Walt Disney once said, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I tend not to trust people's talk. Often, I even question the sincerity of their actions. But I never doubt what is revealed by the patterns of their behavior.
Take, for example, my relationship with my father. I grew up in a culture where no one said, "I love you." In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I first said it to my father. It was at the end of one our usual Sunday evening calls. I had asked about his health, told him a silly joke that made him laugh out loud, and reveled in the comfort of that laughter, like a sip of hot cocoa warming my belly.
And at the end of the call, I just said it. There was silence for a few seconds, then we said goodbye and hung up. I knew he wasn’t used to hearing those words, much less saying them, but it wasn’t awkward to me. I kept saying "I love you" at the end of all our conversations until one day, when I wasn’t expecting it, he said, “I love you too, my dear.”
I lived almost 40 years before hearing my father utter those words, yet I never wondered if he loved me. I always knew he did because he showed me. Repeatedly. He gave never-ending encouragement and showed genuine curiosity in everything I did. He laughed lovingly at both my jokes and my foibles. Even when he scolded me, it was with tenderness. Being his daughter, I felt protected from harm and showered with attention. I adored him.
I am convinced that the way my father conveyed his love for me — through actions more than words — is the way we should express our commitment to diversity & inclusion.
I’ve spent almost twenty years leading diversity & inclusion for major global conglomerates, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that words and actions don't always line up, especially in the business world. You can look at any corporate website and read carefully crafted words about that company's commitment to diversity & inclusion. You can probably peruse a list of the endless awards and recognitions bestowed upon them. But if you get a chance to look closely at the company culture and how the people there behave, you'll often discover that the actions needed to effect sustainable change aren't really present.
Not only that, but chances are, many of the stakeholders in that company feel frustrated or discouraged. From investors and board members to employees and customers, those who understand the benefits of a diverse and inclusive corporate culture are likely to get fed up when efforts to bring about that change are halfhearted or the talk of diversity & inclusion is hollow. But why is this situation so common?
The fact is that meaningful change requires meaningful action. It demands purposeful communication, active involvement, and clear modeling. And while many leaders say they understand the case for diversity & inclusion in the business world, most struggle mightily to figure out what actions they should take to apply that understanding. We can't blame them entirely. Most business leaders haven't been given the tools, resources or guidance required to make real progress in this area. But the fact that resources are lacking is a topic for another blog…or three. Here I'd like to start offering suggestions, outlining some actions leaders can take to show that their commitment to diversity & inclusion is more than just talk.
These suggestions are based on what I’ve observed while working with successful leaders throughout my career and while interviewing #remarkablewomen in the venture capital, startup and tech worlds for my forthcoming book. In recognition of this year's International Women's Day theme, #PressForProgress, I've chosen to focus on how men can do their part, taking action to ensure progress for women in the workplace. Here are two simple, yet powerful actions to take.
Action #1: Intentionally invest in women’s development.
Kate Sullivan is a media entrepreneur and Emmy award-winning journalist. She worked hard to achieve this level of success, but she faced many challenges early in her career. She mailed hundreds of tapes for open positions, only to be rejected. She was finally thrown into a job and performed well despite getting no training. Yet the only constructive criticism given during her performance review was that she needed to lose weight. Nevertheless, it was men’s willingness to personally invest in her development — and particularly the actions men took to promote her — that helped advance her career. Kate says, “I look back at so many of them who promoted me, who said, 'great job.' I am here because of an entire list of men who were willing to give me advice [when] I sought it out. Some of the answers I didn't like, but so many of the answers were helpful.”
Kate's story shows that the responsibility for developing women's careers falls on everyone's shoulders: women's and men's. Still, 95% of the women I've interviewed have stated that it is vital that men be open to dialogue and that they take action.
Steps men can take:
Give constructive feedback. Both during talent calibration meetings and in one-on-one conversations, ask women about their career aspirations instead of assuming you know what those are. Make resources available for career development needs and ensure women have access to mission-critical work. Set goals and expectations for the number of women whose careers you would like to see developed over a specific timeframe. Monitor progress. Hold yourself and all others accountable.
Action #2: Bring more women into your network.
According to Ana Agneshwar, a successful banker and angel investor, there are a myriad of simple ways that men can bring more women into their networks. In telling her story, Ana shares about Taj, a male banker who took a chance on her after graduate school. Ana says she was so green, she couldn't even string two sentences together. She didn't know how to write an email much less a business email. But Taj saw her potential. He took her to sales meetings. When she said she didn't know how to do something, he would say, "Just try it. Give it a shot. What do you have to lose?” His guidance and encouragement made all the difference.
Another woman I recently interviewed, Anna Haghgooie, is a venture capitalist in Chicago who believes she is successful because of her own hard work and the chances given to her by others. Although there are six common paths taken to a career as a venture capitalist, Haghgooie, like many women, didn't follow a traditional route.
After earning a degree in business, Anna spent a few years exploring career options in finance before stumbling into the world of entrepreneurship and deciding to get an MBA. In graduate school, she worked alongside two yoga teachers who were building their company from scratch. It was an exciting time, but she felt lost the first two months because there was no job description, no set of directions or list of what she should be doing. Then she had an epiphany. She could do anything. Every day was an experiment. That insight ignited a spark within her.
With her financial training, analyst background, and entrepreneurial interest — and having taken a course in the Private Equity Venture Capital Lab — Anna was sought out by Sandbox for an unpaid, 10-week program. Because she loved the environment and the work, she began showing up more than her two assigned days each week. About halfway through the program, a partner who was working to raise a venture capital fund in healthcare announced that he needed help. Anna volunteered to assist in putting together the fund structure. Their team ended up winning, and she was hired.
While Anna did not travel the traditional path, which includes two years in private equity and two years in banking, she did have some key core skills, such as strong financial acumen, access to networks, high interest in entrepreneurship, and a strong work ethic. She's not alone. There are plenty of other women out there with that same potential for success. “I keep hearing that it's a pipeline problem, and it drives me nuts," Anna says. She's right. The days when employers could use the "We can’t find them" excuse are long gone. They simply need to get clear about what the jobs are and what skills are needed for those jobs — and then do their due diligence in finding the talent.
It is possible to fill the pipeline. Years ago, I developed a strategy for a company to do something similar. The strategy required all C-suite executives to identify within their personal circle of influence, people who were African Americans and potential hires. I called it the Personal Relationship Network (PRN). This meant starting with their immediate families, the parents of their children’s friends, members of their country clubs, synagogues, etc. The list of individuals became a viable pipeline for key positions and led to an African-American executive being hired. The same approach of looking outside traditional sources for talent can be just as fruitful for building a network of viable female candidates.
Steps men can take:
Do an inventory of your immediate circle of influence and ask yourself, "Are women part of my daily experience?" When you inventory the people in your network, how many are women and how many are men? If less than half are women, consider making it a goal for 2018 to get your network up to 50% women. If your network is already there, well done! Keep it up. And share with your male colleagues about your experiences of working with and promoting women. You could be a role model for those men.
What can we learn from Kate, Ana and Anna? And from other women's stories? Certain key actions, like those taken by Taj and Sandbox, can make all the difference. First, they brought these women into their circles. Next, because they focused on what skills were needed for the job, the employers and sponsors were able to select women based on future potential, not past performance. Finally, they gave the women opportunities and room to make mistakes. In short, leaders must recognize talent for what it is, have the foresight to see who a woman can become, and make a decision to give her a chance.
Women contribute immensely to the economy, to their communities, and to the bottom lines of businesses where they are given a chance to succeed. As we all #PressForProgress on this International Women's Day, don’t just tell me about your commitment to diversity & inclusion. Show me. Repeatedly. As my father did. Show through your actions that diversity & inclusion are core values for you and your business and that the success of women matters.