Gender and the New C.E.O.

One of the more poignant stories we know about organizational dynamics goes like this:

A Black man in his mid-30s was hired as a business development executive in a large consulting firm.  On his first day of work, his boss, a White man in his early 50s, said to him, “I’m glad you joined our team. Although I don’t want you to think that you were hired because of your race.”

To which he replied, “Why not?  You were.”

Whether we’re comfortable admitting it or not, we all notice physical characteristics of the people around us, including:

  • skin tone
  • height
  • body shape
  • hair texture and color
  • nose width
  • fullness of lips, and
  • size, shape and color of eyes.

From this data, we make inferences about individuals’ gender, race and ethnicity. And from these assumptions we often form conclusions about one’s competence, work ethic, and likeability, for example. Indeed bringing your whole self to work involves having conscious awareness of how your  gender, race, and ethnicity — plus other salient parts of your identity — impact your work.

So when Virginia Rometty was recently named the new chief executive of IBM (NYSE: IBM), it was surprising to read the perspective of Samuel Palmisano, the current chief executive. In a story from the New York Times:

Gender, according to Mr. Palmisano, did not figure into Ms. Rometty’s selection.

“Ginni got it because she deserved it,” Mr. Palmisano said, using the informal first name by which she is known to friends and colleagues. “It’s got zero to do with progressive social policies,” Mr. Palmisano added.

Just like the protagonist suggests in the story above, why wouldn’t gender be among the multiple multi-faceted factors that play into the selection of a chief executive?

Palmisano seems to be saying that Rometty’s promotion is not an affirmative action-related decision, which will ultimately help authorize her in her new leadership role.

We empathize with his need to be politic. Still, it would deepen workplace conversations if everybody acknowledged the role that gender often plays in hiring decisions. Not to mention provide significant relief in knowing the truth.

Up next: How gender impacts the world of journalism.

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Harmful Images of Executive Leadership

Imagine an executive at work.

Who did you picture? Perhaps a White, physically capable, probably straight, man? If you did, it’s not totally your fault.  In part because there’s an image of one to the right.

As consumers of media, we’re regularly fed subtle and powerful messages of what executive leadership looks like.  Bill Keller (right), former executive editor of the New York Times, was recently referenced in the New Yorker as follows:

With his square jaw, neatly parted gray hair, dark suit, and pocket kerchief, Keller on this day could have passed for what his father was, the chairman and C.E.O. of Chevron.

With this physical description, he’s a natural ringer for a chief executive of a global corporation making several billion dollars in annual profits, including last year?

The picture of Keller immediately continues, with a rub:

Yet when he stepped to the microphone his voice quavered, and he occasionally paused to restrain tears.

His bone structure, fine hair, and formal dress could link Keller to the role of multinational chief executive, yet he cried, so no behemoth conglomerate chairmanship for him!

The additional message suggests that powerful executive men don’t express tender emotions.

These ideas reach us in a place under the conscious level, and they sometimes come from an unconscious place in the writer. Is the New Yorker writer Ken Auletta aware of his myopic view of executive leadership?

This description of Keller comprises just a few sentences within a 10,000 word essay, so it’s easy to miss the underlying implications. It’s one of numerous written messages we take in regarding who’s fit for leadership in our society.

We get this message delivered in pictures, too.

One example: Read more

Poetry + Football = Recipe for Success

Brandon M. Graham is an educator and author of A Love Supreme: Amputated Feelings & Prosthetic Apologies (Brownstone Publishing, Inc., 2005), as well as the forthcoming collection of poetry entitled Conciliation: Medicine for Melancholy (Brownstone Publishing, Inc. 2011).

He’s also a friend; once upon a time we team taught a professional development course at New School University.

We chatted online recently, and discussed the career path that has led him to become the published poet he is today. Our conversation took twists and turns, uncovering references to Russian literature, growing up with ministers, and wetting himself while writing.

The full interview follows, with very minor edits:

Haig Chahinian:  When you were 12, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Brandon M. Graham:  I remember wanting to be both a professional athlete and a writer of some sort. I wasn’t too versed in genre, but I know I loved playing sport and writing in my journal.

HC:  What kind of athlete? And that’s quite a mix! Did you share this with anyone at that time?

Graham:  As a kid I played organized football, basketball, and track. My parents and coaches have always been really encouraging. I think I had a natural aptitude for playing football. I idolized players like Walter Payton and Jerry Rice. Also, I did share it with my teachers, coaches, and classmates. I wasn’t necessarily ashamed about wanting to be a writer and surely I wasn’t ashamed of wanting to be a professional athlete. I think those thoughts of anxiety toward keeping a journal and writing crept in when I began high school.

HC:  In professional football, what did you want in that line of work? Fame? To crush other ballplayers? Fortune? The poetry of a perfect spiral viewed by millions? And what did writing in your journal feel like to you? It seems like you felt something significant, because you thought about pursuing writing professionally. (And tell me to slow down if we’re going too fast.)

Graham:  That’s funny you would use that language because really early on I found the poetry and symmetry in sport. I had always been a running back when I played football. I noticed the kind of choreography of a football play. You have eleven men going up against eleven other men–and that can both violent and exhilarating. However, the overwhelming feeling I walked away from each play was just how amazed I was that we were all in sync. So I really enjoyed teamwork and collaboration with others on the field. The fame and money and all that comes with being a professional athlete was all secondary. (OK, forgive if I’m typing too slow. I’ll do my best to keep up, but just be a little patient with me and we’re all good man. This is cool.)

HC:  So you were a thinker from an early age.  Both of these avenues — professional sports and professional writing — are hard to find success in!  What happened in high school, where I hear you say anxiety crept in? How did that happen? For example, was it completely internal? Or perhaps there were external forces at play? Read more

Many Ways to Come Out at Work [video]

Zachary Quinto recently came out as a gay man, which inspired Dan Kloeffler similarly to come out during a 3:00 a.m. newscast on World News Now.

Rather than the more common route of “I’m gay,” Quinto qualified his work in Angels in America with “as a gay man…” and boom, he was out. Quick and easy, right?

More playfully, in response to the story about Quinto’s revelation, Kloeffler said “I’m thinking I can lose my distraction about dating actors right from that one, maybe.” We get distracted by the term “lose my distraction,” yet the essence of coming out as gay is all there.

Whereas Quinto tells us he’s gay, Kloeffler shows us.

And if you’re nervous in the midst of showing who you are, it’s OK;  you’ll make your point well enough.

Watch and listen for yourself:

Considering the media uproar surrounding these stories, it’s increasingly clear that revealing your whole self at work can pay off. Visibility and professional development go hand in hand.

What statements have you made, or heard, relative to coming out at work?

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Come Out at Work: With Breast Cancer [video]

If you were diagnosed with breast cancer, how would you raise the issue at work? It’s a painful scenario to imagine, and yet it’s something thousands of cancer survivors have done, including two prominent television journalists.

Linda Hurtado, a health reporter for WTFS in Tampa Bay, Florida, in a recent newscast tearfully announced she had breast cancer and would undergo a bilateral mastectomy to prevent its spread. On the air she poignantly grappled with bridging her personal journey with her professional work. She said:

I was diagnosed with breast cancer about two weeks ago… I’ve struggled since then with what I should say to all of you… How much to share, if I should share anything at all… And now I’m going to be gone for a while. I’m the health reporter, it’s breast cancer awareness month, and over the last 17 years I’ve asked so many of you to share your truth with me, so I can’t just disappear for a while without sharing mine with you.

She comes out in part to align her life with what she espouses in her work as a health reporter, and in part to deal with the practicality of her subsequent temporary absence.

In 2007, Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts also came out at work with breast cancer. She shaved her hair on television so the world could witness the loss that can accompany the disease.  In the video below, she relates:

When you’re first diagnosed, one of the first thoughts is about…the side effects of chemotherapy. And the one side effect that comes to mind, just like that, is one of the most visible:  loss of hair.

There’s nothing to be ashamed about. It’s not like I’m trying to fool people by wearing the wig, because in the line of work that we are in, we don’t want to be distracting people from our story and what we’re talking about.

Roberts works openly with the public nature of her job in our lookist society. See the moving video for yourself:

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Roberts and Hurtado are brave to reveal themselves so nakedly, and in doing so they help educate millions of people about the early detection and treatment of breast cancer. Even more important, they serve themselves by coming forth with their truth, and thus from a situation that weakens some physical capacity, they derive strength.

In fact, Robin Roberts’ video diary sent droves of viewers to, a boon for the network.

So coming out at work can clearly be a win-win-win prospect for the world at large, your organization, and you.

Have you come out at work with breast cancer? How did you manage the experience?

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Whole Wide Work Hall of Fame 2 [video]

PepsiCo Chair and CEO Indra Nooyi encourages her employees to bring their whole selves to work, and she spoke on this subject once again at the BlogHer ’11 conference in San Diego. Considering her organizational ideologies in the context of her leadership role, we’re very happy to induct her into the Whole Wide Work Hall of Fame. Congratulations Ms. Nooyi!

The WWW Hall of Fame distinguishes prominent figures who promote the ideals of revealing and engaging your whole self at work. In the brief clip below with interviewer Willow Bay of the Huffington Post, she says:

But most importantly, we want to create a company where every employee can bring their whole selves to work. The reason I say that, Willow, we notice that many people who live in communities, who live in the cities we operate in, they come and park themselves at the door. They come to the company, and they’re a different person. When they leave they pick themselves up and go out again.

That’s not how it’s supposed to be. We should be seamless. We want to create an environment in PepsiCo where everybody can bring their whole selves to work, so that we can get the best out of everyone. Taken together, it’s performance with purpose. It’s just a way of saying capitalism should have a conscience.

 Take a look:

We’d like to hear Nooyi describe more precisely how her employees can bring their whole selves to work; right now she relates the concept at a pretty high level.

Perhaps she’d like us to come and speak with her employees about the specific “how-tos” of this significant skill set?

To watch the full video, click here

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Biases Not All Bad, Have Benefits

Bias is bad, or so we’ve learned. And yet we all have prejudgments that have formed over time in complex ways. New research is indicating that employing some of our prejudices on the job sometimes can help advance the world.

Cordelia Fine (right), a senior research associate at the Melbourne Business School, recently wrote in the New York Times:

Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

She introduces us to:

the philosopher of science Heather Douglas (left) [who] has argued that social values can safely play an indirect role in scientific reasoning. Consider: The greater we judge the social costs of a potential scientific error, the higher the standard of evidence we will demand. Professor A, for example, may be troubled by the thought of an incorrect discovery that current levels of a carcinogen in the water are safe, fearing the “discovery” will cost lives. But Professor B may be more anxious about the possibility of an erroneous conclusion that levels are unsafe, which would lead to public panic and expensive and unnecessary regulation.

Both professors may scrutinize a research paper with these different costs of error implicitly in mind.

First, did you note Douglas’s role? She’s a philosopher, specifically of science. There are millions of occupations out there!

And next, it seems reasonable to apply this analysis to the everyday workplace, no? Yet we caution: we’re talking only about thoughtful conclusions that have been considered with an open mind, and not knee-jerk reactions about whole groups of people.

Dr. Fine concludes the article with the statement:

Maybe progress would be even faster and smoother if scientists would admit, and even embrace, their humanity.

Hooray for bringing your whole self to work! Revealing the stuff of which we humans are made in this case can help propel progress. We considered inducting Dr. Fine into the Whole Wide Work Hall of Fame for making this declaration, yet first we’d like to see more similar work from her.

In conclusion, feel free as you engage all your many facets at work; even your biases can make your work output better.

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