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2 posts from November 2009

19 November 2009

Feelings are facts and perceptions are reality…

Hello, bonjour, and goedemorgen!

I’ve just returned from Holland, where I had the pleasure of attending an International Women of Excellence event with professionals from IBM, American Express, Shell, TNT, BAE Systems, and Philips (some of the panellists are pictured below).  It was a day full of revelations for me, but before I get to that I must tell you that Amsterdam is one of my favourite European cities (and not just because I saw The Killers play a rousing set at the Heineken Music Hall in May).

There are few pleasures I enjoy more than strolling the city’s canals on a mild night and peering into the milk-bottle shaped houses that line the water.  Many inhabitants keep their curtains open (I’ve been told this is a remnant of Calvinist tradition – a gesture to show they’ve nothing to hide, literally or figuratively) and you can frequently see the gorgeous interiors of the canal houses – some modern, some traditional – often with quirky nooks and crannies including enormous floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves, heaving with books.  Incidentally, the same friend explained that Amsterdam has more books in more languages per capita than any other city in the world – it’s definitely my kind of town.

So – now that that’s out of the way, let me share with you the significant wisdom of Peter Korsten, Global Leader of the IBM Institute of Business Value (and, I’m pleased to say, a PricewaterhouseCoopers’ alumni!)  Peter began by distributing a recent article in de Volkskrant, one of The Netherlands’ leading newspapers.  The article summarized research done on “why the flow of women to the top falters.”  831 of the most influential business executives at top companies in The Netherlands were polled.  Here are a few quotes from these executives as printed in the article:

“Women are not ready [to be top executives].”

“Men choose men [for leadership positions].”

“Women cannot handle the pressure [of leadership coupled] with the private sphere.”

“The rise of ‘female-friendly behaviour’ [i.e., quotas] means concessions to quality.”

“In selecting the really senior executives, the rules are different.  And those [rules] are rarely public.”

“Female directors…have negative experiences with other women at the top.”

So.  What to do with this information, besides sigh forlornly and shake our heads?

Well, one of the researchers is quoted as saying: “The [leadership] summit has been designed by men for centuries.  They feel naturally at home there.  Women think they have to adapt themselves to that profile, which creates a self-reinforcing system.  And that is unfortunate, because by giving women the space [to be themselves], they can tap into their own unique power, which is what provides added value [to business].  The only way forward is thus, to achieve re-development of the summit.”

“Re-development of the summit” is a phrase that really resonated with me.  It’s consistent with what I’ve been hearing from other thought leaders lately – that we need to stop trying to change women and start rethinking entire business models – not just to accommodate women, but to accommodate all of our best talent and to tap into different skill sets.

Peter Korsten also gave us some hope.  He used the newspaper article to launch a discussion, pointing out that although some of the comments made by these top executives may not be palatable, “feelings are facts – perceptions are reality,” and women should therefore seek to know and understand how they are perceived by men in the workplace.  Peter also shared some of IBM’s history to demonstrate the critical role of company culture in creating an inclusive environment that capitalizes on the diverse strengths of its employees to achieve innovation.  Did you know that IBM hired its first female and black employees in 1899 and its first handicapped employees in 1914?  That their first FEMALE Vice President was appointed in 1943?  Did you know that in 1953 IBM instituted an equal opportunity policy for everyone regardless of background and/or sexual orientation?  I didn’t. 

In the context of the social and political milieu of the U.S. at that time, these figures are quite astonishing and go a long way towards explaining why IBM is a role model company for global diversity and inclusion today.  As Peter pointed out, the culture was set by top management at a very early stage; diversity is not, therefore, just about quotas or numbers, “but about asking ourselves whether we have included everyone in our way of working.” 

When asked by a participant how he practices inclusion on his own team, Peter gave an interesting example: he asks a female team member to review every communication he sends to the CEO or other senior level executives.  He explained that women “read with different eyes” and that they always have an opinion, a question, or suggestion that causes him to edit the message for higher impact and clarity.

Here are Peter’s tips for success that he shared with us:

  1. Always say YES when asked to do something (then go back later to the person who asked in order to set parameters and contingencies – such as personnel and financial resources that you will need to deliver).
  2. Position yourself with self-confidence and strength – BE WHO YOU ARE.
  3. Network with a goal and then be the “spider” in the web – KNOW what you want to be famous for.
  4. Use questions to gain perspective from the other and to help others think.
  5. Know what needs to be done and do it with conviction and perfection.

I actually find that “perfectionism” is something I have to overcome – an inhibitor of progress that snags me from time to time, but I think I get Peter’s last point which speaks more to excellence and commitment.  In any case, I found his tips useful and will try to practice them in my daily work so they become habit.  When I can apply such principles with discipline, I do see a marked change in my work. 

For example, something we as employees are encouraged to do at PwC is to put ourselves in each others’ shoes.  I’ve been making a concerted effort to do that for some time now, and it has proven to be an amazing enabler of collaboration and relationships.  The pace of the modern world can make it difficult to stop and take a moment to consider where another person is coming from (both literally and figuratively), but when I’m able to do so (and I am – with increasing frequency), it changes the entire dynamic of my conversations.

In my first blog post, I promised postings on France, Foreigners and Four-letter words.  I’ve covered France with the fabulous 2009 Women’s Forum in Deauville, but will be coming to you soon on the latter two topics, as well as sharing some insight about PwC’s diversity & inclusion efforts in 2010.  Stay tuned…

à bientôt,





06 November 2009

Who will we choose to be?

Greetings from an autumn-infused New York City! 

I managed to take a detour on my walk from a conference in Times Square to our PwC office on Madison Avenue the other day and can report that the trees in Central Park are awash in breathtaking hues of orange, yellow, and red, the air crisp and surprisingly fresh for the city that never sleeps.  What a fortunate time to be visiting my US Office of Diversity colleagues.  The PwC US Firm was honoured last week and this week with two different awards.  For the sixth year in a row, they clinched a spot on The Top 10 Best Company for Working Mothers list.  This was also the 15th year that PwC US has been listed in the Top 100, earning them a place on Working Mother’s “100 Best” Hall of fame list.

DiversityInc also recognized the US Firm as number 5 in their Top 50 Companies for Diversity list (DiversityInc has also recognized PricewaterhouseCoopers as the Number One Company for Global Diversity in both 2008 and 2009).

This week I watched our Global Chairman, Dennis Nally, accept the DiversityInc award for the Top Company for Working Families.  In his remarks to the audience, he noted that:

“retaining talented women is a business imperative that will outlast the financial crisis…bad times don’t last, but good people do.” 

Earlier in the evening, I spoke with Dennis about his personal vision for our global diversity agenda during his tenure as Chairman, and I look forward to sharing some outcomes of that conversation in future blog posts.  This latter award ceremony took place in tandem with DiversityInc’s How Leadership Expresses Diversity Commitment event, in which we had the privilege of hearing not only Dennis, but a number of leading CEOs, government officials and academics discuss the topic.  What amazed me about these speakers was how they shared their passion for diversity in such personal ways – the authenticity in their words was palpable.  One CEO talked about how he had to make a difficult decision for the company that detracted from his church’s views because “it was the right thing to do.”  Another described how, when facing a pivotal question about which Employee Resource Groups to create, he asked his children for their input (and encouraged his executive team to do the same) to ensure he was creating a company that would be not just acceptable, but inspiring to future generations of workers.  I found it encouraging that when put to the test these leaders made tough personal choices and demonstrated a willingness to be open to new ideas and ways of thinking to create a more inclusive workplace. 

On a personal note, I experienced three firsts at this conference: I heard speeches from Diego Sanchez, the first transgender person to work on Capitol Hill, and Judith E. Heumann, a polio survivor and disability-rights activist who is the director of the D.C. Department of Disability.  The stories of both individuals reminded me of how important it is to put ourselves in each others’ shoes, and in fact another speaker, Dr. Ella Bell of Dartmouth University, summed up the importance of this principle to business as she pointed out that only when we bring our WHOLE selves to our work can we “walk into our brilliance.”  She encouraged all of us to “think bigger and more creatively” about diversity and to connect our leadership styles with our personal stories, or what she called, “Myography” (I’d love to hear from you about how your personal stories inspire your own work.)  The final “first” for me was the realization that I myself was one of the “leaders” in the room.  Multiple speakers throughout the event reminded me that you don’t have to have a fancy title on your business card to be a leader.  After all, aren’t we all leaders of some sort?  Leaders of people, teams, projects, families, and other groups?  Aren’t we all, every day, behaving in ways that may be emulated by the people we’re interacting with, whether they be our colleagues, our friends, or our families?

Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University delivered one of the most stirring speeches I’ve heard in a long time (he’s one of those people who can employ words in a way that makes your hair stand up on end).  After making the case for the connection between diversity and quality in the corporate world (and indeed, in the world in general – “diversity is good for business,” he said, “and it’s good for the soul”), Dr. West posed a question to all of the leaders in the room: 

“In the middle of womb and tomb, who will we choose to be?”

He went on to remind us that so many people have become preoccupied by the Glass ceiling, that they forget about “people in the basement and on the seventh floor” – in other words he feels America is still not tapping into the incredible talent of its diverse population.  Dr. West warned against arrogance, urging leaders to be “unsettled, uncomfortable and unnerved” in order to grow (indeed, living in Europe for the past four years has taught me that the times when I feel most out of my comfort zone are the times that I stretch most as a human being and a business professional). 

“Diversity as a business imperative,” said Dr. West, “is not rhetoric; it’s indispensible for business flourishing here and around the world.”  He urged the audience to “lift your voices AND your ears” – a sentiment which underlined the theme of an earlier session on Emotional Intelligence in which we learned the importance of the art of listening when leading teams.  He encouraged us to have role models; not celebrities or people in the spotlight, but people that touch our lives regularly, people who we can actually see and hear – in person – on a regular basis (“Oprah is not a role model,” he explained – which did produce a sigh from me, as I’m a rather devoted reader of her magazine, which regularly features inspiring women entrepreneurs from around the globe).  The expression of diversity is about “being myself…in a respectful way,” he said.  He pointed out that if our goal is innovation, we can’t have one corporate model which everyone must imitate, but rather we must create an environment in which employees can “find their voices, not just their echoes.”  This, I think, is a concept that has become critical to businesses as it relates to products and services, but also to sustainability.  When asked about how he feels about the disillusionment of the young generation in light of the financial crisis and the obstacles that still remain, Dr. West replied:  “I am a prisoner of hope.”  That’s a sentiment that I’ll definitely embrace as we move forward with our own diversity agenda, and one that resonated with me after my conversation with Dennis and diversity practitioners I’ve met this week.

I’m leaving the US shortly to fly back to Belgium, but will return with many thought-provoking ideas and input for our global journey from diversity leaders at large companies and from my US colleagues.   Speaking of which, if you’re a fan of the television show Mad Men, I encourage you to check out Jennifer Allyn’s Forbes’ article called, “Why Gen Y Women Need to Tune In”.  I also highly recommend her recent piece, “Reclaiming Mommy Tracks” which addresses the question: What if all women returning from maternity leave were given several transition options instead of having to negotiate ad hoc arrangements?  Finally, if you have (literally) a few minutes, do check out the excellent “10 Minutes on Managing Diversity”, which is a very short, very powerful, and very practical read on diversity and competitive business advantage.

à bientôt,