Episode 39: Lili Gil Valletta

Janice Ellig, CEO and founder of Ellig Group, sits down with real leaders in this series of game-changing conversations, bespoke to fellow champions of change. Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and commitment to gender parity, equity, inclusion, and diversity.

We are honored to present this month’s episode of Leadership Reimagined, “The Power of Cultural Intelligence: Return on Inclusion (ROI)” with Lili Gil Valletta, co-founder and CEO of global cultural intelligence market research tech-firm, CulturIntel, and the cultural marketing agency CIEN+.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, please join us in honoring an extraordinary award-winning female entrepreneur, game-changer, cultural intelligence™ expert, A.I. tech innovator, and one of the few Latina women leading the way in tech!

“My dream is that cultural intelligence becomes an elevated expression of leadership. That an inclusive approach to how you know and monitor your data becomes embedded in your organization. Just as Emotional Intelligence has become embedded in textbooks and MBA programs. It becomes the same for Cultural Intelligence…IQ, EQ and CQ” 

After a successful corporate career, including a 10-year tenure at Johnson & Johnson where she led global marketing efforts and pioneered diversity strategies, Lili co-founded CIEN+ and CulturIntel. She is a regular TV commentator, the recipient of numerous awards, and a champion of advancing women and underrepresented groups.

It is our privilege to present to you this episode of Leadership Reimagined “The Power of Cultural Intelligence: Return on Inclusion (ROI)” with Lili Gil Valletta!

Leadership Reimagined is available on the following popular podcast stations:

 

SHOW NOTES: LILI GIL VALLETA

 

Lili Gil Valletta on Cien+

Cien+, for those of you that speak Spanish, you may know that that’s the number 100. And it’s kind of a play on words because we believe that it is mathematically impossible for any organization to achieve their full potential in business and in impact without cultural intelligence embedded into everything they do. Hence, “Cien+”. So Cien+ is the consultancy and marketing side of our business, where some of the biggest brands and corporations around the world reach out to us and our expertise so that we can give them the data, the strategy, and the go to market and marketing campaigns and messaging and approach that they need to be culturally relevant in today’s very fast changing market.

Lili Gil Valletta on CulturIntel’s Methodology

We are harvesting or scraping every single digital discussion that people volunteer everywhere in real time. And that happens in blogs, in topical sites, in news sites, the comments that are on a news article or a YouTube video. All of that is open-source digital voices of people that are expressing how they feel or react to a certain topic without a researcher asking them anything on a survey or a poll or question. And that is very rich. It goes beyond social networks where many times there’s a lot of chatter or noise or bots.

We did a scraping of conversations about people just talking about their relationship to the workplace. That was 28 million digital discussions specific to how they evaluated their workplace and their jobs. Social media was barely 12% of those data sources. So it’s much more than social listening. People are a lot more open in the anonymity of Quora, for example, or comments on Indeed or Glassdoor or other job sites where they get to post pseudonymously. They’re much more candid and open about sharing how they feel. So that’s what’s so unique. 

We take all that and organize it to look at patterns. Those patterns reveal the voice of the people, what matters to them, what’s driving culture or frustration or loyalty to the places where they work, or how they feel about a brand or a product. What makes it so different is that the sources are so vast and global that we don’t limit ourselves to just a few lists of destinations.

When I get to talk to the CEOs who trust us to do this work, I tell them what we’re doing is applying the same discipline that they’re already using to understand their customers. The world of tech, for example, is obsessed with personalization and understanding those user personas so that you can tailor the experience to the customer. Well, the same thing ought to happen when companies examine their own internal policies and the organizational dynamics of their own employees. Leaders often say, “people are your biggest asset.” No, they’re not just an asset, they are your company. 

That same principle applies to understanding specific subsets of your workforce as well. You have Millennials. You have Boomers. You have Gen Xers. You have men, women, Hispanic, Black, Asian, LGBTQ+. When you look at it that way, it seems quite overwhelming. CDOs or CxOs say, “well, how do I design policy or programs or engagement strategies for so many diverse segments of our workforce?” That is where we come into play. 

For example, we worked with a big financial institution to examine drivers and barriers to entry across all those diverse segments: male, female, Hispanic, Black, Asian. And guess what? The drivers for engagement or satisfaction are not always the same across all segments. When you have personalization in the data, that helps you understand how you are perceived as a place to work and also as a corporate citizen and provider of products and services. It lets you reimagine how you design policy and engagement initiatives that are not “one size fits all” solutions. 

Lili Gil Valletta on How Companies Should Rethink the DEI Paradigm

There is a lot of discussion right now about diversity. If we continue in the pursuit of representation – in the sense of “do we have all the right boxes checked; do we have all the right colored chips on the table?” – instead of truly creating an inclusive approach to business, those colorful chips may not be able to fully express their color. Or they may just leave, because without an inclusive design to your business, the diversity you achieve by just checking boxes isn’t very meaningful. 

Lili Gil Valletta’s Definition of Cultural Intelligence

Cultural intelligence is summed up by three verbs: be aware, understand, and apply cultural competence and inclusive data. A lot of people are aware, because of diversity and implicit bias training, which does a good job of raising awareness. But if you don’t graduate from awareness to understanding what that means for you and your organization – and certainly if you don’t apply that understanding in meaningful ways –  it’s just an academic exercise. Unfortunately, in many cases, diversity tends to be thought of as a form of altruism. Or, to borrow the language of a very good article from Harvard Business Review, as  “vanity metrics” or “compliance theater”. 

I prefer to view diversity very pragmatically. Is it the right thing to do? Sure. But more importantly, it’s the smart thing to do for shareholder value and for keeping your company viable and competitive. Why? Because women make 80% of purchasing decisions, and if you’re losing them at a higher rate than other professionals and still have gaps in leadership, you may be creating a huge blind spot in your understanding of the people doing the purchasing. 

At the same time, the demographics of our country are shifting. By the year 2040, we will be a minority-majority nation. Those minorities – Black, Hispanic, et cetera – are the segments with the fastest growth rates in terms of population and purchasing power. You need a strategy that accounts for what that means for your business, and I’m not talking about your dashboard of how many people you have of a certain background. I mean, how those changes affect your actual investment decisions, new product development, market strategies and so on. Then you’ll be missing out on what’s driving all growth and represents almost 50% of the American population. In my TED Talk, I challenge the conventional wisdom of how and why we prioritize diversity. It cannot just be a token altruistic mission, or a single public statement.

Lili Gil Valletta on How To Get More Underrepresented People in Corporate Leadership

The numbers are bad. Less than 3% of board directors are Hispanic, but less than 1% are Hispanic women. But it doesn’t have to be like that. 

One measure is legislation, which is already in place in some states. My public board sits in Seattle. Washington State has a law that requires at least a third of a corporation’s board to be women. But it shouldn’t just be about hitting that metric. If we consider the numbers about the buying power of women – again, that they control 80% of all purchasing decisions – and also  about shifting demographics, where diverse segments are driving 100% of population growth, then you need to be diligent about having an accelerated pipeline that makes people with these backgrounds c-suite- and board- capable. I prefer “capable” over “ready” as the word to use there. So it’s starting to recognize potential sooner and looking at capability over qualifications, so we’re not disqualifying capable people just because they don’t have the exact experience or credential on the checklist. Maybe those candidates need a little bit more coaching or a mentor or sponsor on the board. The entire process needs to be reinvented. But the attitude can’t be that we’re doing the capable, diverse candidate a favor by picking them. You need to do it with the understanding that it will make you better as a business. The numbers are there to prove that. 

A great example is what you, Janice, did to help me. You were on the board of the YMCA, which despite being a not-for-profit, is run like a public company. It’s a very large organization with the complexities of a federated model, so it’s a great environment to train for filling an independent board director’s seat. It took somebody like you to propose a candidate like me to that board, and that gave me the leg up I needed. From there, I earned my way, of course, with capability, with the interview, with the delivery and performance. But it starts with just putting forward the candidates, reaching out and thinking a little bit beyond your comfort level and traditional network to give folks like me a chance. 

And guess what? When you are in the boardroom of a not-for-profit or a corporation, and you deliver, which I have done, then other opportunities come up. Now that I am on the board of Zumiez, a publicly traded global retailer, I get to nominate people. So with a few of the seats that have come up, that are coming up to term, guess what? Everyone I have recommended is somebody that I feel is board ready or board capable and is from one of these underrepresented groups, women as well as minorities. I’m happy to report that they’ve been doing really well in all of those interviews. But if I hadn’t put their name on the list, I don’t think they would have been found. What we’ve really done is to help executives or directors, chairs, CEOs, open the aperture and say, hey, this person may not already be in a C-suite, but they have the skills you need. 

Lili Gil Valletta on Her Career at Johnson & Johnson

I owe a lot of who I am and how I behave as a leader to the value-based credo of J&J. It’s not just a thing hanging on the wall. It really was the principle guiding how we made decisions there. So, with that backdrop, I had the great opportunity to move quite fast in my career at J&J, but as a woman and as a Latina and as an immigrant, I took it upon myself to behave and act like an entrepreneur. I think that mattered a lot, because sometimes we wait for others to create solutions or look for someone to blame. When I noticed that we had a very vibrant and amazing women’s leadership organization, I was curious why we didn’t have a Hispanic version of that, so I took it upon myself to create Hola, which is the Hispanic employee research group at J&J. My point is that you can innovate and act like an entrepreneur even inside the structures of a big corporation like J&J. 

And ultimately, I left J&J because I was driven to keep building on what I started there. I had an exit interview with Bill Weldon, our CEO at the time, and I remember him asking me, “Lili, what can we do to keep you?” But it had gotten to the point when it wasn’t about a better title or more money. It was this bug of purpose that bit me when I realized that many more corporations were going to need this inclusive perspective on business. There was a great opportunity to help other companies tap into the power of culture and people, but there wasn’t an existing company gathering the data they would need to do that. So it was time for me to go on and create that company myself. 

Lili Gil Valletta’s Advice for Diverse Women in Leadership Careers

Number one, chase purpose and fulfillment over money. That applies to entrepreneurs as well as executives. There is no amount of money that will ever give you fulfillment and satisfaction. I know that sounds cliche, and maybe that’s why so many people are quitting their jobs in this great resignation we hear about. But you have to love with conviction what you’re doing. 

The second thing is preparation and excellence. There’s no shortcut for that. Maybe there are quotas in legislation in some places, or maybe your identity checks the missing box on their list. So maybe your background gets you through the door, or maybe you have a mentor or sponsor who gets you there, but after that, it’s on you. There’s no shortcut to preparation and excellence. Those qualities will dispel any myth, any stereotype or preconceived notion about who you are or where you come from, because results speak louder than anything else. 

To me, the third key to success is surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you. That includes the mentors that surround you, the advisors and champions that advocate for you, the team, and the leadership team that supports you as a leader. In my case, at a fast-growing company, I’m running all over the place with team members all over the country and the world. In the last two years, especially with remote work and high growth, my priority has been building an extraordinary leadership team. 

Lili Gil Valletta on Work-life Balance and Family

Running the risk of sounding a bit churchy, my husband and I have a very simple philosophy that guides how we prioritize and focus our time and mental bandwidth. It’s three F’s: faith, family and fun. Often when people hear this, they say “wait, what about work?” Well, that’s part of the fun, because, again, if it’s purposeful, and you’re doing what you are meant to be doing in this world, it should be fun.

On Sunday afternoon or Sunday night, I typically do a recap of my week in terms of how well I served those priorities: faith, family, and fun. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not. But I think just the consciousness of doing that self-check keeps you focused. 

There are days and weeks when I spend all my time on the fun and work category, and I wish I had spent more time with my kids, for example. But instead of self-flagellating and giving myself a hard time, I just decide I will flip it the next week.

Basically the secret is being mindful of your priorities, being kind to yourself, and knowing there may be a day when I am Super Mom and my team has to wait on me a little bit, or another day when it’s the other way around. But checking in on it every week is what really lets me maintain my well-being and consciousness. 

Lili Gil Valletta on the Role of Faith in Her Daily Life

Every single day, before I put my feet on the ground, I take a moment to just be grateful. It could take five minutes, and that centers your soul. I’m alive, I’m breathing. It’s a new day of opportunities, of impact, of health. It could be meditating, praying, whatever works for you. I do that every single day before looking at my phone, before getting distracted with my calendar. And it’s just very centering. 

Lili Gil Valletta on the Future of Cultural Intelligence and the Concept of CQ

My dream is that cultural intelligence, which is a trademark we’ve held for now almost a decade, will become a household phrase. Just as the idea of EQ [Emotional Intelligence] has now been embedded into textbooks and MBA. I guess the equivalent would be “CQ.” My advice to everyone listening is that without an inclusive approach to gathering and monitoring your data, evaluating market trends, and designing the future of your business, you’ll be falling short. I will stand in front of any CFO with financial models to prove it, because the data doesn’t work any other way. 

So that’s my challenge to all of you. Graduate from the altruistic bucket list model of diversity and start thinking about an inclusive approach to growth, impact, and shareholder value.