Black Women Leaders: A Competitive Advantage
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Show Notes: Robin Washington
Robin Washington on DEI as a business imperative
If I think about today’s environment, boards and leaders are spending a lot more time on talent and human capital management. Employees have choices and are willing to seek alternatives to a greater extent than ever before. This next generation of young adults and those earlier in the career, they’re seeking connectivity in their work environment, flexibility, manager quality, and feeling included. It goes beyond financial benefits. It’s definitely important to ensure that the culture of an organization is inclusive, to attract the best talent. This has never been a more important business imperative. It’s a proven fact that if you create cultures and organizations where everyone thrives, you’ll have a competitive advantage. And I say all that as backdrop just because I believe that DEI is a business imperative, and organizations that create inclusive cultures will perform better. So, as a board member, understanding an organization’s culture, how it ensures inclusiveness at all levels of the organization, its hiring and promotion practices, as well as how it leverages – in my case – a lot of technology companies or products to promote diversity and inclusion is simply a critical component of our fiduciary responsibility as board members. The same way we measure financial performance or other key goals and objectives, we have to pay attention to the metrics and the numbers that help us measure inclusiveness. And I think doing this effectively will ensure that we are performing our responsibilities as a board.
Robin Washington on the board’s role in promoting DEI
I think it’s evolving naturally. As a board member, you have much more visibility at the top of the organization. That’s where you can influence board and C-suite diversity. That really matters because that’s where the precedent setting occurs. That’s where we can directly, as board members, hold senior leaders accountable. And this is where diverse leadership can be most impactful. If you think about underrepresented groups, persons of color, women, et cetera, when they see diversity at the top of the organization, it allows the rank and file to feel and see what is possible. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not only about hiring, it’s about promoting, it’s about leveraging.
One of the things we look at is post surveys. How are people feeling about the organization? How are different groups feeling about the culture,values and mission? But I do think that visibility, particularly at the higher ranks of organizations, where people can see people that look like them and how they were promoted and how they’ve built successful careers, makes a huge difference. I experienced firsthand how much that mattered when I came across women and persons of color, across our stakeholder base in general, whether it was employees or others. They told me how important it was to meet and work with a capable black female executive as part of the C-suite team. The more we can cultivate and ask for that diversity and those practices that promote inclusiveness, the better we will achieve this objective of creating inclusive cultures.
Robin Washington on evolving DEI practices in executive search and hiring
Robin Washington on the Black Women on Boards initiative
I give Merline [Saintil] a lot of credit for bringing the passion and boots on the ground support to continue to scale this organization. It’s been an amazing success, and I’ve really enjoyed our partnership. Black Women on Boards was created to accelerate access to board opportunities by enhancing visibility of qualified black female executives. We know that exposure and visibility matter, and once you’re on a board, opportunities can be abundant. So Black Women on Boards is all about expanding our network and highlighting capable, talented black females to help them secure that first board seat. We know that the statistics for public boards leave us with room for opportunity. You mentioned 4% [of public corporate board members are Black women], Janice, but private company board participation is even lower. So given that we have a close proximity to the venture and private equity communities in Silicon Valley, it’s a special area of focus for us as this network provides capital to create the next Alphabet or Salesforce and the next generation of successful companies. What we want to do is just to ensure that capable black females have access to these public and private ecosystems. We want to partner with firms like yours, Janice, investors, private equity, public companies, and others to advance this mission. The one thing we know for certain is this is not an issue of pipeline or qualification. It’s an issue of access and visibility. That’s what we want to change with Black Women on Boards.
Robin Washington on access, visibility, and the role of networks in board search
I was personally involved in a search where we put a woman of color on a board with definite experience in the industries that we needed. She was definitely capable but was not on the radar of the recruiting search firm that we leveraged. That’s why I think this type of organization becomes important: creating the networks, because as you know, a lot of board placements are done by word of mouth or through networks. That’s why we believe that getting these folks the visibility that they need – not only with the search firms, but with companies, with alternative investment firms and venture capital, is the way to go to increase that visibility. It’s been amazing to meet some of these women and get to know them personally. So, when I get called about a board role that I can’t take on, I’ve got a list of capable people that I can recommend with confidence. It’s going to take all of that to continue to make inroads in this area.
Robin Washington on the role of mentors and sponsors in her own career
I had great mentors, but more importantly, sponsors, that exposed me to opportunities that stretched me beyond what I thought I was capable of. And it forced me out of my comfort zone until I learned to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. A lot of people that know me know I use that phrase a lot because I think it’s important. I know now that it’s in those moments when I’m feeling uncomfortable that I’m truly learning and growing. And most importantly, I’m confident that I can push through adversity and accomplish anything I want to achieve. It’s not that it’s easy, but it’s about convincing yourself that you want it and then doing what it takes to achieve your objectives. Early in my career, I got the opportunity to meet and spend time with a black female CFO. I can honestly tell you this was before I even really thought about being a CFO. I also worked early in a company where we had a Black male corporate controller. And I do think those interactions with both were these subliminal inspirations that showed me I could one day achieve their level of success.
Robin Washington on the CFO role as a pathway to the boardroom
I think having a financial background and skill set can really enhance a person’s career in so many ways. Knowing how to interpret a balance sheet and understanding finance and accounting. The language of business is an invaluable skill, even if you don’t want to be a CFO or aspire to have a career in finance. But I do think being a CFO gives you a really unique perspective in a corporation. You are the allocator of capital. You’re a partner to the CEO and other business leaders, you’re a spokesperson for the company, to investors and other stakeholders. It is second in nature only to the CEO. It’s really a unique opportunity and perspective on how to operate and understand a business. I think a lot of people misinterpret the CFO role as a back-office function, but world class CFOs are very close to the business and help steer and drive the go-forward strategy. Also, as you mentioned Janice, I think financial expertise is a highly sought-after skill that boards are looking for as well. It’s a great entree to the C-suite. We talk about only 4% of board members being women of color. But diversity in the C-suite is another huge opportunity and I think the finance function is a very beneficial one.
Robin Washington on Black representation in the C-suite
When I think about black representation and the C-suite, there’s a huge opportunity to further diversify. Only 2% of Fortune 500 C-suite leaders are Black. That includes CEOs, COOs and CFOs. Within the Fortune 500 there are only six black CEOs. Black CFOs have almost doubled in 2021, but that’s only an increase from 12 to 20. There’s tremendous upside and opportunity to further diversify the C-suite, and I think this is critically important to that topic we just discussed: inclusive cultures.
Robin Washington on her experience as CFO of Gilead
I was there at Gilead for nearly twelve years, and it was a very rewarding experience in ways too numerous to mention. As I think back on one of the more defining moments, it was simply moving to a CFO role in biotech after 20 plus years in technology. As you described in my bio, I didn’t start in the biotech space, and I remember talking to several of my mentors and others. It was a really bold move and it took a lot of hard work to learn the industry and come up to speed. But I have to say, working there as part of a world-class leadership team at the time, and bringing life-saving treatments to patients, including a curative treatment for HIV, was clearly the highlight. We ensured that as leaders, that we engaged with patients and had them share their experiences with our employees. And it was really rewarding to see how what we did positively impacted the lives of our patients and their families. So even as the CFO, those experiences topped all the fundraising, maturing of our capital structure, and assisting in scaling and globalizing our business, by far. And again, I think that’s really what it’s about. It’s world class management teams that have a vision and being able to execute on them. Again, it was an invaluable experience for me, and I continue to be very involved in the biotech space today.
Robin Washington on her first board position
My first board experience came from my audit chair when I was the Chief Accounting Officer at PeopleSoft, and they were looking to add diversity on the board. I joined my first board before I even became a CFO. And it was a sponsor that I had who thought I could bring something to the table as well as learn. And I’m forever grateful for that experience because it gave me insight into the boardroom while I was still developing my financial career. I say often that I think I became a better CFO because of that exposure in the boardroom and understanding how the board looked at issues that the CFO had responsibility for and thinking about strategy in general.
As I became a CFO, I was on two smaller boards. Both of the companies were sold. And as I came up to speed and got comfortable with what I was doing in my CFO role at Gilead, I put the desire to be on a Fortune 500 board on my list of goals and objectives, and I talked to my audit chair and our CEO and COO about it, and they were supportive. That was the first, and the rest were through relationships or through developing that expertise.
One thing I’ve learned through my board experience is, yes, I may have the financial expertise, but more importantly, I think good board members are broader than just that. So I’ve really tried to be selective in the boards that I choose to serve on. My criteria being that I can add value in a multitude of ways, not just as a financial expert; and that I have a genuine interest in the business models, goals, objectives, and mission that we’re undertaking.
Robin Washington on skills-based board search
So many times when we talk about putting a Black woman on a board, everyone wants a C-suite executive. If you think about digitization, if you think about cybersecurity, enterprise risk management, talent, D&I – these are topics that boards are spending a lot of time on, but the people with the greatest experience in these fields don’t necessarily come from the C-suite. There are functions and skill sets that are gained before you get to the C-suite that make you very capable of participating and adding value on a board. I didn’t feel that I was in any way impaired by not being a CFO on that first board.
Robin Washington on the importance of EQ in leadership
One of the skills that I think developed leaders have is empathy. We’ve seen the importance of empathy as we’ve had to pivot operations and engage with employees, shareholders and other stakeholders through the global pandemic, social injustice, and the macroeconomic crisis that we’ve been dealing with over the past few years. I remember interviewing a panel of CFOs and many of them spoke about the inability to walk around, given the fact that we’re all working remotely. And I remember asking the question, “what’s the one skill set that you think has become more important as a leader?” It was empathy.
To the next generation of our workforce, authenticity in leadership matters. People want to feel connected. I think the best leaders are adaptable, and at times they show vulnerability and the ability to connect with individuals and meet their teams and employees where they are. That takes emotional intelligence in addition to raw intelligence. Good leaders have that. If you think about the board member role, it is about collaboration, specifically collaboration with people that you’re not working with on a regular basis. So I think EQ becomes very important there. How do you meet, how do you relate, how do you leverage all that experience that sits in a room and comes together on occasion to really help advance a company forward? You have to have sensing capabilities that you’re not going to see because you’re not boots on the ground every day in these organizations. So I think it’s a critical skill set for 21st century leaders and board members.
Robin Washington on the path forward for boards in a post-pandemic world
I think you have to really be a continuous learner and engaged in a different way. I talked about those sensing capabilities and just having to focus on more and more things that matter to drive a company’s success. Flexibility, agility, the ability to identify leaders, these are things that always matter. You’ve seen continued conversion of industries and spaces. For me, I’m seeing more convergence between healthcare and technology, but it just requires, again, agility and speed and a level of understanding of how so many factors can interact and impact what you’re trying to accomplish. I think about all the things that sit on the plates of the CEOs and the leadership teams and the boards that I sit on. It’s daunting across so many areas. The importance of leading and prioritizing and leveraging skill sets and know-how – it’s all going to change the way we think about our teams. One person that I can think of that I think has become more important to boards as well as to leadership teams is the role of the CHRO. I think we need Chief People Officers in ways that we’ve never needed in the past. It’s hard to say you can stay in front of every trend, but I think just keeping a pulse of change and having the capability to not only react but be proactive around what’s happening in your industry has never been more important for boards and for leadership teams.
Robin Washington’s parting advice
I was privileged to work side by side with General Colin Powell on one of my boards, and as a result, he became one of my mentors and I developed a relationship with him. He’s written many books, but one in particular focused on leadership principles. And I always think about rule number 13, which is, “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” I am extremely optimistic about the future that I see for women and underrepresented minorities in the C-suite and the boardroom going forward. While we’ve made progress, there is still a long way to go. I think it’s more important than ever that we have champions and sponsors to ensure that this optimism becomes a reality. Because if we create inclusive cultures, we’re going to build extraordinary companies where all employees thrive. And I think the world will be a better place if we accomplish this well.