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2 posts from June 2010

18 June 2010

Live your best life

Bonjour all,

Vous allez bien?  I know summer has officially arrived in Belgium as I only had to wear a light trench coat yesterday.

Below are a few nuggets I gleaned from Oprah’s Live Your Best Life Weekend, which took place in New York City recently. I’ve tried to cull the content that links to women and career. 

For those of you outside the U.S. and South Africa, let me clarify why I admire Oprah.  Her magazine is one of the few periodicals mass marketed to women that does not insult our intelligence.  It covers politics, spirituality, careers, food, health, volunteering, literature, and culture with both an international and female lens.  Fashion and celebrities are footnotes, not focal.  It’s a magazine that expects more of us (watch this space for a blog on how expectations shape self-belief and performance).

I first read interviews with two of my own role models – Nelson Mandela and Richard Branson – in O Magazine (side note on Richard Branson – I also read his hilarious and informative book of life lessons, Screw it, Let’s Do It after watching him on a BBC segment last year.  He was leaping around the camera frame with great alacrity as he discussed Virgin’s development of environmentally-friendly airplanes.  In other words, he was fired up about the work he was doing.  That is one man that I would definitely follow into battle – but that’s a whole other blog on inspirational leadership).


Back to LYBL.  Not since the Women’s Forum have I seen so many women in one aesthetically sumptuous place.  No detail was overlooked.  The stages were illuminated in neon pinks and purples; luscious murals abounded.  Regular columnists for O Magazine held both plenary and informal sessions in which they shared wisdom and engaged us in Q&A; there was a discovery hall featuring interactive booths where you could be filmed sharing your point-of-view (on anything) for Oprah’s Network, join a live Wii Fit training session, get made over by L’Oreal cosmetic experts, or do some book shopping (I bought Ken Follett’sThe Pillars of the Earth for my summer beach read).

The LYBL weekend focused on empowerment and authenticity.  Here are a few morsels to chew on.

Oprah on work, passion, and vision

“Let passion drive your profession.”

Oprah shared a childhood story with us about her grandmother teaching her to do the laundry in rural Mississippi (for me, the vignette invoked my favorite short story, Girl by Jamaica Kincaid).  Oprah says she remembers even at that young age, thinking: No, grandma, this isn’t going to be my life.

Elizabeth Gilbert on women, choices, and self-forgiveness

“Every day, women live their lives as if it’s a final exam for their entire grade.”

Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, framed the conundrum of modern day females by pointing out that:

we are the first generation of women who have had an education, freedom, autonomy.  We have more choices than the women who came before us.  That’s why we live in the age of memoirs.  We’re trying to seek role models, see how other women have ‘solved it’. 

Gilbert’s grandmother lived through the U.S. depression.  She had an absence of choices, was a ‘pioneer of continuing on’ – she was in a constant struggle for survival.  “But,” Gilbert pointed out, “she wasn’t neurotic like me.”

According to Gilbert, these neuroses come from an embarrass de richesses of sorts.  Gilbert believes these abundant choices can lead to women harshly beating themselves up in the manner of: I should have [taken that promotion/not taken that promotion; married Bob/not married Bob; spellchecked the email before I sent it; gotten my PhD in Shakespeare; learned to speak Spanish; bought the red not the blue; moved to the country instead of the city….]  You get the idea.

“I am not often kind to myself when I fall short,” Gilbert said.  She encouraged us to mitigate our high aspirations with a little self-forgiveness. 

I can get on board with that.  I’ve discussed women and perfectionism in this space before.  It’s something that I struggle with.  This blog is one antidote to my own perfectionism.  Sometimes, you’ll see grammatical errors and inconsistent British / American English spelling because…wait for it…I’m not perfect.  Sadly, writing this blog is just one small and fun part of my job, so I can’t spend hours perfecting it.  I have to let go.  I practice self-forgiveness.

Gilbert closed by saying that there are four types of women in modern society:

Those who choose career over family
Those who choose family over career
Those who choose both
The Mystics – those who listen to a deeply resonant inner voice and follow it wherever it takes them


Suze Orman on women and money

Money isn’t the most important thing in life.  “Oh, yes it is,” said Suze Orman (after marching on stage to Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life”).  When mothers show her photos of their children (the most important thing in their lives), she reminds those women that they must nourish, clothe, and house those children.  With money. 

Research shows that (despite making up 50% of America’s workforce and 40% of its primary earners) one of the reasons women still make less money than men is because women don’t ask for what they’re worth in salary negotiations (check out this toolkit for women seeking a raise). 

Orman said, “You undervalue who you are, so the world undervalues who you are.”

Donna Brazile on taking risks

“I’m from New Orleans where Santa Claus rides an alligator, and we cook with grease and spices.”

Brazile told us to “cook with spice” – to take some risks.  “Your attitude determines your altitude, “ she said.  “Don’t let anyone put you in a little box…and never take NO for an answer.  When people say it won’t be done, I say: It shall be done.  And done well.”

Martha Beck on the voice within

“Whatever you’re supposed to learn, your soul will latch on to.”

(Love that.  It rings true, n’est-ce pas?)

Beck also had wisdom to share on decision-making.  “Are the animal and the angel inside of you leaning towards the decision or against it?  Your body gets stronger as you move towards your inner truth.”

She had us do an exercise where we laced our fingers together and tried to pull our hands apart.  We had to state a lie about ourselves (this made pulling our hands apart very easy) and then a truth about ourselves (this made pulling our hands apart very difficult – our muscles and joints ostensibly cooperating with our inner truth).

The “animal and angel” in me were FULLY in favour of me throwing caution to the wind, taking a vacation day, and flying across the Atlantic for LYBL and a visit with my best friend (see Carolina and I with our “O Glow” and SWAG bags, below).  And yes – it was worth it. 


à bientôt,


P.S. – Have you been watching the World Cup in South Africa?  Europeans take football/soccer very seriously (“Football, Vacation, God – in that order,” a European once told me).  Whether or not I watch the game, I always know who won by the large, impromptu mob that congregates outside the Brussels Bourse, afterwards, which I can see (and sadly, hear) from my living room.  So far, the Brazilians have been the most coordinated – they had a marching band AND a choreographed fan dance.  Very impressive, indeed.

11 June 2010

Can Men Innovate Alone?



Many of the cutting-edge research papers and corporate gender initiatives that abound these days are based on the assumption that men and women think and behave differently as a result of a combination of nature and nurture.  Whether or not you subscribe to this theory, there’s enough credible research out there to (at the very minimum) entertain the notion and to spur a healthy amount of debate among proponents and detractors. 


Bench_meeting At last year’s Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, for example, quite a few speakers noted that in general, women have a better long-term view; that they’re better empathizers; that they see the “big picture” better than men – all so-called “right brain” functions.  If this has any truth to it, what are the implications for the corporate world? 


I came across this week’s guest writer while reading our PwC Innovation Blog.  The entry, entitled “Innovator of the Century: Renaissance Man,” particularly caught my attention as it noted how critical “heterogeneous educational and cultural backgrounds and thinking” (a.k.a. diversity) are to innovation.  The author of the piece – my PwC colleague, Sarah Firisen – astutely noted that this is NOT a new concept at all, but one which we must rediscover in the 21st Century.  “Companies,” Sarah wrote, “which view creative thought and empathy skills with equal criticality to those of technical skills, be it for recruitment or advancement, will be at the forefront in the coming century.”


I wasted no time in emailing Sarah to establish a connection.  I said something to the effect of “Yes, yes, yes!  This is our elemental business case for diversity!  Let’s share and be friends!”  Happily, she agreed.  Even better, she agreed to write a piece on gender and innovation.  If this piques your curiosity, be sure to check out Daniel Pink’s short essay, The Revenge of the Right Brain,” which was adapted from the book Sarah mentions below.  And coming soon in this space…what Oprah’s inner circle had to say in May about women in the workplace…


à bientôt,




Sarah Firisen is a social media and innovations strategist as well as an IT systems architect and software developer.  Currently she works in PwC’s Thought Leadership group.  I encourage you to check out her regular contributions on 3 Quarks Daily and the PwC Innovation blog.



“When Hollywood portrays an eccentric inventor, the character is almost always a man; a wild haired, absent-minded and bumbling man. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one single, popular culture image of a female counterpart. While invention is not innovation, there is no doubt that they are first cousins; when we think of inventing, we usually think of products, and while by no means are all innovations product innovations, certainly many of them are. An invention becomes an innovation as it creates value and has an impact on the world in some form or other. I believe that this linkage, and often confusion, between invention and innovation, and the indelible image of the male, eccentric inventor can have a tendency to lead corporations to a male bias when they consider how to become more innovative.


As someone who was a software developer for over 13 years, I can personally attest to the overwhelming preponderance of men in that field, and certainly as you expand the view to engineering in general, the picture, if anything, gets worse. However, there is much evidence to suggest that what takes a product from the realms of a really good idea, or a clever piece of engineering, to a true innovation that creates value for a firm, are elements that women may be better at than men.


Daniel Pink, writing in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future, posits that right-brained “senses”, as he calls them, will be essential to the kinds of creativity and innovation that are going to be increasingly necessary moving forward into the 21st century. These senses are: design, story, play, meaning, symphony and empathy. Certainly, it seems to be intuitively correct that invention and innovation both involve a combination of left-brained and right-brained skills; while a factual understanding of the concepts involved is usually necessary, it is almost never sufficient, there is always an element of pure creativity involved. When we think about some of the companies and products that we consider innovative, they almost always go far beyond just good engineering. They usually combine great design and a deep understanding of the needs of the end user.


Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, has done extensive research that he believes shows that, “the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” He doesn’t claim that only women are empathetic, rather that there is a female brain type in which empathizing is stronger than systemizing, and that, on average, more women have this brain type than men, and vice versa. 


It certainly is true that empathy, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, is part of the essence of what makes us human. Companies that have embraced the notion of empathy and have integrated it fully into their business processes, companies where customer service representatives, for example, are allowed, actually encouraged, to go above and beyond - both in time and effort - in order to empathize with customers, these are companies that are increasingly being lauded as innovative, trendsetting companies for the 21st century. If Professor Baron-Cohen is correct, and at least anecdotally there is something very believable and familiar about his claims, then it would seem that women will become increasingly strategically important to Corporate America’s efforts to drive innovation, in all its aspects.”