Authentic Leadership and a View from the Top

This is the third in a three-part series by Elizabeth Derby, Senior Consultant at JBC, curating key takeaways from the Global Summit of Women’s 2017 Colloquium on Global Diversity, “Creating a Level Playing Field for Women.”

The event saw Irene Natividad, President of the Global Summit of Women, bring together a distinguished collection of senior-level speakers who each shared insights and best practices around achieving gender parity in the C-Suite.

You can read part one, on creating a level playing field for women, here.
You can read part two, on driving sustainable change with bold next practices, here.

At this year’s Colloquium on Global Diversity, numerous C-suite leaders shared their individual career insights regarding the importance of perseverance, risk taking, role models, sponsors and having supportive spouses or partners. One board member admitted that, at times, it was “more challenging to have your voice heard,” but that she believed women to be more resilient and have skills and approaches that worked well in a business turnaround situation.

Leaders also provided perspective on the importance of embedding diversity and inclusion as part of an any business strategy, leading authentically and with intentionality, and ensuring diversity remained a priority during corporate transitions.

Here are just some of the insights shared:

Changing Mindsets Starts with Authentic Leadership, Intentionality, Accountability and Courageous Conversations

Developing more effective leaders requires changing mindsets, interrupting certain behaviors, and having courageous conversations in times of change.  Companies are investing significant resources to create more inclusive leaders, processes and cultures which welcome diverse perspectives from internal and external sources, mitigate implicit bias, and align their diversity and inclusion messaging with their practices.

This requires authentic leadership at the top, including the board, and an engaged C-suite which is committed to taking intentional actions regarding diversity and inclusion. The message “If you’re the CEO, you’re the Chief Diversity Officer” reinforced the fact that this top-level accountability is mission critical.

Ensuring Diversity and Inclusion Remains a Priority During Times of Transition

During transitions, market turmoil or other “distractions,” it’s especially important to incorporate diversity as part of an overall business strategy to ensure results, relevance and sustainability. Key success drivers include C-suite commitment and accountability, visible senior-level allies, authentic leaders who inspire others to act (especially middle managers), and engaged diverse leaders who serve as role models and change agents.

Per Irene Natividad, “Optics matter – if you don’t see it at the top, you may not readily aspire to be it.”  This sentiment was echoed by other executives on the panels who also shared that it could be lonely at the top as the only or one of the only women in the C-suite or on the board.

A bold step that several companies have taken to keep them on point is to create a Diversity & Inclusion Blueprint or Commitment Statement, which they share internally and externally. One company present at the Colloquium shared that they made 150 public commitments regarding diversity and inclusion and tied progress against these goals to compensation. In this instance, external shareholder pressure sparked the fire.

While the combination of external pressure from activist shareholders and other groups coupled with internal leadership on this topic is encouraging to see, we must collectively be bolder and more intentional to create more inclusive organizations where individuals feel Welcomed, Valued, Respected, and HeardSM.  Jennifer Brown’s recent book “Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change” illustrates the importance of creating a more welcoming and inclusive environment where people can bring their full selves to work, be authentic and contribute to an organization’s success.

Her book also provides inspiration and a road map of sorts for individuals and organizations to lead this change and disrupt the status quo.

CEO Insights

To close out the Colloquium, we heard insights from three global executives.

Mardia van der Walt Niehaus, former CEO, T-Systems South Africa; SVP, International Sales & Solutions, Deutsche Telekom came into ger CEO role unexpectedly when the CEO left six months after she had been in the deputy role. Given her HR background in this technology-focused company, her leadership was questioned early on and she had to engender the trust and hearts of the executive team in order to turnaround the company.

Her advice was twofold: 1) “know what you don’t know” and hire/empower others around you accordingly; and 2) beware of imbalanced power dynamics and address them head on. For her, a fundamental truth is that you need to have people truly engaged for the business to be successful, and she worked hard to take the overall strategy and translate it into individual plans for each person on her leadership team in order to provide a sense of purpose and authenticity and empower them to deliver against the vision.

Nicole Reich, CEO of BNP Paribas Mexico, also touched on the power dynamics and addressed the bipolar reactions she noticed when stepping into this role. On the one hand, this gave many hope as they saw a positive role model; she also noted that she got the seat of honor at important dinners and meetings. On the other hand, many judged her critically and questioned her leadership role – especially other women. Some men reacted with fear and panic that they would be reporting to a woman. She did not let this stand in her way and was successful in doubling revenues and decreasing losses by 70%. In turning around a key business for the bank, she underscored the importance of resiliency. She also jokingly said that no man would have accepted the job given the dire situation.

Both CEOs acknowledged that the skills typically ascribed to women leaders served them well in these turnaround situations.

Lynette Mayne, Former CEO of Lend Lease, will be of interest to D&I practitioners as she shared her point of view regarding how Chief Diversity Officers can really stand out and be an asset during mergers or transitions. Many of these insights aptly apply in “steady state” times as well.

  • Have an understanding of the business and approach the merger from that business vantage point; talk to the CEO from a macro perspective
  • Know the business case statistics and correlate D&I to bottom line results
  • Keep abreast of the trends and translate how that applies to your company
  • Understand and proactively communicate how you can help the merger succeed
  • Determine a top D&I champion and align yourself to that individual
  • Outline the “non-negotiable” items that you want to have as a result of the merger – e.g. 30% diverse board

The collective insights from the Colloquium on Global Diversity were inspiring and aspiring, and we applaud the companies and individuals who shared their stories.

The Colloquium, a project of the Global Summit for Women, will be hosting its annual Summit in Tokyo in May entitled “Beyond Womenomics: Accelerating Access”.  This will be a great forum in which to continue the dialogue and call to action.

Please join us in our urgency and intentionality to disrupt the status quo. 

Know that you can be an agent of change in small and big ways and that your actions will inspire others to do the same.