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01 July 2011

On mediocrity, meditation and mothers


Last week, I attended PwC’s Diversity Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C.  It was, as the French would say, a spectacle – hundreds of clients and subject matter experts flooded the audience as one by one, renowned speakers took to the stage (which had two runways) to share their insights on flexibility in a hyper-connected world. 



Fareed Zakaria opened with a speech on navigating mobility and culture in a global economy.  As someone born in Scotland, raised in America, and who has lived abroad for some years now in various francophone countries, Zakaria’s comment that “moving is not just a physical thing – it’s a mental thing,” really resonated with me. 

“Americans clap a lot,” I found myself thinking – as I clapped along with them and wondered when I’d started thinking of myself as semi-American or not-American.  And anyway, my passport says I’m Scottish as does the dishtowel in my kitchen, which lists everything the Scots invented (there are very few things they did not invent – just ask my mom if you have any questions about that).  The point is this: transplant culture for long enough, and you really do look at the world through a very different lens.

Dr. Zakaria shared that out of the SNP 500, fifty-percent of revenue comes from outside the western world, while only 7% of those companies’ leadership is foreign.  This reminded me of the often-heard statistic about women in leadership – 80% of consumer decisions are made by your average women while only 3% hold leadership positions in the corporations that are allegedly making the products these women buy (or as my friend once said, “if women were on corporate boards, the most successful automobile manufacturer in the world would be the one that finally figures out how to design a car interior with a place for my purse – duh.”)  Oh – and speaking of cars – a Scot invented tires.

Dr. Zakaria used no PowerPoint in his compelling and often humorous presentation as he thinks people who use PowerPoint have “no power and no point.”

Duly noted.  And – may I have that in writing?

He insisted that Americans form their opinion of whether a country has “progressed” by the litmus test of “whether they have become more like us.”  [Cue raucous laughter from the audience]. The sheer volume of people in India and China will change the world and - as he pointed out - the same goes for women, who are for the first time as a global cohort educated in greater numbers than men.


He compared the size and population of the U.S. to that of China, India, and then to Europe, where - as he pointed out - you can drive for a mile and be speaking a different language.  (Sidenote: I know this for a fact as I used to live in Luxembourg and when I was learning to drive stick-shift there I once took a wrong turn and ended up in France, Germany AND Belgium before returning to Luxembourg in a drive that took about half an hour – true story.)

I raised my hand and asked Dr. Zakaria how we can help American children become better at cultural dexterity than previous generations, and he suggested changing the proportion of government spending so that a larger fraction is spent on youth, education, and day care and a lesser fraction spent on eldercare and prisons – which cost the same to build as a school.  Zakaria pulled compelling statistics out of his head like some sort of economic Houdini. 

My favourite takeaway was his criticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (whenever a business speaker mentions a great literary work, I swoon).  Zakaria said that nothing in literature had ever struck him as so inherently wrong as Fitzgerald’s idea that there are no second acts in American lives.

Of course there are second acts. 

And third acts and fourth acts. 

If you don’t believe me, just ask your average twenty-something, who may have already had two whole careers already.  And this ultimately was Zakaria’s optimistic message: the world’s transformation – largely due to technology – is recent and profound.  We have the power to adapt – and inclusion will be an integral part of that transformation. 

Daniel Pink, of Drive fame later reminded us that they keys to effective communication are:



Pink told us about a five-minute intervention that can double productivity – showing an employee “why” they are doing something instead of “how” to do it (management is a modern invention,” he said, “it came about in the 1850s”.)  We all scratched our heads and thought about the theoretical models that we are trapped in – there was a time when management simply didn’t exist?  Huh.  Pink implored managers in the audience to “have one fewer conversation about how to do the work and one more conversation about why the work matters.”

Here’s a rundown of my other fave quotes of the day:

Bob Moritz, PwC US Chairman: “We need to ‘legitimize’ our work / life programmes so that there or no repercussions – perceived or otherwise, and we must acknowledge that one size does not fit all.”

John Strangfeld, Chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial: “We must avoid the gravitational pull of mediocrity so that diversity is not a ‘seasonal exercise’….leaders must have high engagement in all diversity decisions.”

Linda Stone, Writer and former Apple Executive: “Begin a meeting with five minutes of silence.  You will find this essential to better performance. It creates openness and fosters innovation.  Check in with your head, your heart and your body and I promise you that the quality of conversation in that meeting will improve.”

Imagine it: you’re sitting in the room with the CEO and a few others, and you suggest five minutes of meditation.  How would individuals react to that?  Would they be willing to try it?  It certainly defies common corporate practice.  But in the end, I think these sessions were exactly about that – how to challenge common practice and thus evolve business.

Lucky for me, two good friends from PwC attended the conference – Sindhu and Michelle.  I don’t see them frequently now that I’m on the other side of the Atlantic, but they reminded me of how important it is to connect with people we love.  The three of us began in PwC’s D.C. office together. 

Since I first met Sindhu, a lot of changes have happened in her life.  She got promoted, married, started her own company, and had two superhero-like children (not necessarily in that order).  Most important, she introduced me to Indian food at her wedding, which I’ve been obsessed with ever since.  She is a great writer and lover of literature.  She grew up internationally (in Libya, among other places) and is a foodie.  She is also one of the coolest working moms I know.  And finally, she is probably the best networker I’ve ever met.

Networking is not something I am naturally good at – it is a competency I’ve built up because I know that it’s critical to personal and professional success.  Left to my own devices, I’d be curled up in a corner deconstructing Kafka or writing a Darwinist interpretation of Pride & Prejudice.  True story.

Sindhu, however?  A pro at networking.  A natural.  She (literally) grabbed me in the hall to introduce me to panellist Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift and a Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, where I’ll be starting a master’s program this fall. 

Et voila – a few minutes later Jeremy and I had agreed to discuss his possible input into a global diversity event that PwC will sponsor in October on the subject of where men fit into women’s empowerment.  He didn’t have his business card on him, nor did I (Sindhu gave me a disapproving glance) so the two of us agreed to connect on LinkedIn, which as Jeremy pointed out “will be up to date when I move house next month.” 

Could this conversation possibly have taken place ten years ago? 

Do people still have rolodexes?  Thank you, LinkedIn.  Thank you.


After Sindhu’s networking magnum opus, we settled in for lunch with our friend Michelle who’d come down from the PwC New York office where she now works for PwC’s Human Capital Leader.  Michelle recently returned from a secondment in India herself – I think the three of us were all feeling rather smug about our international-ness in light of the conference’s theme – which is the absolute opposite of what makes you really good at cultural dexterity – humility.  (That was my attempt at levity – how’d I do?)

I asked Sindhu what makes her such an amazing businesswoman, mother, and friend – these seem like difficult qualities to combine.  Sindhu considered this as she chewed and swallowed her crab cake (which she pronounced “delicious”). 

Then she said, “I knew I wanted to be the kind of mother who still read The New Yorker.”

à bientôt,



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