Category Archives: Diversity

It’s Not Altruism. Just Good Leadership

Reprinted with permission from my 5/26/18 column in Business Ethics Magazine  

Leaders who believe they have a responsibility to create conditions so that employees can flourish aren’t altruists. They’re just good leaders equally committed to maximizing financial success. They know the two are connected. They also know engagement occurs when employees feel accepted and valued for their contributions. These leaders understand the role respect plays in flourishing so they pay attention to, and address, issues like bigotry, sexual harassment and exclusion before talented people leave or the culture becomes toxic.

When big or small companies miss the mark on paying attention to respect and are in the headlines or become a cautionary tale (because we know someone who works there) it raises the obvious question of how could the CEO, senior leaders or Human Resources not see or act in time?

What we know about conduct is that when leaders model and insist that certain behaviors are a foundational priority and condition of working at a company, a culture shows different results than leaders just expecting we all understand how we should behave. The discrepancy illustrates the chasm between aspirational values and values that are actual cultural building blocks that define how an organization treats customers and each other. The defining question: how important is it to leaders that employees feel safe and have a sense of belonging?

If the “yes” is without enough anchors supporting it, the companies navigating current problems remind us that good intentions may win some diversity awards (as the three companies below have won) but won’t create sustainable change.

What follows are recent examples of what isn’t working and some suggestions of what companies can do to create conditions so that employees have the opportunity to flourish.

Visa, Nike and Microsoft

Leaders at Visa and Nike apparently failed to know female employees complained of misconduct, discrimination and a “bro culture” but now have culture change on their radar. After many female senior leader departures, Visa CEO Alfred F. Kelly, Jr.  met in May with women executives about advancement issues and inappropriate behavior they’ve experienced. Visa has also just created a Women’s Advisory Group. At Nike women, who’d said they’d been marginalized and sexually harassed with no action taken, initiated a survey. The survey results were left on Chairman, President and CEO Mark Parker’s  desk. Subsequent investigation into behaviors resulted in 11 senior executives resigning or losing their jobs.

Microsoft is among technology companies dealing with complaints of a “bro culture” and gender discrimination. An April 2018 Seattle Times article (“’I felt so alone’: what women at Microsoft face and why many leave”) captures the isolation, discouragement, bias and lack of support (from human resources as well as leaders) reported by media about women in other companies.

Creating conditions so employees can flourish

2018 isn’t our first rodeo for diversity and inclusion. The business case for diversity has been made, reiterated with new data for gender diversity and there are even CEO testimonials on business impact.  The human case for diversity has been evident for decades. However, it seems in change and uncertainty — where innovation, collaboration and conversations about new ways of seeing and doing are badly needed — there is an even greater dependence for some to surround themselves with “people like us” and act out unacceptable behavior to gain dominance and control over others. When unchecked by leaders, any sense of belonging by those harmed – and those watching who know it could also happen to them — is destroyed.

Companies of all sizes have been addressing in some way issues of bigotry, sexual harassment and exclusion because they know it’s illegal and toxic to a work environment. The bigger question is how good is their information about what is actually going on? And, are actions being taken designed to support employees in flourishing? Some suggestions for consideration:

Augmenting what CEOs know

First-hand information is the most useful.

  • Most CEOs need to get out of their offices more often to evaluate if their sense of reality is corroborated by what they hear and see. For example, what might Nike and Visa CEOs have known far sooner if they’d practiced managing by walking around (MBWA) and had a series of random skip level meetings to listen and learn?
  • As town meetings can inhibit some from asking questions, CEOs might encourage questions through an internal blog.  They may find their time well spent scanning comments and arrange with the internal communications team the best way to handle CEO responses.
  • Once a quarter, CEOs could initiate an open door policy for a few days, and encourage direct reports to do the same, to encourage two-way exchanges.
  • CEOs need to send Human Resources and their direct reports a clear message that they want unfiltered, accurate information about how complaints and problems are being handled – particularly those that address whether employees feel safe, have experienced intimidation, harassment or exclusion and how issues of fairness and respect are being addressed. Presumably someone from the CEO’s office is on the company’s diversity committee to give feedback on how issues are being addressed there.

Using information to strengthen culture

Speaking at a global business ethics symposium on diversity and inclusion this month, State Street Corporation’s  Chief Diversity Officer Paul Francisco indicated that a lot of implicit bias happens in workplaces when people are under stress. He advised slowing down to ask oneself if a decision is being made with the right context and facts or just because it feels easier.

How feedback is given, support provided and values linked with behaviors influences a workplace environment.

  • Research indicates some managers are uncomfortable giving feedback. In addition to getting tips from Human Resources, here are additional suggestions.  It’s important that employees receive constructive support and encouragement so they know what they are doing well and have specific suggestions for improvement. For employees violating policies, consequences need to be clear and consistent.
  • Managers should ask employees what support they need. Getting employees’ ideas in each team can help managers understand how to support team members and encourage them to support each other. This fuels a spirit of community and identifies values most important in that team.
  • Values need to be cultural building blocks with behaviors identified. Nike is an example of a company whose mission and 11 guiding principles are heavily brand driven.  The principle, “Do the right thing,” needs elaboration especially in light of Nike’s current crisis. Elaborating on what is meant by that principle could serve as an opportunity for teams to discuss how that should show up in how they treat each other.

BlackRock’s  Managing Director and Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion Jonathan McBride  has said his goal is for the company’s 14,000 employees to have a sense of belonging. He is actively discouraging employees from surrounding themselves with people “just like them” because “it creates risk, hampers resiliency and lowers performance.” McBride is using survey questions to get more data on employees’ sense of belonging to the company, team and global function.

Information provides insight and ideas for leaders to build understanding, strengthen culture, learn from mistakes and work together with employees to create a sense of belonging and safety so employees are motivated to do their best work.

It isn’t altruism, just good leadership.

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics, is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, Bentley University and Senior Fellow for Social Innovation at the Lewis Institute, Babson College.

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The Week in Ethics: GM’s New CEO

Update: March 27, 2014, GM CEO Mary Barra will testify before Congress next week, answering questions about consumer safety and the process (a decade before she became CEO) of how GM handled faulty ignitions without recalling cars impacted (which resulted in at least 12 deaths). NYT piece speculating about what in GM culture might have contributed to its ethical failures in behavior here.

This column originally appeared in Business Ethics Magazine, January 30, 2014 entitled “GM’s New CEO: Demonstrating How Less Can Be More.” This week (February 10, 2014) GM Chairman Theodore Solso  announced new CEO Mary Barra’s “total compensation is in line with her peer group and properly weighted so that most is at-risk.” Her salary had originally been reported as lower than her predecessor’s, giving rise to criticism about gender bias.

I’m reminded of a line in the lyrics of a song from the movie My Fair Lady which asks, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Seeing the film at an impressionable age, the refrain lived in my head for years. Was the message that women needed to be more?

The very small number of women who’ve made it into the CEO pipeline has given rise to ongoing articles analyzing why so few, and research by Catalyst and others making the case for diversity. Currently, less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies and less than 10 percent of the Fortune 1000 are led by women.

In January 2014, Mary Barra, an engineer and General Motors (GM) veteran became its first woman CEO. In spite of a number of talented women in leadership positions at GM, a woman leading GM or any global automotive company is a well-heralded first. Also in January, with far less media acclaim, another woman engineer from another field considered traditionally-male become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Jacqueline Hinman was promoted after a long career at CH2M Hill, a global engineering firm.

The start of the new year brings the total of women heading Fortune 500 companies to 23 or 4.6 percent. In cross referencing their backgrounds, 16 were promoted internally after being tested in many roles. Of the seven brought in from the outside, four have been CEOs five to ten years so far, and the remaining three (HP’s  Meg Whitman (2011), Avon’s  Sherilyn McCoy (2012) and Yahoo’s  Melissa Mayer (2013) held long-term senior positions at their previous companies. Whether an insider or outsider is a good CEO fit depends on factors like personal attributes, strategy, execution, support, culture, and how they engage others to work for the company’s success.

Given the tiny pool of women CEOs, there is the understandable lament of the loss to organizations of not having more senior women. And beyond diversity of gender and ethnicity, the critical need to have more diversity of thought, approach to problems, and ways of leading that bring out the best from stakeholders. Because there are so few women CEOs, there is also a danger that in celebrating them we can go too far — celebrity status conferred on, cultivated or accepted creates a rock star status which when associated with leadership has real risks.

Barra has had a low key reaction to the considerable attention about her heading the 7th ranked Fortune 500 company. When asked about being an inspiration to women, she replied  she hoped her credentials as an engineer make her a role model to inspire young men and women to go into science.

She has deflected focus from herself to GM’s products and team, which suggests she will successfully resist rock star celebrity, something that characterized much of Carly Fiorina’s tenure at Hewlett Packard (HP) 15 years ago when she became the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. (There were only eight other women CEOs on the Fortune 500 list when she was ousted in 2005 when her approach didn’t yield expected results.) Yahoo’s Mayer in her first year continues to attract significant visibility as a CEO, mom and geek fashionista, with a personal brand “hotter” than her company’s.

Celebrity and leadership generally aren’t a sustainable combination because when the focus is allowed to stay on the leader and not redirected back to the organization, it becomes a story of “I” and not “we” which leaves the company and employees behind. While there may be short-term publicity value if a CEO becomes a darling,  as JP Morgan’s Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon did after the financial crisis, attention allowed to stay too long on the leader backfires, especially when a company makes mistakes.

It has only been four years since GM emerged from reorganization and bankruptcy after a federal government bailout. Expectations for Barra’s leadership are enormous against the backdrop of a turnaround occurring in an unpredictable, constantly changing global environment. However, by not letting it be about her, the entire company is called to meet the challenge.

In interviews about her leadership attributes, colleagues have volunteered Barra has a passion for GM and its products, focuses on team building, seeks consensus, is fact-based and decisive, “an outstanding listener,” challenges thinking about assumptions and is very methodical, logical and fair. Others have pointed to her openness and inclusiveness, active seeking of others’ opinions, lack of big ego and “the self-described ‘nerd’ qualities that guide her gut.”

Many of these qualities are also reflected in general in women’s leadership styles. “What Women Bring to the Exercise of Leadership”  cites a 2008 Pew Research Center study where 2,250 adults (almost equally split between men and women) “ranked women better than or equal to men in seven of eight primary leadership traits.”

And yet, how hard it continues to be in many organizations for women to be given opportunities that allow them to be considered for the top jobs. Time and experience teach us that no gender, male or female, should be THE standard in leadership. To the degree that has been ignored in an organization, women have had to work much harder to do and be “more.”

“More” is an archaic standard that only fuels more and higher expectations that can cause good people to bow out because leadership seem too great a sacrifice. Or can self-justify why the story is about “I” not “we.” The more the expectations, compensation and hype are ratcheted up and accepted, the greater the chance of failure for all concerned.

Photo: © General Motors

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, February 13, 2014

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine where this column was originally published.

The Week in Ethics: Pepsi’s Advertising Disconnect From Social Responsibility

Update: May 4, 2013: Pepsi pulled the ad, but a segment of the ad is still available to view as of today here 

Having a woman CEO hasn’t sensitized those at Pepsi making advertising decisions based on an ad pulled this week showing a hysterical blond, battered, white woman intimidated by a policeman who is drinking a Mountain Dew demanding that she pick her batterer out of a line up of African-American men and a goat.

The ad, part of a series, developed by Tyler, The Creator, an African-American rapper, is a reminder that in the search for hip the lens of celebrity has its own focus.

Does Pepsi’s pulse on America really think the new edgy is taking half-a-dozen demeaning stereotypes, throwing them at the wall and not caring what sticks as long as you notice the can of soda?

The ad blunder for Mountain Dew is a reminder to companies that the definition of corporate social responsibility goes beyond the dollars they give to improve causes important to them. If they don’t link their influence in the world to how they sell products, their corporate responsibility becomes just veneer.

When every nine seconds in the U.S. a woman is beaten or assaulted  (the leading cause of injury to women), when a Georgia High School just had its first-ever integrated prom, when a Chicago Police Department is criticized for racial stereotyping and ”accidental racist” is too common……when rape in India — a four-year-old girl sexually assaulted died this week — continues to underscore attitudes toward women and girls — pandering to demeaning stereotypes in attempts at hip and wannabe amusing advertising betrays corporate responsibility.

USA Today illustrates recent advertising missteps that resulted in bad press and pulled ads: parodies of suicide (Hyundai zero emission cars) and depressed women (McDonald’s regional Big Mac ad) and Ford’s depiction of sexily-dressed women bound and gagged in the back of a Figo compact car — all tributes to bad judgment.

Hip is seductive– it crowns itself its own cool, evaporates in backlash and leaves corporate responsibility without much to say for itself.

Gael O’Brien May 2, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine; she is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine — her April column is about the road to second chances.

The Week in Ethics: Abramson, Mayer and the Road Ahead for Women Leaders

Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of the New York Times, whose tenure in her first 18-months has yielded four Pulitzer Prizes. is the subject of a hit-and-run POLITICO piece this week quoting anonymous journalists at the paper criticizing her brusque, dismissive, non-empathetic style, labeling her “very, very unpopular.”

It is difficult to imagine a reporter having access to or using such anecdotal anonymous information about male leaders in other industries.

Much has been said in recent weeks about a double standard in judging men and women leaders. For example, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly was treated very differently in the media than Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer when both leaders ended their company’s telecommuting policies. Mayer’s decision, which came first, received national media coverage and criticism. However, inherent in the double standard is also an evolving expectation of what it expected of women leaders in turbulent times.

Over centuries, “leader” solidified  as a male noun. Labels of first female engineer at Google (Mayer), first female executive editor or just female CEO mean something in the lexicon of moving toward gender parity, but can rankle those who want to be judged by their results not gender.

Male leaders have had centuries to toughen to the inevitable criticism inherent in the accountability of leadership. Women leaders, in adjusting to the glare of attention now as part of a small group face the double-edged sword of presumed expectations about the kind of leaders they are or should be.

Research feeds the expectation that women are expected to have more developed emotional intelligence (EQ) than men. EQ’s self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation and social skills– the so-called softer skills — are counted as crucial leadership skills and ones where women are considered to have an edge.

However, Abramson and Mayer emerged from the cultures that raised them — news organizations and engineering/technology — where outperforming, excelling, and high reliance on IQ and Systems Intelligence have high priority. Both assumed leadership in troubled organizations where they are required to drive change as their companies deal with economic, relevance, and technology challenges.

There is an expectation that women won’t make the same EQ blunders many men have. Mayer, who juggled her new parent status by building an office nursery, didn’t factor into Yahoo’s strategy and communication what the impact might be for employees who were also parents when she ended telecommuting; media had a field day with anonymous employee reactions.

Given the last several years of ongoing cuts in newsrooms, journalists still standing — perhaps even more especially those at the venerable New York Times — may feel demoralized. Not to operate with a heightened awareness of one’s impact on others invites criticism. One of the anonymous New York Times’ employees complained about Abramson: “There are days when she acts like she just doesn’t care.”

Sandberg photo.pdf Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg reinforces in Lean In (her book about empowering the next generation of women leaders) that  “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women.” She cites a Harvard Business School case study of an entrepreneur who got negative reactions when the name Howard was changed to Heidi. Qualities that weren’t an issue for Howard became “not the kind of person you would want to hire or work for” when the gender was Heidi.

Further proof of the challenges facing successful women is evident in the controversy over Sandberg’s book,  several women reviewers indicated her wealth and status made her out-of-touch with ordinary career women. Leadership books written by men of status and wealth haven’t received similar critiques.

We don’t have yet an objective way of appraising women leaders — both accomplishments and criticisms can lend themselves too quickly to hyperbole. As things sort themselves out, one of the safety nets is to pay attention to red flags and address them. Abramson has been tagged (fairly or unfairly) with having a style attributed to many male leaders who’ve not been called on it publicly.

Expecting more from women leaders is about our giving and asking for more from everyone involved in service of creating highly productive workplaces that build trust and engagement.

Leadership is an intentional act of development evolving imperfectly. The road ahead for women leaders is helping define what is possible for leadership to create, moving into a way of being that is every bit as important in our increasingly unpredictable world as the way of doing.

Gael O’Brien April 25, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine and a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine — her April column is about the road to second chances.

The Week in Ethics: Seriously? No Qualified Women for European Central Bank Board

When it comes to issues like gender diversity on corporate boards and in C-Suites, we’ve seen glacial progress. It has led some countries to impose or threaten quotas.  While laws force progress, so also can the voice of a leader using his or her position and personal authority to hold others accountable.

Sharon Bowles, chairwoman of the European Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee used her well positioned leadership this month to postpone a hearing on a European Central Bank executive board seat because no women had been considered.

The current statistics on gender diversity in corporate boardrooms remain grim. According to Catalyst  August 2012 research on percentage of board seats held by women globally: Japan weighs in at .9 percent, Italy 3.7, Germany 11.2, France 12.7, the United Kingdom 15, and the United States 16.1. The leader is Norway at 40.1 percent, a result of imposing quotas.

For those for whom diversity isn’t a personal or corporate value, there is mounting evidence that having a diverse board makes excellent business sense.

Most recently, a report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute indicated that companies with women board members on average have a little less debt and are a little more risk averse; in the last six years, shares of companies with market capitalization of over $ 10 billion who had women board members outperformed comparable businesses with male-only boards by 26 percent worldwide. In addition, for companies with women board members, their net income growth averaged 14 percent compared to 10 percent for all-male boards.

Insisting on diversity is pretty straightforward. It is about how a leader uses his or her voice. It is leadership that shapes a culture of inclusion.

Former Alcoa chairman and CEO Paul O’Neill insisted on it. I spent an afternoon with him a few years ago asking questions that elicited stories about how he leads by values.

In his first week at the helm of Alcoa in 1987, O’Neill (who later became U.S. Treasury Secretary) said he discovered Alcoa didn’t have a policy against using clubs (social, golf etc) that didn’t have an open admission policy. He immediately created one. He got push back, he said, from those who asked if he was sure he wanted to make this one of the first things he did at Alcoa.

Among the consequences was that Alcoa co-owned, with nine other companies, a golf course that didn’t admit women or minorities. He made it clear that Alcoa could no longer belong unless the club changed its policy. Within two weeks the club did.

The CEO of the European Central Bank, or any bank or company can decide to use his or her voice and influence to insist that best practices for ensuring diversity is a practiced value in the organization– from corporate policies, to recruitment and promotion of employees, to selection of board members.

Insanity in leadership, as in life, is doing the same thing over and over that isn’t working and expecting a different outcome.

Gael O’Brien      September 8, 2012

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine. Her September  2012 column is on The Responsible Company