Paying it Forward - Practices for Women Navigating Leadership

publishedover 1 year ago
5 min read

For this week’s newsletter, I interviewed Janet Foutty, executive chair of the board for Deloitte US. Janet has held this role since 2019 after serving as chair and CEO of Deloitte Consulting LLP. Janet is also a member of Deloitte’s Global Board of Directors and chair of the Deloitte Foundation.

In our conversation, we discussed Janet’s new leadership book, Arrive and Thrive, which she co-authored with Simmons University’s Susan MacKenty Brady and Dr. Lynn Perry Wooten. The book is an impactful guide for women in leadership positions, offering actionable practices and personal stories to help pave a smoother path to success.

Read on for Janet’s insights on some of the key challenges and opportunities facing today’s female leaders.

Although leadership authenticity is critical, female leaders are often less comfortable with being open—especially when it comes to sharing their struggles with balancing their personal and professional lives. What advice do you have for women who want to be more transparent leaders, while still mitigating the perceived and real professional risks that can result from embracing authenticity?

There’s so much I could say on this topic! But I’ll boil it down to two key attributes: vulnerability and consistency. I’ve found that when we don’t bring our whole selves to work, which includes being vulnerable about the things we are facing personally and professionally—whether it’s a health issue, a caretaking challenge at home, or a tough business decision—we overcompensate in other ways. That leads to moments of inauthenticity.

I also believe that sharing bits of ourselves in contextually appropriate and honest ways helps build followership. By modeling that vulnerability—sharing the challenges we face, the successes we’ve had, and principles we believe in—we’re showing the next generation that they can do the same. This is where consistency comes in: showing up and sticking to our principles not just on our best day, but in every interaction with every person. For me, that means holding to a consistent level of intensity, clarity, and directness in how I interact with others.

As you advance in your leadership journey, there will be moments that challenge your sense of who you are and what you care about. But if you start leading with vulnerability and consistency now, it’ll be second nature to return to those principles—not to mention, you’ll have a team of people to remind you of them, and help you along the way.

In general, studies have shown that women tend to be more risk-averse than men. How can female leaders cultivate more personal courage?

It begins with advocacy—for ourselves and for others. Whether it’s determining what’s important to you and communicating that or making a bold decision on behalf of your team, every experience is an opportunity to practice abandoning our comfort zones and calling upon courage to make our voices heard. What I wish I knew earlier in my career is that I don’t have to have every possible solution or to have figured out every possible risk to take that leap of faith. Admitting that you don’t know the answers, and committing to work collectively with your team to find them, is courageous.

Lastly, especially as I advanced in my leadership roles, I have learned the value and importance of having courageous conversations, even when it feels uncomfortable. Conducting honest, even difficult conversations in a thoughtful, gracious manner is one of the best things you can do to foster your own leadership—it’s the ultimate form of courage. And being straightforward with people in a well-informed manner around the things you think are important, is also the most helpful thing you can do for someone else, too.

Leaders’ ability to demonstrate resilience has surely been tested over the past two years. However, in the book you describe how resilience encompasses more than just bouncing back from challenges: “It’s about bouncing out of self-limiting thinking and paradigms and bouncing up to our highest levels of potential and our most magnetic, impactful realization of leadership.” Can you tell us more about this idea of whole-person resilience?

The last two years were met with incredible challenges and heartbreak. But it was also a time for immense learning. Resilient leaders emerging from this confluence of crises are recognizing it is no longer about getting back to the old ways of doing business, but instead recognizing an imperative and opportunity to re-engage and reinvent many aspects of how we work, and how we lead.

As we reflect on our personal ability to demonstrate resilience, practicing flexibility, adaptability, and perseverance can help us tap into our resilient selves—even when we’re not faced with once-in-a-generation challenges. And we must remind ourselves that what’s important is not flawlessness, but a commitment to continuous improvement and innovation.

Is it more difficult for women to be bold about a vision? And what advice do you have for any leader who has a vision but may not know what the full end is going to be, or how to bring their vision to life?

Actually, more evidence than not suggests that women are as capable as men in inspiring a bold vision. It’s a total misconception that, to be seen as visionary, you have to be the kind of person who wakes up in the morning with a brilliant idea and lets no one stand in the way of you, and you alone, executing it. When in fact, often, vision comes from listening carefully to others and helping connect the dots.

A bold vision begins with noticing what others overlook—and devising a plan that will lead your team to a different or better outcome. Specifically, if I distill my experience, those of my co-authors, the conversations that we have had with executives in preparing this book, and all of the best research on inspiring vision available, you will find that inspiring a bold vision for your team, or for your organization more broadly, boils down to these four principles:

  1. Being clear about your organization’s purpose and “why.”
  2. Listening with humility for brilliant ideas, recognizing the value of new insight and, if it sticks, deliberately exploring possibilities.
  3. Having courage to take a leap of faith, freely walking into the unknown.
  4. Communicating with enthusiasm about what you know, what you don’t know, and the path forward.

There’s a strong business case for inclusive leadership: Deloitte’s research finds that organizations with inclusive cultures are 2X more likely to meet or exceed financial targets, 3X as likely to be high-performing, 6X more likely to be innovative and agile, and 8X more likely to achieve better business outcomes. However, for female leaders there are additional benefits to leading inclusively. Can you tell us about some of these benefits?

I’m always happy to talk about the business case for advancing inclusivity. But diverse talent, and an inclusive culture led by inclusive leaders, are the means to advancing equity, which is really at the heart of the matter. Because advancing equity means results: measurable and meaningful outcomes. And when we as leaders approach our decisions, our systems, and our organizational cultures with a lens towards equity, everyone benefits.

Inclusivity is also about sustainability. Here’s what I mean by that: Every leader is guilty of trying to be the superhero. Women especially—largely because we are told that we have to work twice as hard to get half the result—sometimes find ourselves thinking that, in order to prove ourselves, we have to go it alone. However well-intentioned, that kind of thinking fosters competition over collaboration, and can alienate those around us. It makes us burn out faster, and arrive at solutions slower. In other words, failing to lead inclusively sets us back on the path to equity.

Being an inclusive leader means you understand that you don’t have to show up in a cape to save the day. You don’t have to know everything and do everything. You just have to have the will to build teams where everyone can bringing their unique skills, strengths, and experiences to the table to solve for complex challenges and identify new opportunities. Inclusive leadership means going from the “me” to the “we”—and it creates a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

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