I often tell people workplace diversity and inclusion isn’t a pipeline problem – it’s a leakage issue. The pipe is often too porous for diverse talent to flow into a firm’s upper ranks.
Yet despite the odds, there are women who are thriving in leadership roles. I’m fascinated by their stories: how they made it, what they learned along the way, and what they can teach us.
It was with this sense of curiosity that I welcomed two highly accomplished executives to our fall UPWARD event: Aicha Evans, SVP and Chief Strategy Officer at Intel and Karen Quintos, SVP and Chief Customer Officer at Dell. Held at the Intel headquarters in Santa Clara, California, we touched on everything from getting noticed and playing politics to those times when you have to vote with your feet. The full video is well worth watching.
At the end of the day, the advice of these incredible ladies boiled down to three key things.
Step One – Take Stock
No matter how long you’ve been working, it’s critical to understand where you are and where you want to go next.
“I’m a big believer that early in your career you need to move across [an organization] as much as you move up,” said Karen. “You have to meet people and they will surprise you in being advocates for you.” Also look for opportunities to hone your leadership, people-development, influence, and innovation skills, she said. They will matter far more in the future than the functional skills you have today.
But what if you feel stuck – like there’s no one coming to replace you? Aicha had some pointed observations and practical advice.
“Sometimes people get addicted to you and you have to cut off the addiction,” she said. So prepare someone to step into your shoes. Enable them, advocate for them, and let them shine. The conversation about your next promotion will likely be much easier.
You also need to examine who holds the keys to that next opportunity. Ideally, it will be someone with a track record of promotions. Talk to your peers – they’ll know. If not, it might be time for a move across the company, or out the door.
“If you’re not working for a company that can give you the flexibility and support you need, you should go somewhere else,” Karen said.
Step Two – Play The Long Game
When you’re up against centuries of bias and what people have defined as normal, things don’t change overnight. You have to play the long game – and that starts by believing in yourself.
“The first thing I did was to convince myself that as a woman I have an advantage,” said Aicha. “I tell myself they are lucky to have me. This is literally how I enter the room. The second thing is I convince myself that I have a lot of options – I’m not in jail here – and that gives you a certain freedom of operation, of thinking. The third thing I tell myself is no one thinks like I do, therefore I have something that is unique.”
Then comes the speaking up. Not just for you but for others. Think of it as a service to the company.
“This is a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, meeting-to-meeting effort,” said Aicha. “When you see someone who is quiet and you know is brilliant and has great ideas what are you personally doing to help draw them out and support them at that particular moment?”
You also have to play the political games at which men excel. Put on that confident face – the one you use to face down the rest of the world – and bring it into a meeting. Jump into the conversation with a point of view that no one has considered. Ask for that new job, new role, or pay raise – then ask again if you’re turned down.
“If there’s one big message I tell my daughters, it’s ‘play to win,’” said Karen.
Step Three – Be The Change
Over a career, you spend a lot of time working to be heard. But at a certain level, you have a powerful opportunity to help others listen.
“I believe at the age of 42 to 45 you move from trying to be successful to trying to be significant,” said Karen.
Making an impact can happen in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it’s reminding people of the math. In America, women are nearly half the labor force and graduate with college degrees at rates greater than men. They also form a powerful economic engine. It would be crazy to ignore those numbers. You can also point to the research that demonstrates time and again that diverse teams produce better results.
Or you can take a personal approach. Aicha is known to ask her male colleagues, “Would you like your daughter to work here? Do you think she would do well? If not, what would it take for her to do well?”
“The best corporations are those that are constantly reinventing themselves,” said Karen. “There is a huge role that leaders can play to make sure everyone gets heard.”
Top Down, Bottom Up
It’s clear there is no quick fix to the leakage problem. Rather, it takes patching holes from the top down and the bottom up. It’s leadership accountability and culture change. It’s calling out bad behavior that has gone unchallenged and seeking talent that has been overlooked.
It’s not always easy – and it doesn’t happen overnight. “I think resiliency is extremely important,” said Aicha. “We cannot battle our way through this – it’s not going to work. We have to reach. We have to enlist.”
“I think organizations like UPWARD can have a catalyzing effect,” added Karen. “Women helping each other is huge.”
My thanks to these two women for doing their part – and to you for doing yours.
In addition to founding UPWARD, I am a Managing Partner at the Westly Group and responsible for investments in software, IOT, and the Internet. I also sit on the NVCA Board of Directors, where I am co-chair of the Venture Forward initiative. Prior to joining the Westly Group, I was a vice-president at Intel Capital and the Managing Director of Intel Capital’s Software and Services Fund and the Intel Capital Diversity Fund.