fitness visionaries and female business owners on the local level.

When I became the first female CEO in Nutrisystem’s 40-year history, it was conventionally anticipated to be an asset given I had ‘real-world experience.’ For those of us with our own lifelong weight loss journey, it’s all too easy to forget that just because you’re a woman and you’ve been on a diet doesn’t mean you know dieters and all the respective market niches and nuances of the business. Even if you think you are an expert, a focus group of one isn’t the best way to set strategy.

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I match up against our core customer in both gender and age, complete with my own share of dieting angst. Intrinsically I have a feel for the emotional aspects of the weight loss journey. But, to excel in any industry – male–dominated or not — you’ve got to be cautious about assuming you know what the consumer wants just because you fit the profile of the target customer. It’s an easy trap and if you fall for it, you’ll compromise your own decision making.

It’s surprising how elusive this concept can be in any business and how glaring the gap is between what we assume people want based on our own experience or business needs and what they REALLY want based on what they actually say and do.

For instance, not too long ago I was asked why we started selling snacks as standalone products. It seemed to go against our own business model, which involves a full menu with a range of meals and shakes. But our customer input and tracking told us our customers were looking for something more. My response: “People snack.”

Bottom line: Draw on your own personal and professional experience, but make sure you listen to and prioritize the collective voice of your consumers. With this approach, we’ll surely see more females excelling in the dynamic weight-loss industry.