PWA interviews Margaret Heffernan, who will be speaking on June 20th. For more information and registration, read here.
by Suparna Gupta
Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur, chief executive, speaker, professor and author. She was born in Texas, raised in the Netherlands and educated at Cambridge University. Her experience includes running five different businesses in the US and the UK, and writing and producing dramas and documentaries for the BBC. She currently writes, speaks and blogs about business leadership, management, innovation and creativity. She also teaches at several business schools in the US and UK and sits on the boards of three organizations. She has published three books: The Naked Truth, Women on Top, and, most recently, Willful Blindness. See her full biography here.
Thanks so much for speaking to PWA. Let’s start with your most recent book. In this book, you discuss what you call “willful blindness,” i.e. the human propensity to ignore and refuse to confront problems or issues that are unfamiliar and difficult to understand. It’s interesting that you portray this idea in both public and private spheres. Could you give us an example of an institutional change that companies or governments can make to promote confrontation and accountability?
I am working with a number of companies training their people how to speak up and report issues and concerns. 85% of executives report having concerns that they do NOT talk about – this is a great deal of organization silence and represents huge lost opportunities and organizational knowledge. All the evidence shows that when just ONE person dares to ask a question, that alone can open up debate, dialogue and honest discussion. So we have to train people to do this effectively. So far what we are seeing is that every time someone dares to have what we call a ‘courageous conversation’ they gain in confidence and status. They discover there is more give in the system than they knew, they uncover a great deal of hitherto unspoken knowledge, they gain in confidence and competence.
Had News Corporation had a culture in which it were acceptable to speak truth to power, things would be very different today I suspect.
I was struck by a very familiar topic in your 2004 book, the Naked Truth. You say that women start out promisingly and then “weird things start to happen to them.” Here in Milan, at our last Ready-for-Board Women event, this was a recurring topic. Women succeed in university, enter organizations, but at some point their growth is stunted. Have you seen any significant changes in the last eight years? Are companies making structural changes to promote the growth of women? What can women do to avoid this plateau?
Well the first important thing is that when ‘weird things’ start to happen, women need NOT to conclude that they are at fault! These plateaus are systemic not personal. When we take them personally, we lose confidence and the ability to get things done.
Companies are making structural changes to promote the growth of women and sometimes these work and sometimes they don’t. They’re more likely to work when they are systemic – in other words, part of a coherent package of cultural change that impacts both men and women. A few individual tactics will not move the needle. Companies have to be prepared to change themselves if they want to see changed results in their performance.
To avoid this plateau, I’d recommend (although this may sound a little brutal) that women bulldoze their way through it. Honestly recognize that you are a pioneer and blazing trails is tough. If you don’t take it personally and if you make sure that you are bringing other women along with you, you’ll be fine. True achievement is always hard – it wouldn’t be meaningful if it weren’t – but women can forge ahead and are doing so. But it is crucial not to do alone. It may feel easier to travel alone but it is impossible to have true power in isolation.
You have said that women leaders have distinct leadership styles that are less ego-driven. How can women use their distinctive qualities to get ahead? How can less ego-driven leadership benefit companies and society?
I am a big believer that successful leaders do not think about themselves first and foremost: they think about their people and their company and they serve those. So what you do is not about what YOU want but about what the people and the business require.
Women have terrific skills – they’re great pattern recognizers, they’re very knowledgeable about the market, they are empathetic leaders, fantastic coordinators of talent, very good at improvising and highly thoughtful about cultural integration issues. The problem is that, quite often, they exercise these skills so naturally that they fail to take them as seriously as they should – and then others, following that lead, undervalue them. These are CORE talents and need to be taken every bit as seriously as accounting qualifications.
A McKinsey study came out this month showing that diverse companies actually perform better in terms of EBIT and ROI. While the specific correlation cannot be proven, it is positive news. What do you see as the most significant concrete benefits of diversity to companies?
At risk of sounding like a shocking contrarian, I have to say I’ve seen this data and I think it’s great but you can’t prove cause. So maybe it’s true and maybe it isn’t. What I’m more convinced by is that there is NO case against diversity, there isn’t enough talent anyway and no company in its right mind can turn its back on the most educated half of the population.
It’s simple really: good decisions require a wide range of data, thinking styles, experience, insight, talents, background and knowledge. You can’t get those if you hire just one kind of person. You don’t get those if you hire predominantly women, if you hire predominantly men, if you hire predominantly quants or creatives. You need breadth and depth and if you lack those, you make shallow, poor decisions.
Who are your role models? Have you had mentors throughout your career?
I have had mentors – all men! I haven’t really had role models, I’m not quite sure why. I guess I carry a model in my mind. I ask myself: is this work you can be proud of? The answer is not always ‘yes’ and, when it isn’t, I try to figure out what I need to change. That’s pretty consistent, by the way, across the whole of my life: it’s a habit of mind I apply as much to my hobbies (like choral singing) as to my professional career.
You changed from TV to software when you saw that the TV industry was on the decline. As many struggle through the recession, do you have any advice for those who are looking for new career options, either by changing industries or embarking on entrepreneurial activities?
Don’t be afraid of change. Think hard about the transferable skills you have and be able to articulate these. I could jump from TV to software because both require fantastically talented individuals who require a lot of love and attention. They’re both fundamentally talent-driven industries. And in both industries I was serving a consumer market. So it’s important to be able to present a narrative that makes sense to others – otherwise they’re so confused by you they don’t see what you have to offer.
I think entrepreneurship offers women the freedom to do business the way they want to and this hugely liberates energies and talents previously devoted to fitting in. But entrepreneurship is no easy option; as one fabulous business owner said to me, “when you own the company, it doesn’t matter which 80 hours you work.” She’s right! But the fact that you choose them makes them feel entirely different. Nevertheless, entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone.
In this very strange time we are living through, I guess I’d say there isn’t any safe place, no job or industry you know is secure. What you do know is that with skills, talent, energy and the ability to take yourself seriously, you can figure out the next step.
Any last words of advice for professional women?
Watching the News Corporation fiasco with fascination, one lesson I take away is: don’t just be a pleaser. Many people – men and women – think the way to get ahead is to figure out what the boss wants and do it, whether it’s right or wrong, smart or stupid. They think this is how they get power. But the truth is that all they’re really doing is developing dependency, where their power derives from one person or a few people who, when they’re gone (or disarmed) can do nothing for them. Far better to build and develop your own skills, knowledge, networks and capacity because that gives you power you can take anywhere.