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Episode 42: Julie Sweet

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, “Culture, Tech & the Future: A CEO’s Sweet Spot” with Julie Sweet, Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Accenture, the largest professional services organization with over 700,000 employees globally.

Hear a dynamic game-changing conversation with Julie Sweet, repeatedly named as one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business and Forbes’s 100 Most Powerful Women in the World. As an innovative business leader, she shares thought provoking ideas to enhance cultures, tools to drive innovation, and sage advice to leaders who aspire to dream big.

“There is a plaque that hangs in my mudroom that encapsulates my career ‘if your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough’ – when I look back on my career, I made a number of choices because I didn’t feel like I was dreaming big enough.”

Julie Sweet began her career at Accenture, the largest professional services firm with over 700,000 employees globally, as General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and Chief Compliance Officer. In 2015, Julie was promoted to be CEO of Accenture North America, and in 2019 to CEO and Chair in 2021.  Prior to Accenture, Julie was a Partner at the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP.

It is our privilege to share this episode of Leadership Reimagined “Culture, Tech & the Future: A CEO’s Sweet Spot” with Julie Sweet!

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Today’s Guest: Accenture CEO and Chair Julie Sweet

Julie Sweet is Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Accenture, the world’s largest professional services firm with over 700,000 employees worldwide. Julie began her career at Accenture as General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and Chief Compliance Officer, and was promoted to CEO of Accenture, North America, and in 2019 to CEO and Chair in 2021.

Prior to Accenture, Julie was a partner at the law firm, Cravath, Swaine and Moore LLP. Julie serves on the World Economic Forum board of trustees. Additionally, Julie is board chair of Catalyst and serves on the board of trustees for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and for the Marriott family established nonprofit, Bridges from School to Work. With many recognitions, Julie has repeatedly been named as one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business, and Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women in the World

Accenture CEO Julie Sweet on Her Career Trajectory

I didn’t start off saying I wanted to become a CEO. It certainly hasn’t been a straight line. When I really think about what drives me, there’s this plaque that my husband hung in our mudroom. It really encapsulates something about my career. The plaque says, “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” And when I look back on my career, I made a number of choices over the time because I didn’t feel like I was dreaming big enough or that I could see what was going to happen. So, for example, I came to Accenture, not because I didn’t love my job as a partner at Cravath, but because when I got the call from Accenture, I could say, “I know my future. I know what I’m going to do if I stay at Cravath, and this allows me to dream bigger.”

Julie Sweet on Dreaming Big vs. Taking Risks

It’s not so much about what’s the line to being a CEO woman or not, but really what is challenging you? What makes you excited? What gets you out of your comfort zone? And I don’t think of it as just taking risks, because who wants to have their career be about taking risks? That’s not inspiring to me. Dreaming big, that’s inspiring.

Julie Sweet on The Future of C-suite Diversity

I’m only 54. I hope in my lifetime, I will see a time where we don’t have to talk about women CEOs or African American CEOs because we reach a scale, and it becomes natural that you don’t have to have separate lists because it’s so unusual. And that is of course the kind of world that I hope for, not only for my daughters, but really for all kids today. And I think every generation brings with it a different perspective. I look at the generation of my children and I think diversity of all kinds, whether it’s LGBTQ, racial, gender. They’re much more at ease. Now that may be where I live, it may not be ubiquitous, but I do think that there are generational changes that I hope will be a part of us getting to that point.

Julie Sweet on Meeting Accenture’s DEI Goals

Janice Ellig:
You are a trailblazer… in many ways, including gender equality in the workplace at Accenture. And you’re committed to getting to that gender equality level by 2025, with over 700,000 employees. How will you hit this target? How will you make that change at Accenture?

Julie Sweet:
The first step is deciding it’s a business priority. Back in 2013, when we were looking at a business that was less than 20% digital cloud and security in a world where we had just said, every business would be a digital business, we had a business priority to change our culture, to become innovation led. And we knew we needed to be more diverse.

The second business step is that you set goals. And then you have accountable executives in plans underneath them, just as you do for your revenue goals.

Julie Sweet on How to Fix the Gender Pay Gap

One of the things that drives me crazy is when people say it’s going to take them years to get to equal pay. I have no idea why that would take years. You absolutely should not pay people doing the same job differently based on any kind of diversity.

You look at things differently, like how many years of experience. But if you just say apples to apples, of course you have to pay them the same. That shouldn’t take years. And our research still shows that many, many companies don’t have the systems and the data in place to actually even know whether or not they have equal pay. When people talk to me about how it’s hard to reach diversity targets, I always start with the basics. Is it a priority? Do you set goals? Do you have the data? Do you have the basic foundational elements in place that aren’t hard? Because none of those things are hard.

Then how you do it can be hard, and there’s a lot of work that you’ve got to do, but so much of it has been pioneered that you don’t even have to reinvent it.Over the last decade, and we’ve been a very successful company. We’ve grown at a 10% CAGR, we are a leader in sustainability, a leader in diversity and we hired in the last 18 months in the tightest labor market in history, 200,000 people. So, in many, many dimensions of how you think about success, not only financial success, which we clearly have, but also we believe that our commitment to diversity and the fact that we are diverse is inseparable from other elements that have helped us be successful.

Julie Sweet on Phygital Onboarding and Innovation

You mentioned in the last 18 months you’ve hired over 200,000 new employees. That’s incredible to assimilate that many into your organization. And I understand the term or expression is used as phygital, which is combining the physical and the digital when onboarding new employees. And you also train them in the metaverse. So how has this positively impacted employees, your culture, and your clients when onboarding this enormous number of new people?

The way I think about this is, what does it mean to be an innovation led company? And innovation is not only about products and services. It’s about how you run yourself, so one of our leadership essentials is actually that we need leaders who are innovation led. And when you think about the pandemic, when you could no longer physically meet to onboard employees, many companies simply moved on to Teams. And you just did it in that way. And of course, all of us did that in the first few weeks, because that was the only alternative, but we were actually already pretty remote. But we as well always did some portion of that onboarding physically in an office. And so we actually took a small team and took a step back and said, “How do we innovate? How do we make this move to onboarding [such that it] not just sort of works, sort of satisfies the needs, but actually enhances the onboarding experience?”

And then we also took a deep look at what is different. And so that really led to, in the first case, saying we need to have a new kind of experience in onboarding. And that’s why we built One Accenture Park, which is the largest enterprise metaverse we believe in the world, where as a part of onboarding, you actually go to our metaverse. It’s where you experience our business. You get to experience our TQ training, you do it with others. You now have a bonding experience just like you might have had a team building experience in person. And the science says that with immersive learning you retain longer. We’re getting better onboarding, we’re building an experience, we’re building connections. And oh, by the way, if you want your employees to be innovation led, you can’t imagine the impact of getting to join a company and have part of it be in the metaverse. Like it really feels innovative. So that was about really improving, enhancing, and doing something really new that you actually couldn’t achieve in the old way, even if we could go to the office.

Phygital is slightly different. Phygital is understanding the new world, and to say, when someone went to an office, they did have a physical attachment. And so we had people shutting their computers from one company and opening up our computers with no attachment or sometimes just sitting in the same place. And so what we started doing now for all of our new hires is we send them a recyclable box and it does have the laptop in it, but it also has swag from Accenture. It has little posters that would be like the kind of poster about our commitment to sustainability and our leadership essentials, which you’d see if you were walking in the door on your first day, to go to your onboarding. And so that physically their workspace has changed and built a connection from day one with Accenture that’s not simply we handed you a laptop. And I think those are principles that you can apply in every aspect of your business and for many companies who are transforming, starting with the person and the experience or the customer and the experience, and then working backwards.

Julie Sweet on Accenture’s Leadership Essentials

Well, let me tell you a story. When I first became CEO on September 1st, 2019, at the time I knew that I was going to be putting in one of the biggest operating model changes in our history. I knew a lot of change was coming. I didn’t know a pandemic was coming six months later, I have to say. But I did a lot of reflection on the future, because we were at an inflection point. Our strategy to rotate to digital cloud in security had been successful and was in its last year. Change and reinvention always begins with leadership behaviors. And so in my very first month, working with my global management committee at the time, I put out our leadership essentials. And I used the opportunity of a new CEO and that to talk about what leadership means. And those leadership essentials were created in very plain language, really to be the guidepost. Because especially at our scale, you can’t change by direction.

Let me give you a few examples of those essentials. One, of course, is “do the right thing”. And that is absolutely core. But my second leadership essential is, “lead with excellence, confidence, and humility”. And humility is really important because leaders with humility are learners. They don’t feel like everything needs to be built by them. So [instead of thinking], “Oh, I have to build it myself,” they’re willing to look outside. They partner, they build great teams. And I knew that as we moved forward with the pace of change, with the importance of our ecosystem partners and the more and more complex business, I needed to underscore that all of my leaders needed to be learners. They needed to have that humility. They needed to be externally focused, not always internally focused.

That carries through with what we do at my global management committee meetings. For example, we do a lot of learning. I mean, my basic rule is if I need to learn it, then I can’t imagine that my entire global management committee doesn’t need to learn it. And so the leadership essentials really get to the core of what you need to have in terms of the kinds of leaders, not just for the program you’re driving today, but as you look out the longer term. And I think it’s really important because oftentimes I find clients can’t articulate that. Or, [the client has] leadership principles, but they’re old. And they haven’t been thought about in the context of the environment, the strategy, and what’s there for the future.

Julie Sweet on The Ideal Qualities of a Leader

Our number one quality is, “Are they going to be learners?” And we ask a very simple question. If it’s to a college kid, we say, “[Other than in school,] what have you learned in the last six months?” And we don’t care if the answer is, “I learned how to make paella, I learned to ski,” or, “I got a new certificate in another kind of technology.” The point is we believe that learning agility is absolutely critical for our workforce today. If you think about the pandemic, in the first six months after the pandemic, we trained a hundred thousand people in skills that were in much more demand. So, cloud exploded. The need for collaboration tools like Teams exploded, and we needed more people who could work with clients on those skills.

At any given time, we are asking and needing our people to be skilled. We spend a billion dollars a year on training and development. Therefore I believe that’s important, not just for an Accenture… We’re all about change and we’re constantly learning new things for our clients. I think that’s true in all clients today because the life expectancy of skills is much shorter today. So something like 30% of skills in 2017 in the Fortune 500 companies are no longer relevant today. And so you really need a workforce that is able to learn and has a thirst for learning. And it doesn’t have to be that complicated, as you can see from the way we do it, in terms of getting at, “Am I hiring someone who’s a learner?”

Julie Sweet on Global Talent Hiring Priorities

We believe over the next decade, the companies who can do three things around talent are going to be the ones that succeed.

The first is their ability to access talent, which requires you to have the ability to attract diverse talent, to look at more broadly talent. For example, not limiting yourself to four year degrees so you can have a larger pool. So to access talent.

The second is the ability to become a talent creator, not just a consumer. When you need new skills, the answer can’t always be, “I’m going to go hire the skills,” as I just talked about, because the [skills needed are going to change]. Not everybody has a learning organization like I do. But really thinking about how to become a talent creator.

And then the third is how do you unlock the potential of that talent? And that’s everything, [starting with] how you operate. What’s your operating model? A lot of companies live today still in silos, which does not allow you to unlock the potential of the great talent that you’re either hiring or creating. It’s also, what’s your philosophy? So, at Accenture, we have a very clear framework where we say we want our people to feel they are “net better off” because they work at Accenture. And that has the dimensions of everything from career pathways and financial security, to health, to emotional wellness, to a sense of belonging, to knowing you have a purpose. And it really does strategically guide us in how we think about everything from benefits to how we rotate people in their careers, to how we organize Accenture. If you are a CEO or running a business unit, or you have any kind of a team, being able to say, “How am I accessing the best talent, how am I a talent creator? And what am I doing to unlock the potential of that great talent that I’m investing in?” It’s a very simple way of thinking about talent, and, I think, quite a powerful one.

Julie Sweet on Accenture’s Long Term Business Strategy

The world no longer exists in five-year strategies. So you have to maintain a long term view, while at the same time asking yourself, what’s changing in the environment. And of course, as you know, the environment continues to change. We thought the pandemic was unprecedented and we’re living again in unprecedented times. And so one of the things we did recently is to take a step back. Because everything we do starts with our clients. And back in 2013, we were the first company to say that every business will be a digital business. And that really shaped a decade of what we did for clients and therefore our own growth. In two years, post pandemic, we took a step back recently to say, “What does the next decade look like for our clients?”

And keeping in mind all of the external macro and geopolitical environment, we really believe there are five forces that successful client companies must harness over the next decade. And those forces are total enterprise reinvention. And so not simply looking at technology to be part of your company, but really having a complete tech data and AI [strategy] and new ways of working, engaging with employees and customers and new business models. We’re seeing that today. The second force is talent, which I talked about, unlocking, creating and accessing talent. The third force is sustainability. Every business must be a sustainable business. The fourth is the metaverse continuum, which is really working both in the physical and digital world seamlessly. And if you haven’t seen it, our tech vision this year is a really great plain English description of the metaverse continuum.

And then the fifth is the ongoing tech revolution. We were investing a decade ago in the technologies that underline the metaverse. Our cloud business today is a 26 billion dollar business. A decade ago it was a billion dollar business. We had started investing five or six years before that. So, we are always looking at a decade out. And sitting here today, we’re doing science technology. We actually have a space business. It’s super small, but we’re doing paid work in space. So as a leader, making sure you understand that the tech revolution, both for total enterprise reinvention, is continuing, but also into new areas. And so, we really are pivoting our business around helping our clients harness those five forces in a very industry specific way.

Julie Sweet on Accenture’s Rebranded Digital Agency, Accenture Song

If you buy a Jaguar Land Rover, you are having a personalized experience that Accenture is both helping create and run. And Jaguar announced last year that they wanted to provide deeper engagement with their customers. And to do that, you need technology, you need data and insights. And Accenture Song brings all of that together to enable a leading company like Jaguar Land Rover to create a new kind of experience for their customers, a new way of engaging and building loyalty and therefore also growth. It’s interesting, 90% of executives that we recently surveyed have said that they cannot keep up with the changing expectations of customers and employees. And what Accenture Song does is really does everything you need around the customer to remain relevant at what we call “the speed of life,” which is much faster.

Another great example is if you buy pet food. So, we worked with a major pet brand that pre pandemic was all about in-store. So if you went into the store, you would buy it. There you’d have these in-person advisors. And of course, all of that changed in the pandemic. And so we help them create an online, engaging community where pet parents can track the activity of their pets. They can connect with other pet parents. They can connect with advisors that once upon a time they would meet only in the stores. Underneath that, of course, is the technology, the cloud, the data, and then the creativity to [address the question of] how do you interact with those pet parents? What’s the experience? What do they need? Accenture Song operates at the intersection of creativity, technology, and industry to really do everything that in the B2C or the B2B world a client needs to be relevant to their customer and to be able to change as those customers do.

Julie Sweet on Leadership in Times of Change

Change is about bringing people along a journey. And at Accenture, we believe in transparency and also being able to communicate in a way that people can understand. And sometimes I say simplification is the new innovation. And so, as an individual leader, working on your communication skills, being able to tell stories, to bring things to life, to simplify, but also to have communication that’s empathetic, that understands what the person receiving it [needs to hear and needs you to hear].

I do work every year to hone my communication skills. And I think it’s absolutely vital. And whether you’re a very junior person or very senior person, consciously working on communication skills is really important.

Speed doesn’t happen unless you change the way you’re doing things. And I’ve spoken to a lot of C-suite executives, post pandemic, who were rightly very proud of how quickly their organizations shifted to adjust to the pandemic. And what I’m seeing two years in is that the organizations then made systematic changes, in other words, you can’t have speed be based on a crisis. That’s not sustainable. And what you saw happen is that people say, “Oh, I can move fast.” But then they often didn’t say, “So what do I have to do to [move that quickly in the future]?” Do I need to change procurement? Do I need to partner differently? Do I need to change the operating model, which I did in the heat of the moment in the crisis where I just said, “That person’s in charge,” and we’re going to cut through the bureaucracy. Did I then go back and say, “Well, why wouldn’t we do that always?”

And so I challenged myself in the way I run Accenture [along those same lines]. Like, “What did I change?” For example, [since] the pandemic started, when I set my fiscal year priorities, I don’t set them all as 12-month priorities, because we’re not living in a world where you can run some of your most strategic things on a 12-month cycle. [Doing] that just reinforces old thinking and not speed.

I think [it’s crucial to understand] that speed requires working differently. And if you cannot articulate how you’re working differently, then most likely you’re doing speed only by brute force and that is not sustainable.

Julie Sweet is Chair and CEO of Accenture, the world’s largest professional services firm.

Janice Ellig is CEO of Ellig Group, a New York City executive search firm leading the industry in diversity, equity, and inclusion-driven executive search and consulting.

For more insights from top executives and leadership experts, subscribe to the monthly Leadership Reimagined podcast, available on all major podcast platforms.

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Leading She Interviews Janice Ellig

Janice Ellig is CEO of the Ellig group, known as “The Closer”, she is one of the top recruiters in the country specializing in the placement of executive women in C-suites and on corporate boards. She says that though there has been gender parity progress, it is still an issue at the top corporate levels and on corporate boards. Janice points out that statistics prove out that better decision-making happens and corporations are more successful when leadership and corporate boards are diverse. There are some great messages from Janice in this episode as she talks about brand, persistence, confidence and continually reinventing ourselves. She says we must take responsibility for having our voices heard and making sure our facts are correct otherwise it could affect our credibility. What a great episode with Janice Ellig!

Listen to the podcast HERE


Janice Ellig on the Origin of Ellig Group’s DEI Priorities

It goes back to how I was raised. And I’m the youngest of three girls, and my mother, when I was ten years of age, said, I want to give you three major pieces of wise advice: love what you do, be financially independent, and stay close to your sisters.

That’s also what led me to co-author What Every Successful Woman Knows. It was about women really having a voice at the table and a mother who worked. We didn’t come from money, but we had love around the table, and education was a big factor. And I carried that into the corporate world. When I was leading HR at Pfizer and Citi, I was always trying to hire the best talent, and very often that talent is a woman or person of color, LGBTQ or any underrepresented group. And then with my executive search business, I could really make a difference in working with clients, showing them a highly diverse slate of outstanding talent that just happened to be women and those not yet represented in the highest ranks of corporate America. So that’s the genesis of how this firm operates and has operated for many years.

Janice Ellig on Diversity as a Competitive Advantage

CEOs and boards know that it is a strategic business imperative that women represent your employees, your shareholders, your consumers, and the communities in which you operate. And you want us in the boardroom because we are a competitive advantage in the world in which you operate.

When decisions are made by a very homogeneous group, what you get is groupthink. But if you have a heterogeneous group there, you’re going to get diverse experiences and much better decisions. And through the financial crisis and through the pandemic, the statistics would show that companies with 30% or more women on their boards, did better year-over-year in performance than those with less than 30%. The business case studies of Deloitte, McKinsey, Peterson Institute, Credit Suisse Research Institute, all indicate that greater diversity, particularly of women, correlates with greater financial performance and better reputation. So why wouldn’t you want to represent your employees, your customers, your communities and your shareholders?

The decision making part really is key. There’s a book by Professor Scott Page of the University of Michigan, which says that a less skilled, more heterogeneous group makes better decisions than a more skilled, homogeneous group. So whether it’s causation or correlation, I don’t think it even matters. Do better companies have more women on their boards? Or does having more women on your boards make for better companies? The facts are what they are.

Janice Ellig on Diverse Candidates and Corporate Social Values

If women or minority candidates do not see people like them at the top in the boardroom, in the C-suite, they’re not attracted to those companies. And S [Social] is really becoming the important letter in ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance]. The younger generation is not flocking to those companies that [ignore social issues]. They’re not going to buy the stock. Visionary companies know you cannot ignore those constituents.

Janice Ellig on DEI

Diversity is a measure, inclusion is a skill.

I love the quote by Warren Buffett where he says one of the reasons he’s been so successful is he only had to compete with half the population. He said his sisters would have been much more successful, but they weren’t competing with him.

Janice Ellig on Her Personal Experience With Gender Bias

I can remember being clearly very much in line for a promotion at one of the organizations I worked for. I won’t name it now, but I didn’t work at too many. They chose a gentleman who was much older than I was. He was probably nearing retirement age and didn’t have quite the skills I had, but he had been working there a long time. He had the tenure, and he was selected. My boss had been very supportive of me, and I was sure he was going to make sure that I got it. And he goes, “Janice, I really couldn’t do anything about it. The corporate people in charge of HR at the time said, no, they really needed to take, let’s call him Bill. So that was a signal to me. I realized it made no difference how hard I worked. It was a very telling moment, and I left. I went and found another position and did very well there.I went on to take a company public and did very well there as head of HR at a publicly traded company. But I think when you get a signal like that, you have to pay attention to it and you have to look around and say, maybe this is not the culture, the environment for me. I didn’t blame anybody. I just said, okay, this is not where I belong.

Janice Ellig on Workplace Sponsorship

You have to make sure that you have sponsors, not just mentors. Women have to make sure that they are being seen and recognized and given opportunities. I remember Dina Dublon when she was at JPMorgan Chase. When they were doing performance reviews, the CEO would say, “Well, I don’t know that woman.” And Dina would say, “no, you don’t, but you’re going to, because I’m making her a managing director. I’m giving her some choice assignments. I’m going to make sure that as we go through performance reviews going forward, everybody around this table knows many of the women that I am promoting.”

I think that oftentimes women don’t have those choice assignments or they didn’t get noticed because Bill didn’t know who Sally was, but he knew who Bob was. So it’s really incumbent upon all women and men to make sure that we really make it a level playing field so that women don’t have to put in all that extra facetime just to get on the radar. I do think the opportunities are there for men and women to take on more responsibilities. So a woman has to also be qualified for the role.

When you look at the current female CEOs running corporate America, there are about 40. One is Corie Barry, who took over for Best Buy when Hubert Jolie retired. But he made sure that Corie was one of several people that were bench strength for him. And Corie, like others, had to sit in many different seats, because you don’t want any CEO coming in and not having run different pieces of the business. So you have to have that P&L responsibility with those roles. You have the functional roles, including HR or marketing, and you have to sit in a lot of different seats, so you really understand how to run a business.

Tricia Griffith, President & CEO at Progressive is another example. She sat in many seats, including HR, and she was ready when her CEO retired, to take over. So I think part of a woman’s role is to make sure that she has that visibility. She’s sitting in a lot of different seats, and she can aspire to the highest possible levels. On the other hand, companies and boards have to make sure that the CEO is building bench strength under him or her, and giving individuals those opportunities to have those different roles so that they will be able to take over. I think it’s a two way street.

Janice Ellig on the Difference Between Mentors and Sponsors

The mentor is really making sure that you get that feedback and advice. The sponsor is putting his or her name behind you for that next role so that you can take on additional responsibilities. The mentors may be making sure that you have those skills and experiences, but that sponsor is signing you up. It’s similar to what we’re doing at the Women’s Forum of NY. We started a database ten years ago where we asked you to sponsor a woman for a board seat. This database exists within the Women’s Forum but is also exported to Equilar, so if somebody subscribes to Equilar, you can get the names there too. The sponsor has to be a CEO or board chair who understands that woman’s capabilities and is saying, “She is board-ready, and I’m endorsing her. My name is here. She should be on a board, even though she’s not on the board just yet. She works with my board. She works with other boards that I’ve seen her on as an advisor, maybe even in a not-for-profit. But the bottom line is that she’s “board-ready.” That’s sponsorship. You’re really the seal of approval.

Janice Ellig on Personal Branding for Women

I think everybody should be their authentic self to begin with. But I will say that you definitely have to adapt yourself as well to certain situations. So, for instance, if I’m going to be calling on a company in a different part of the country, and it’s maybe more of a blue collar situation, or I’m calling on individuals at a very high-tech company, I may dress somewhat differently than I typically do just to adapt. Yes, I’m not changing who I am, but I’m adapting to that social situation almost out of respect for that company and those individuals there. We are all raised a certain way. I look at some women who have these really dynamic personalities. They can tell a story and a joke like nobody else. That’s not me. Yes, I have my own sense of humor. I try to maximize whatever my strengths are. Women, and men as well, just need to maximize what is unique about them.

When you try to look at yourself, you don’t always see yourself clearly. So I advise women to have an advisory board, people who can give them good feedback. You do have to be very careful about who you give that power to; it should be people you trust, people you know, who have your best interest at heart, but they’ll tell you that dress on you looks terrible, they’ll be honest with you and give you the good, honest feedback so that you can improve. Right. And so I think that getting feedback from individuals you trust helps you to improve yourself and also to maximize your strengths.

Janice Ellig on How to Prepare for a Zoom Interview

When our candidates are going to be on Zoom, we give them a checklist of what to look for and how to make sure the lighting is right. We tell them to test the equipment in advance, whether it be a board role or whatever. And I’ve had my clients sometimes say “This person really didn’t look like they put themselves together at all.” And it’s not that you have to be totally buttoned up, but you should be somewhat respectful. You’re presenting yourself. And if it’s for a particular role with a company, take the time to do a little bit of the hair, a little bit of the makeup, or whatever. And this goes for men as well.

Janice Ellig on Participating in Boys’ Club Social Activities

I grew up in sports. I went to a Big Ten school, so I participated there. Always went to the football games, wrestling, basketball. I play golf. I think that it’s important to be part of those circles, whether it be actively participating in the sport or actively participating in the conversation. My husband loves women’s basketball and I do watch it with him. And so I think that [women] should be somewhat knowledgeable about sports. If you play a sport, tennis or whatever, participate. When I was at Citibank, we would have these off-sites, where it was usually all men and me, and we’d go out and golf. I was anxious, but I participated. And I was not a great golfer, but I wasn’t in a Pro-Am or anything. We were just part of the group. So I think it’s important for women to participate.

I think it’s important for women to have a seat at the table and not always wait to be invited. As the late NY Congressperson Shirley Chisholm said, even bring your folding chair, but get into the conversation. And I don’t think you have to be a subject matter expert, but you can be a great listener. You can ask great questions and people like that. You cannot ignore the power of the rules having been made by men for so many years, but you can help change those rules, as I mentioned. When women get left out of these activities, I don’t think that men are doing it out of any kind of vindictiveness; sometimes it’s just they’re not aware.

Janice Ellig On Women Having Their Voices Heard

It’s what everybody talks about: a woman says something, and then nobody listens to her, and then the man at the table says the same thing and everybody listens to him. I think you just have to speak up, and you have to speak up with confidence. Speaking up with your opinion is one thing, but if you’re going to speak up with any facts, they better be actual and true. So make sure that you’re very intelligent and informed about the facts, and then you can give your opinion as well. But speak up and speak up again. If they didn’t hear you the second time, speak up the third time.

Janice Ellig on Women and Self-Promotion

I’m not somebody who loves people who self-promote. I think people should know what you have done and accomplished. When we do references on candidates, they’ll say, “so-and-so is the smartest person in the room, but you’d never know it.” People do recognize talent. So I always say it’s great for women to promote others who will then promote them. So if you’re always singing the praises of others, they’re going to sing your praises, so you don’t have to beat your chest for yourself. I don’t think that that’s attractive, nor do I think it’s very productive.

Janice Ellig on the Women’s Forum of New York Breakfast of Corporate Champions and Boardroom Gender Parity Benchmarks

We honor companies that are above the national average of the S&P 500 in terms of percentage of women on their boards. In November 2021, we honored the 243 S&P 500 and Fortune 1000 companies that had 35% or more women on their boards. At the time, the average for the S&P 500 was 30%, so we went 5% more. Now, next time we do it, which will be 2023 – it’s probably going to be at 40% – that number of invitees is going to drop. We’re getting there, but still, progress is not quick enough. We should be accelerating the pace of change, not at 2% more women on boards each year; it should be more like 4%. We need not go to two percentage points, but four percentage points if we’re going to get to at least over 40% by 2025. 50% was the starting goal ten years ago, but now we only have three more years, so it’s going to be very hard. But even if you get over 40%, that would be good. So I think that progress is being made. I think that intentionality and focus will drive that percentage higher. And that’s the only thing that’s going to do it. Every CEO and every board director, particularly the chair, has to make it a personal objective, just as they do for financial results. They need to do that for diversity results.

A friend of mine talks about ROD, Return on Diversity. Like ROI for investment. It’s a personal objective for me in our firm, Ellig Group, to make sure that our placement rate is above 80% women and underrepresented groups in the C-suite and the boardroom. If you make it personal, it happens. And if you measure it, it happens.

Janice Ellig on the Future of Ellig Group

We are actually expanding by the types of services we’re offering to clients, forming an ecosystem that includes strategic partners. These partners can provide our clients with AI, with data analytics, with in-depth assessments, with leadership development and training. Things that will really enhance the cultures of our clients and help companies with not just the diversity factor, but the inclusion factor as well. If you have a data analytics company that can scrape the universe and tell an organization what their employees are really thinking, forget what’s on Glassdoor, but scraping the universe of everything that’s out there, or what their customers are really saying about them, they can really improve the culture and they can improve what they’re providing to their clients and their investors in their communities. So, again, those four legs of the stool, the employees, the customers, the communities, and the investors. I think it’s really valuable if we can open the aperture to say, “this is how you’re viewed by your constituents”. Then we have the training and development, helping to really make leaders better at what they do. So besides doing executive search for the boardroom and the C-suite, we will offer to our clients services to further enhance organizational culture, provided by our strategic alliances and partnerships, as part of the ecosystem.

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Episode 41: Maurice Jones

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

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Adding Women to Corporate Boards Is a Smart Business Decision — And Retail Companies Are Taking Note

As more women across the industry ascend to C-suite roles, there’s also notable movement in another key area of the business: corporate boards. According to a recent report from Women Business Collaborative, 2021 was a “watershed year.” Women held 27% of all board seats, up from 24% in 2020. This marked the largest year-over-year increase for the Russell 3000, which includes the 3,000 largest public companies in the U.S. Please visit the full Footwear News article HERE
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Episode 40: Darren Rebelez

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, “A Latino CEO: Impacting Middle America” with Darren Rebelez, President, Chief Executive Officer, and Director of Casey’s.

Join us in this month’s game-changing conversation with Darren Rebelez, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, former Army Ranger, Gulf War veteran, and now one of less than 5% Latinx CEO’s leading a Fortune 500 company! Casey’s is a chain of convenience stores operating in the Midwestern and Southern states, holding the position as the third largest convenience retailer and fifth largest pizza chain in the U.S., where their brand platform is Casey’s “Here For Good.”


“We stand for something in our communities. We stand for good quality products and service. With a very rural footprint, in many cases, our store is the grocery store, it’s the gas station, it’s the pizza place, it’s the coffee shop, it is important in the community, and we are really serving a need. We are here for good, and we are here for the long term.”

Prior to Casey’s, he served as the President of IHOP Restaurants, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at 7-Eleven and prior to 7-Eleven, held numerous leadership roles at ExxonMobil and Thornton Oil Corporation.

It is our privilege to present to you this episode of Leadership Reimagined “A Latino CEO: Impacting Middle America” with Darren Rebelez!

Leadership Reimagined is available on the following popular podcast stations:




Darren Rebelez on learning the value of customer satisfaction from his grandfather

I learned a lot from my grandfather, who immigrated from Mexico and was an entrepreneur. He owned his own barber shop and was a barber his entire career. This was before there was social media, or even the internet. You really had to build your business by word of mouth in that situation. He had no option but to make sure every customer was completely satisfied every time – so really, not just satisfied, but happy enough that they would tell other people. He ran the shop until he was in his seventies, and then he finally retired. Even after that, he had people coming over to his house to get their hair cut in his kitchen because they just couldn’t envision going anywhere else for a haircut. It taught me a lot about retail and how to take care of the customer. 

Darren Rebelez on learning leadership at West Point

West Point at its core is a leadership school. Everything you do there is put through the lens of leadership, and they prioritize teaching you how to lead people. That was where I learned what works and what doesn’t. I also learned how to follow – that’s another important part of the West Point system. In order to lead, you first have to know how to follow.

Growing up, there was an expectation that I would go to college, but because I was the first one in the family, we didn’t really have good resources for that or really have an understanding of how that would work. My plan had been to try to get a scholarship if I could, or if I didn’t succeed in that, then I would enlist in the Marines and serve in the Marines for a few years and do the G.I. Bill and then work my way through school that way. But the “aha!” moment was when I was in high school walking through a college fair with my dad. West Point had a booth set up, and he encouraged me to go talk to them and learn more, as I had never heard of West Point at the time. The officer at the booth explained to me how it worked: it was a full scholarship, and you served in the army afterwards, which sounded a lot like my plan B. I got really excited about that and went through the process and was fortunate enough to get in. But as I reflect back on my life, that was probably one of the bigger inflection points in terms of what direction I might have gone.

Darren Rebelez on listening to employees

My very first job was as a dishwasher in a restaurant. It was a great experience for me, being in high school. I learned the value of hard work, which seems to be a recurring theme in my life. Having washed dishes for several years, I’ve really learned an empathy and an appreciation for everyone who does work, regardless of what that work is, because it takes everybody to make a business successful. And I think sometimes some of the workers that do the manual labor get overlooked. That’s unfortunate, because they’re the ones that really make all of our businesses go, so I’ve become very comfortable speaking with our front-line workers. Some of the most fun I have is when I go to our stores and get in our kitchens and talk with the people preparing our pizza. It was the same when I was at IHOP. I find that speaking with the workers in our kitchens, I learn more about what’s working and what’s not working in our business than I do from any time spent in the office holding meetings and reading reports. The employees on the front line are the people who really know what’s going right and what’s going wrong, so their input is absolutely crucial when it comes to improving customer experience.  

Darren Rebelez on handling COVID at Casey’s

It was a tricky moment in time. I took over as CEO in the middle of 2019, and we started to put our team together and build out our strategic plan in January of 2020, right before the lockdowns took place. We had an investor day out at the NASDAQ in New York, where we presented our three-year plan, which was very well received by the investment community. And six weeks later we were sending everybody home and we were locked down. 

The first thing we did to adjust was really focus on the safety of our people and the security of the company. We were an essential service, so we didn’t have the option of completely shutting down. We had to figure out how to operate safely in this environment. That was one of the times where my experience in the military really helped out – from there, I already knew what it was like to work under difficult operating conditions. In the military, operational difficulties aren’t excuses for not doing the job, they’re just conditions that you have to adjust to. Shutting down is not an option, so you need to find a solution to operate in spite of those obstacles. It was really important that we kept our stores open and operating because we have a very rural footprint –  over 50% of our stores are in towns of 5000 people or less. In many cases, our store is the grocery store, the gas station, the pizza place, and the coffee shop all in one; there’s no other option in town. We often serve multiple crucial roles in a given community. So we focused on that first. I got the executive team together, and we sat down with the strategies we’d already settled on and said, “okay, we just got through working on this, let’s do a gut check here and make sure that this strategy still holds together under these conditions. And if it doesn’t, what do we need to do to pivot?” 

On a big-picture level, the things we had to do strategically to grow and improve the business were still the same. We had to reprioritize some things, and on the digital side, we moved some things forward that we had planned to introduce further along on our original roadmap. A good example of that is curbside pickup. That was something we planned to enable a few years down the road. But in 2019, it wasn’t something our customers urgently needed. And all of a sudden, COVID hit, and curbside pickup was something we needed right away. We made it a priority, and within 60 days, we had curbside pickup launched at all 2400 of our stores. We enabled third-party delivery, we rolled out a rewards program. These measures were all consistent with our existing strategy, but we needed to expedite them, so we did. Fortunately for us, our team has been fantastic. In spite of working virtually and in difficult conditions, we’ve been able to execute our strategy, and we’ve had a lot of success over the last couple of years as a result of that.

Darren Rebelez on growth opportunities for Casey’s

The way we look at growth is through the lens of organic growth and what we call reinventing our guest experience. That’s doing everything from enhancing our digital capabilities in our stores, to driving our prepared foods innovation, to coming up with unique and creative items and expanding our private label assortment. That’s something that we didn’t really have much of prior, and now penetration of private label products in our stores is around 5% and growing every day. These measures are all about making our existing store base more productive. 

The second pillar of our strategy was to create capacity to invest in the business by capturing efficiencies. And a good example of that was we set up a centralized procurement team that allows us to be more effective in our procurement and purchasing. We’ve had a lot of success with that, particularly in this environment, where we’re supply chain challenged. That team has done great work to free up capacity for us. 

The third pillar of our growth is to expand the store base. We do that both through acquisition and through new-to-industry store builds that we build ourselves. When I look at the white space for our growth from a store count perspective, I think of it this way: we’re in 16 states, primarily in the midwest, but 2000 of our 2400 stores are in only nine of those states. The other seven states represent a lot of opportunity. There are 150,000 convenience stores in the US. About 90,000 of those stores are held in chains of ten stores or less. It’s becoming very difficult for operators without scale to compete in this environment. So we’re finding a lot of acquisition opportunities. We’ve done a number of deals, and we have a dedicated team focused on looking for more. So again, we think there’s a tremendous room for us to grow for a long time. 

Darren Rebelez on Casey’s stores as community hubs in small-town America

[We see ourselves as providing an essential service to communities in Middle America,] and that vision came from our founder, Don Lamberti, who got started by leasing a store from his father. He started with one store back in the late fifties, and it did so well that he went to the next small town down the road and built another one. That store did really well, so he built another one. Don’s a very humble guy, he’s still around, and he still tells that story that he just built it one store at a time, one town at a time. These towns have traditionally been underserved, so the Casey’s store really does show up as a hub in the community, and people will refer to it as their store, their Casey’s. 

Darren Rebelez on Caseys’ response to rising gas prices

Nobody likes high gas prices. I think there’s a perception that the retailers make more money when the price is high and less when the price is low, and that’s just not the way it works. We tend to make about the same amount of money regardless of the price, other than that it’s more expensive when prices are high, and we pay more in credit card fees and that sort of thing. So we really don’t like high prices either. It hasn’t impacted our business much. We’re still seeing good demand. There is a point at which that will start to erode a bit, and we think that’s probably a little bit closer to $5 a gallon than $4 a gallon. 

Darren Rebelez on Casey’s plans for adding electric vehicle charging stations

It’s going to be an evolution, not a revolution. It’s going to take a long time for our entire fleet to migrate over to electric vehicles for a lot of reasons. But if you think about that experience of charging the vehicle, it takes about a half hour to get a full charge. That presents a challenge: what do you do for that half an hour while your vehicle is charging versus the five minutes it takes you to fill up your gas tank today? With our prepared foods business and our digital capabilities, we think we’re in a really good position because our stores are already located on commuter routes where people are already driving. And regardless of the type of fuel the vehicle takes, they’ll still need to go to the same places that they did before. Even today, you can order food from a Casey’s store online. We’ll bring it out to your car while you’re charging your vehicle. Today we have about 25 stores that already have charging stations, and we’re learning from that. We’ll probably double that number over the next year or so, and we’ll continue to evolve. But it’s still very early in terms of mass adoption of electric vehicles, and for the Midwest, it’s probably earlier than the East Coast or West Coast. Our geography has the lowest electric vehicle penetration in the country, so it’s going to take some time. 

Darren Rebelez on his approach to hiring and team building

The way I like to lead is through teams. I’m a big believer that leading with teams and having great teamwork is critical for the success of any business. I think that just comes from getting different points of view and leveraging the collective wisdom of the team to solve challenges. In this environment, every day is a challenge, so more brains in the game is better than less. And what I look for in hiring is people that can play well on teams. You have to show up here with a team first attitude. That requires people who are authentic and transparent – they are who they are. Not a lot of hidden agendas. High integrity is very important to me. And low ego, our tolerance for ego is very low around here. In my experience, when you get those authentic people with high integrity and low ego, they tend to be great team players who are fun to be around. So that approach is effective not only from a business standpoint, but also in terms of building a more enjoyable work environment and culture.

Darren Rebelez’s advice for other members of underrepresented groups who aspire to the C-suite

The first thing I tell people is that it starts with ourselves, and you have to do the work. I think it’s important as you move through your career, to take ownership of your own development. That doesn’t mean you can’t get help along the way, but it does mean that you can’t wait for somebody else to tap you on the shoulder and try to develop you. You have to take on that responsibility yourself and make that happen. I think taking on challenging assignments that stretch you and force you to grow is really important, and of course, you have to perform. 

The second really important thing is building a network. A lot of times, the best opportunities come from relationships. I’ll just give you a quick example of how I got onto the Global Life board. I had met a person who has become a friend of mine, who was involved in the National Association of Corporate Directors, and he also knew of a magazine that featured Latino executives. They featured me in one of their editions. When my friend was at an NACD meeting in North Texas, he ran into the chair of the audit committee for Global Life, and it came up in conversation that they were looking for a new director. When he described the qualifications they were looking for, those happened to line up with my qualifications. They reached out to me, and I went through the process and was selected. That scenario plays itself out a lot more than people realize. Having a network spread your story and your interests is very important. 

I think the last thing people need to recognize, particularly regarding the CEO job, is that it is very competitive to get into one of these roles. It’s not a matter of being good enough – you have to be better than the other candidates that are out there. It’s important to recognize that boards tend to be risk averse. So as you’re developing your skill set and developing your knowledge base and preparing for a C suite job, the more you can demonstrate that you have the skill set and capability, and that you don’t pose a risk for the group making the hiring decision, the more successful you’re going to be. 

Darren Rebelez’s advice to other CEOs looking to achieve gender parity

Gender parity is important to me because it just makes sense. Going back to my approach with leadership and teams, I think having groups of diverse people just leads to better outcomes. I think that’s been well documented. In terms of specific advice for other CEOs or boards, I don’t think it’s any more complicated than knowing what it is you’re looking for, for board candidates in particular, upfront before you start looking at candidates. I think sometimes our boards tend to look at the candidate first and then try to backfit that individual into what they might need. But if you look at the qualifications first, that leads you to a certain slate. You have to insist on a diverse slate of candidates, and not just a slate to check a box, but a diverse slate of qualified candidates. Sometimes that’s a little bit more work to do. But I have yet to find a situation in which we’ve demanded a diverse slate of qualified candidates and not gotten one. At that point, it’s just a matter of picking the best candidate for the job. In my experience, when you start with a diverse slate, you end up with diverse people being best candidates a good portion of the time. Keep doing that, and you’ll end up with gender parity and ethnic diversity on your board. 

Darren Rebelez on the value of diversity in the C-suite and boardroom

Our guests come from all walks of life because everybody needs the products and services we sell. So it’s really important for us to have those different perspectives represented in our leadership. The business world is so complex now, and the problems are not easy to solve. Having different opinions and different points of view in the room just helps us to solve some of those challenges that all of us are facing. 

Darren Rebelez on Casey’s mission to make life better for guests and communities 

We communicate to all of our team members that we’re here for good. That’s a little bit of a play on words, but what it means is that we stand for something in our communities. We stand for good quality products and service. Our team members in our stores make many of the prepared food products themselves as well as being the ones to deliver that service. So it’s important that they live up to that motto. We do good in the communities that we serve, and in these small towns and rural communities, the team members in our stores know the guests that come in regularly. They’re part of that community. Their kids go to school with our team members’ kids. They go to the same churches. They know each other, so they want to show up positively. Our store teams do a fantastic job of helping the communities, especially in times of need. 

“We’re here for good” also means we’re here for the long term. In a number of rural communities, people have started to migrate towards the cities, and a lot of businesses will pull up and leave, and we haven’t done that. We’ve stayed there to support the communities. It’s been really important for us to play that role. 

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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:




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. 

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