Turning “Imagine” Into Action
Women’s History Month 2021 arrives during a pivotal time for working women. The workplace has lost about 2.2 million women during the pandemic, some say virtually stalling women’s progress. After watching generations of institutionalized racism and violence against Black Americans, many are saying, “No more.” Some of us marched in the streets. Finally, some companies are holding themselves accountable for the slow progress in advancing women and minorities, and they’re finally making changes.
According to McKinsey & Company, the number of women in the C-suite inched up from 17% to 21%
over the last five years, with women of color especially underrepresented. The higher up the corporate ladder, the fewer women there are. Women comprise 47% of support staff roles compared to 29% of senior managers, and 23% of executives, according to Catalyst.org. PINK’s Signature Spring Empowerment Event featured diverse C-suite women to help move the needle, and their important messages were broadcasted to PINK’s audience of nearly 3,800 women watching the event globally from more than a dozen countries.
We are all part of what PINK’s featured speaker, UPS Chief Executive Officer Carol Tomé called “a seismic shift around the world to collectively break down barriers.” As one of the most powerful women in American business today, Carol told those watching what a former boss once told her, “We don’t know how high up, is high up for you Carol. That’s for you to show us.”
Real change will require women themselves, as well as their companies to operate differently. The speakers called on business to move more qualified and diverse women into key roles and to hold their leaders accountable. Said Teresa White, President, Aflac U.S., “I don’t understand ‘I can’t find qualified women.’”
PINK has a track record of helping companies go beyond the mentoring and development of high potential women, to actually change the metrics in the leadership ranks. We believe the old argument, “We just can’t find them,” is, along with being a poor excuse, an indication that more needs to be done to identify and promote diverse candidates.
Our time is now, not just to reimagine what the workplace can be like for women, but to make it happen. Here are some things companies and women themselves can do to bring about change.
There’s a business case for advancing women. Carol, the first outsider and first woman CEO in the company’s 114-year history, cited “a recent McKinsey study [that] showed if men and women participated equally in the global economy it would produce a $28 Trillion increase in GDP.” “It’s not just a moral imperative, it’s a business imperative,” said Susan Somersille Johnson, Chief Marketing Officer, Prudential Financial, Inc. How can your company take tangible steps to addresses inequities? “You’ve got to hold people accountable,” says Susan. “In 2018 Prudential began tying executive compensation to diverse representation targets for women and people of color. And we’ve seen improvement.” But first, Susan says, the leadership needs to acknowledge there’s a problem. “If you don’t believe it, you’re not going to change it.” Carol says it’s up to businesses to lead the way as she has demonstrated herself at UPS. “Women’s empowerment is a core focus at UPS. We know that business is the great equalizer …to level the playing field.” Since she joined UPS less than a year ago, the company has added five new directors including three women and two African American men. Prudential Financial has instituted “programs [for] black women where they have leadership development for eight months; then they are promoted or given stretch assignments,” says Susan. And she added, if you really want to advance diversity, don’t just integrate your company, “integrate your life.” During PINK’s live broadcast, one woman called in to ask speakers if they thought unqualified black women were being promoted at the expense of white men. The data (above) indicates otherwise. Suzanne Christensen, Chief Risk Officer, Invesco, emphatically assured the crowd that the businesses represented at the PINK event including Aflac, Invesco, UPS, Financial Prudential, Southern Company and The Home Depot, would not be promoting people who aren’t qualified.
While many who attended the PINK event told us they were inspired by the speakers, we’re hoping for more. Here are some specific things you can do to enhance your career—and your life.
- Say Something Do Something
We have a choice: Remain silent when we see or experience inequity – or do something about it. Says Carol, “We will not stand idly on the sidelines when it comes to the issues of racism, bigotry or hate.” Confronting bias head-on isn’t always easy, especially if you’re not a top exec with the kind of clout PINK’s speakers have. Teresa White, President, Aflac U.S. was asked what she did early in her career when confronted with subtle sexism. “I challenged it. I’m not someone who can ignore things. I would always challenge anything I feel was wrong.” But there’s a caveat. What she found works for her is: “Usually I’m challenging it with a smile.” Teresa shared that over the course of her career she has learned “how to ask questions… in a way that allows people not to get offended… [from] a place of learning.”
- When You Don’t Get What You Want – Find Out Why
Miscommunication and assumptions are rampant. It requires courage to find out why you’re not getting what you want. Says Teresa, “You never really know why someone is interacting with you the way they are.” She told us she once found herself being passed over for projects she wanted. She asked her boss why she wasn’t “afforded the same opportunities as other people.” The boss indicated he didn’t think she was interested. This gave her the opportunity to talk about her career aspirations and to be understood. Speaking up and having candid conversations like this paved the way for her leadership role at the $22.3B company.
- Reimagine Networking
While excellent performance is a prerequisite, Susan said the advancement of those in the PINK audience will have more to do with their network than their competence. “The networks you’ve built give you access to different opportunities. The path you’re on may not be the right path. You need to know people, so you have other paths.” Her approach? Since traditional networking and card-swapping didn’t work for Susan who describes herself as an introvert, she had to find a way to network that felt right. “I found people throughout the company who I enjoyed being with. I started looking for people I admired, and I learned so much from them.” All the speakers expressed the importance of building their social capital. Susan says her nonprofit work helped. “Volunteer outside your job. It’s helped my corporate career.” “Find out who your stakeholders are,” added Suzanne. “Create that support group around you. Continuously seek feedback.” And Susan added, “get some advocates and get them now.”
- Set & Stick to Priorities
The speakers talked about the importance of ruthless prioritization and being intentional about setting priorities that keep you physically and emotionally healthy. “Schedule your most critical tasks when you have the most energy,” encouraged Suzanne. Susan held up her hand showing the ring she wears to remind herself about the importance of self-care and “energy management.” “There’s no substitute for sleep, eating right, exercising, even fun. I have to schedule that, or it doesn’t happen.” She says moving away from the screen to take a walk and making time to be with friends benefits her job performance. Especially during Covid, Teresa shared, “it’s so easy to work into the night.” She said she and her husband went into marriage counseling. “I went in thinking he was the problem only to learn I was the issue.” Now, during meals, she leaves her cell phone in a bowl. Suzanne adds, “Setting boundaries allows [your team] to set boundaries too.”
- Know What Success Looks Like
It doesn’t look like perfectionism. “That perfectionism trap will drag you down.” Said Suzanne, “Motherhood and career… there’s no time for perfectionism. Just keep going. Be good to yourself and know, it’s a marathon not a sprint.” What works? Susan says, “Just try to do your best every day.” The real key to success says Suzanne is asking a lot of questions. And the speakers agreed it has a lot to do with understanding how your boss defines success. “Ask your leader what success looks like,” Teresa advised. You can’t achieve success unless you know what it looks like. “That’s kind of my little cheat to make sure I’m engaged with people.” All of the women PINK featured said understanding the goals of those they work for and with, enabled them to hit targets, and this led to their own success too.
- Get Into a Profit & Loss Role
This is the pipeline to the executive offices, but few women are in these roles. How to get in? “Talk to your leadership about revenue growth, or if it’s an expense line talk about things that will help the company save money,” suggests Teresa. “Your conversation needs to be about the P&L. it helps people equate [that] with what you’re trying to accomplish.” Afraid to take this on? Do it anyway, says Suzanne. “Put your hand up and say I want to get involved in that.” Each of the women featured said stepping up for opportunities led to their success. “I have a sign in my office that says, ‘Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,’” says Suzanne. “The confidence you get [from taking risks] pays dividends.” Carol too sited this as something that contributed to her success, “I remained open to new experiences.”
- Don’t Go It Alone & Support Other Women
“To all the men watching, we need you too. He for she,” said Carol. We need each other. “You have to have a support network. Don’t go it alone,” said Suzanne. “I didn’t get where I am by myself. I had help.” “It’s a daily practice for me… to try to empower women. Crying on people’s shoulders and letting them cry on mine,” admitted Susan. And with tears in her eyes, moderator and Local Now TV anchor Sasha Rionda acknowledged her mother who was in the audience and thanked her for helping out with Sasha’s two young daughters, as she works full time while being a single mom. “If it weren’t for my mom, I don’t think I could do it. We all have to help each other.” “Supporting each other is not an option,” emphasized Carol, “it’s an obligation.”
Special thanks to the sponsor companies that demonstrated their dedication to women’s advancement by supporting this event and encouraging this dialogue. Gold Sponsors: Cox Enterprises; Prudential Financial; UPS. Silver Sponsors: AT&T and Southern Company. Bronze Sponsors: Aflac; Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles; Deloitte; Ted’s Montana Grill and The Home Depot.
* Note: If you’re looking to expand your already powerful network and take your career to the next level, check out the PINK Power Alliance, an affiliate program created for women ready to learn, grow and see results, and for the companies that want to support their emerging leaders.
Click to see the full conversation and PINK Event Video: PINK’S 2021 SPRING SIGNATURE WOMEN’S EVENT
Behind the Scenes:
Cynthia’s Dirty Laundry
On a personal note, I still have blisters from wearing 3-inch heels at the event, after conducting all business meetings via zoom and conference calls in socks and Birkenstocks for the last year! I’ll admit there were a few especially challenging moments immediately preceding the event as the PINK team and our production crew held our collective breath when the zoom links were nonfunctional; one of the hazards of depending on technology. Also, my blood pressure rose, documented during an annual physical a week prior to the event, probably due in part to being accused of discriminating against a woman who we decided not to feature at the event. I think miscommunication from someone who spoke on my and PINK’s behalf led to what I believe was a misunderstanding. Another frustration for me has been the suggestion that the work PINK does is inspiring but doesn’t do enough to bring about tangible results. We strive to share wisdom that women can act on to create tangible, monetary, positional changes in their career/lives. I challenge you to actually do the seven simple things listed above and let me know if you don’t see clear results. If this is the case – I’ll eat my words.
But as I sit here, I am flooded with gratitude, not just for the chance to do this work, but because every time we do it, even now, after nearly 20 years of PINK and Atlanta Woman magazine previously, I learn something. I had been embarrassed to admit a couple of things that the speakers referenced. I hate networking! As an introvert I feel awkward meeting new people sometimes and I don’t like the motivation of meeting people to help my career. It feels too strategic, small minded, selfish and frankly boring. Comments from Susan Johnson, Chief Marketing Officer, Prudential Financial, on reimagining networking really resonated. Instead of the traditional card-swap, she reaches out to people she genuinely wants to get to know and connect with. I’ve had the chance to do this too and I am always surprised to find how much these relationships, friendships really, have enhanced my entire life, not just my work-life.
The other thing in particular that resonated for me was when Teresa White, Aflac President, U.S. talked about the importance of asking why, when something at work doesn’t go your way. Back in my TV career, I thought my ambition and dedication were evident as I happily worked long hours and 7-day weeks. Ten years after I left TV I learned the News Director, who had offered me a prime-time weekday evening anchor slot, then took it back, did so because he thought I didn’t want to advance since I was married to a successful man and had two young children at home. When I didn’t get the coveted opportunity after all, I was crushed. I had fought so hard to build this career and rose up through the ranks after working 4am shifts in the smallest TV markets in America. His assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth. Teresa had a similar account. But unlike me, she had the courage to approach her boss and ask why she had been passed over for certain assignments. Her boss had made similar, incorrect assumptions—and today, she is President of Aflac U.S. We cannot assume the people around us know what we want. We’ve got to be vulnerable enough to tell them. Ah, humility.. something I still too often lack, and the consequences are crushing.
I was also particularly moved by Carol Tomé’s photograph and story of how four generations of women in her family traveled from wagon-train to wealth, culminating in Carol’s role as Captain of Industry. Carol’s mother never had a car or a house in her own name and walked to work every day in high heels. Despite this, and being a divorced woman on her own, she was able to build a multi-million-dollar legacy to leave her children. My own mother did the same, but unlike Carol, the men in my life did not always encourage me to follow my dreams. I felt that my father didn’t believe in the capacity of women to do extraordinary things or that we were as smart as men, that we could do anything. In my marriage I was encouraged to leave my TV career to spend more family time, and to focus on my husband’s, much more lucrative career. And when I found myself unhappy with my situation, I was encouraged to medicate myself. This was not a solution. When Carol spoke, I was reminded how essential it is that we surround ourselves with people who we feel and know in our core, encourage us to follow our dreams, and to have the courage to live the life we want for ourselves. These experiences are part of what fuel my deep desire to see us all reach our professional and life goals whatever they are.
I hope you had some epiphanies too when you watched the event. Thank you for letting me vent and for all you do every day to get up and do what you do. In doing just that, you inspire me. I am so grateful for my PINK team and this community. XO
MORE THANKS – Thanks to the exhibitors who braved the pandemic to join us at the live socially distanced gathering at the beautiful InterContinental Buckhead Atlanta: Jewels With a Purpose, Institut’ Dermed, Blo Blow Dry Bar. Special thanks to Garnish & Gather for delivering lunch to our VIPs, and to Edgar Pomeroy Designs for Cynthia’s Suit, and www.mrpratl.com for PR support. Thanks to Heidi Maune and Maune Contemporary for the gorgeous artwork, and to our designer Dayna Elephant for the stunning creative.
Also, a huge shout-out of thanks to Jazz and R&B artist Lori Williams who kicked off the event right after learning her new CD hit No. 12 on the UK Soul chart! She invited everyone to close their eyes and take a moment to imagine what can be—as she sang the Beatle’s iconic song Imagine.
We hope to see you in person at PINK’s 17th Annual Fall Empowerment Event! Details coming soon.
By Cynthia Good
Founding Editor & CEO PINK
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