Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.
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RESEARCH TIANGLE PARK – As an executive, I am committed to supporting women leaders. In fact, I look forward to the day when we can just say “leader” and don’t have to emphasize the gender aspect at all. This simple wish doesn’t seem like too much to ask, yet we still have a long way to go in creating a workplace environment that is fair and just when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion. Until then, I will continue to do everything I can to promote women leaders.
POWERFUL RETURN ON INVESTMENT
Using as plain language as possible, let’s be direct: If you want to build, create or strengthen an organization, you need to hire women leaders ASAP. The benefits are immediate and supported by numerous studies. For example, the Peterson Institute for International Economics explained, “Companies with women in leadership positions are more profitable than those without.” Furthermore, McKinsey’s 2021 “Women in the Workplace” report revealed that women leaders create higher employee retention, increased engagement and productivity.
When a company has strong women leaders at every level, it gains organization-wide, from better customer experiences to more robust innovation and creativity. What C-suite executive doesn’t want advanced knowledge-building capacity, better business outcomes or a stronger bottom line? By bringing women leaders to the table, you can have all three simultaneously.
Let me break this down for you. As an executive, board of directors member and leadership coach, I know firsthand that truly great leaders want everyone in their organization to have equal chances for advancement. From my perspective as a small business owner, I have watched women leaders build The Diversity Movement from scratch. Our first C-suite promotion was Kristie Davis to Chief Financial Officer, and women are at the top of our leadership team, including two award-winners in Vice President of Client Success Jamie Ousterout and Vice President of Business Strategy Shelley Willingham.
Advocating for women leaders is a no-brainer.
At speaking events, I’m frequently asked about the leader I admire most. Certainly, I could say Martin Luther King, Jr., or one of the coaches or executives who helped me on the way forward in my career path. For example, I wrote at length about my mentor Grant Willard, the co-founder of JouleBug and former CEO at I-Cubed, in my leadership memoir Underestimated.
Based on her successes, however, I would rather focus on my colleague Jackie Ferguson, who is not only Vice President of Content & Programming at The Diversity Movement, but also my life partner. There are many reasons that Jackie’s work has blown me away since we founded the company. I’ll list just a couple accomplishments where she’s demonstrated strong leadership.
– Diversity Beyond the Checkbox: What few people realize – and certainly no one who listens to her would know – is that Jackie used to lack confidence as a public speaker. However, she used her fear as a motivator and prepared for engagements with more grit and determination than anyone I’ve ever met. This single-mindedness enabled her to build the Diversity Beyond the Checkbox podcast from near-scratch to being listed as one of the top 5% downloaded globally. What listeners value is that Jackie has given almost 100 guests the space to educate and engage with listeners around the world on topics that are not only important in the workplace, but are game-changing for families, friends and communities.
– Launching a company: I get a lot of credit for creating The Diversity Movement, but it was a team effort with Jackie, Kurt Merriweather and Kaela Sosa. We moved fast from idea – literally pulling a target out of the air – to building a company. In that early stage we thought we would be primarily an education company. Jackie spearheaded – and by that, I mean put thousands of hours into research – the writing of the Diversity Beyond the Checkbox online course.
Her determination to build a world-class online program enabled us to engage with clients and demonstrate that diversity was a central idea in building the future of work. The course resonated with business leaders and companies. That focus became brighter as demand for DEI education soared in summer 2020. Companies started asking: “What’s next?”
– The Inclusive Language Handbook: A Guide to Better Communication & Transformational Leadership: Demonstrating the critical importance of inclusive language in today’s workplace and society, Jackie co-authored The Inclusive Language Handbook, which takes advantage of her decades-long diversity, equity and inclusion activism and education. Since its publication last spring, the book has been used by tens of thousands of readers and organizations in more than 15 countries across the globe. Many companies have implemented its findings or, more to the point, find its lessons so beneficial that they have reoriented their diversity programming to focus on inclusive language.
What I love about The Inclusive Language Handbook is that diversity professionals, board of directors members and executive teams are finding it instructive. For example, Rhett Burden, Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, Compass Family Services in San Francisco explained, “As a DEI practitioner, The Inclusive Language Handbook is a must…As our world becomes increasingly more diverse and language becomes more nuanced, this practical and easy-to-read guide will equip readers to operate efficiently, effectively, and most importantly, inclusively.”
LEADERSHIP FOR A NEW ECONOMY
Jackie and other women leaders I work with are thriving in today’s compassion- and empathy-driven workplace. They utilize these leadership traits with their teams and are more willing than their male counterparts (according to research) to do smart things, like sharing the credit with teammates when something great happens. This leadership characteristic is built for the new economy. I’ve watched it develop firsthand as board chair at Walk West in the leadership growth of Abha Bowers, CEO at the digital agency, and with other women leaders at organizations I work with.
For all C-suite leaders and managers, there is only one way forward, which is making culture change a catalyst in an authentic way that employees value. For example, when it comes to women leaders, provide them with rewards and recognition for the natural, instinctive leadership traits they bring to work. A level of accountability must be instituted up and down the organization to ensure that men and women are getting equal opportunities for promotion at every stage.
I have witnessed firsthand and heard over and over in speaking with other C-suite leaders and board members that this new economy is hyperfocused on culture at the center of workplace excellence. We need to dig deeper into the obstacles women are facing and deliberately knock them aside.
The only things standing in the way of getting more women into leadership and the pipeline for the future are outdated thinking and policies. We can and should do better for women at every stage of their career paths. This is the best outcome for our organizations, families and communities.
The time is now.
About the Author
Donald Thompson is CEO and co-founder of The Diversity Movement and author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success. As an executive coach and board member, he focuses on goal achievement, building culture-centric leaders and organizations and driving exponential growth. Donald hosts the “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” podcast and is an award-winning entrepreneur, keynote speaker and Certified Diversity Executive (CDE). Connect with or follow Donald on Linkedin to learn more.