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The Most Successful, Sustainable Organizations Will Be Driven by Feminine Leadership

An insightful panel discussion on women in leadership unearthed several critical traits for the type of leadership we need in a healthy, sustainable, equitable future — and signs that they’re beginning to transcend gender.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon at SB’21 San Diego, a standing-room-only lunch session packed with women from all corners of business delved into the evolving nature of sustainable leadership — a collaborative, more empathetic style of leadership that is emerging to meet the moment.

Gwen Migita — Senior Principal of ESG at Point B; formerly VP of Social Impact, Sustainability and DEI at Caesars Entertainment — led the discussion with three women who have risen to the highest ranks within their organizations. Migita opened by asking the three executives what female leadership means to them and their companies.

“Diversity brings new perspectives, fresh ideas and better innovation,” said Julia Luscher, VP of marketing for Tetra Pak. “At Tetra Pak, we are 100 percent supportive of women in the food and beverage industry, but we continue to see gender gaps. So, it is our responsibility to make sure that we try to bridge those gaps fairly but ethically.”

Katie Decker, Global President of Essential Health + Sustainability at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health, said J&J might be a refreshing exception to the conventional rule of male-dominated business cultures.

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“When I look around at my colleagues at Johnson & Johnson, so many of the people who are driving change on sustainability topics just also happen to be women. I think it has a lot to do with gender equity and equality at the company,” Decker said. “Prior to Johnson & Johnson, and I've been here 20 years, I worked at a Fortune 10 technology company in a field sales office with about 150 people — and I was basically the only woman. At Johnson & Johnson, I think we're up at like 55-60 percent women; sometimes I look around the room and I kind of feel bad for that one guy in the meeting!”

“Over the years I've nearly always worked in citizenship and sustainability, and nearly all my clients have been women; so, I take that as one data point — there are a lot of powerful women in sustainability roles,” said Hannah Peters – EVP of Corporate Reputation & Brand Purpose at WE Communications. “But I'm sitting here today as a leader in no small part because of the people who believed in me even when I didn't believe in myself, who were role models for me. I'm looking at one right now,” she said, gesturing to a nearby table. “Virginie Helias — chief sustainability officer at Procter & Gamble. She has inspired me a lot — I've watched her onstage so many times and today, she's here watching me; and for me, that's what women's leadership is all about — inspiring the women around you and continuing to show up for them.”

Aside from stereotypically feminine traits such as altruism, empathy and self-awareness, Migita asked the panel to dig deeper on what’s different about female leadership. As an example, Decker recounted a companywide employee-engagement initiative.

“On our journey to help 20,000 employees make every decision through the lens of sustainability — I think because it was women leading it, our first instinct was that we needed to go more grassroots, to bring people on a journey and be really collaborative and allow space for people to bring their own creativity to the problems,” Decker said. “Yes, there was a little bit of top-down; but it was so much more about the journey and the movement that we were creating; and I think that has a lot to do with some of the qualities of the women leaders — collaboration was really at the heart of that.”

Creating cultures of belonging

The conversation turned to what it looks like when companies work to move beyond gender balance to true diversity and inclusivity — where both leaders and employees feel supported in bringing their whole selves to the workplace. Decker described a program that helped teams within J&J create safe spaces for open dialogue following the murder of George Floyd and the racial unrest that reignited as a result.

“Last summer, when a lot of female leaders were having a hard time figuring out how to talk to their teams about these events or felt that a lot of these things were going unacknowledged among teams — we started an allyship program,” she said. “We do it once a month. And it’s [all about] building awareness and empathy; trying to help teams reflect on their experiences, their own unconscious biases, their own journeys — and then start building empathy for other s. And it's remarkable what that program has unlocked within our meetings, within our culture, within the things that people talk about — we have conversations about racism, about how do we make products and clinical studies more inclusive — not just within the Black community but in all underserved communities. There's a lot to be said about education and just trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes — I think that's just the beginning of what we need to do to make a difference.”

“There's a stat I've seen that at Fortune 500 companies, 54 percent of chief sustainability officers are women — but the reality is also that the majority of them are white,” Peters pointed out. “So, there is still a gap that we need to address.

“I personally think that there is almost too much of a focus on recruiting diverse talent and not enough of a focus around what happens once people are within the organization,” Peters added. “I've reflected on this a lot — getting someone inside your organization does you no good if they leave and they aren't ultimately successful, and they don't see role models. Recruiting, of course, is important — but we have to look across the organization; we have to think about onboarding and training, and how we measure success; and what we can do to meet people where they are, even if their background might be different. There's not enough of that happening.

“We need to be really honest about what's working and what's not working. I mean, we have three white women on the panel today — I just think we always have to ask ourselves what more we can do,” Peters stressed. “It can't just be about recruiting — a pipeline is really important, too: We focus a lot on working with high school students, with college students — introducing them to purpose communications early, so that they can be excited about it and get on that path and be part of the larger pipeline for us in the future.”

The women's leadership lunch panel — L-R: Gwen Migita, Julia Luscher, Hannah Peters and Katie Decker | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

Decker stressed the importance of creating a culture of belonging.

“There are two principles that are important for that: One is the ability to drive a culture of psychological safety, where anybody can feel free to be their authentic selves, say what's really on their mind, with no fear of reprisal. I think that's something that women can uniquely create. The other thing is servant leadership — knowing that you're putting the needs of your team, because of the purpose, ahead of your own needs; I think that's another thing that women can uniquely do and that goes a long way into driving a culture of belonging.”

Luscher drew inspiration from an episode of the Netflix series, “Explained,” that chronicles how humans domesticated wolves to become dogs through generations of breeding in desirable traits — suggesting a potentially similar approach to inclusive team- and culture-building.

“They took the traits of the nice, domesticated type of dogs and bred them to create these wonderful pets that we have today. As a leader, choose people for that team who have the right traits, who will exemplify inclusivity. To me, that's what we as leaders need to do — not choose men or women, but choose the right traits that we have to have in place in order to build more diverse and inclusive teams.”

‘Feminine’ and ‘leader’ no longer seen as contradictory

The panelists all pointed to broader cultural changes as signs that the embracing of female traits in strong leadership is here to stay.

“The three of us on the panel were of a certain generation, where we didn't have the best characterizations of women as leaders. We grew up looking at movies, communities, television where most of the leaders were men and most women who exhibited femininity were seen as weak. And that's not something we need to pass on to our next generation,” Luscher said. “It is okay to be a former ballerina and take an executive role; it is okay to have been in a sorority and take an executive role; it's okay for you to be diverse and exhibit femininity and be in important leadership roles — and that's why we need to make sure that the role models that we are today, the next generation sees that we are indeed very different and diverse.”

“I also have a lot of optimism around how mindsets are changing,” Peters said. “Last night, Sandy [Skees, Porter Novelli] mentioned research that's been consistent to what we have found around executive and leadership behaviors — over the past 18 months, C suite leaders are really leaning into being more vulnerable, being empathetic; thinking about, ‘what are my personal values and how do I want to show up?’ And I think a lot of those qualities that traditionally have been more associated with women, men are now recognizing and embracing. We're moving beyond the sort of aggressive leadership style to something that is way more appropriate for the current moment that we’re in, so that gives me a lot of optimism that some of these changes will be permanent.”

Another ‘feminine’ trait exhibited by some of today’s more courageous leaders is walking their talk and staying true to their, and their organizations’, values.

“Looking at the brands that I believe will flourish in 2021 and beyond are the ones that are showing up with bravery and bold action — despite knowing that everyone may not agree,” Peters said. “It could look like Marc Benioff at Salesforce, offering to relocate all of his employees in Texas because of the abortion legislation that just passed. It could look like Procter & Gamble — over the years, so many examples of taking a brave stance: on gender equity, closing the wage gap for the women's soccer team, starting a conversation around toxic masculinity — really showing the role that brands can play.”

“Honestly, the biggest question that we get from clients is, should we engage on this issue? Should we weigh in and what does that look like?” Peters said. “I always tell people there's really two things to think about: First, what do you stand for, what are your values, what's your purpose as an organization? And what do your stakeholders think about it, how your employees feel? And then, I'm gonna steal this from Maddy Kulkarni — yesterday in her panel, she said that the best initiatives are timely, but they're grounded in timeless purpose. So, yes, jumping on to a cultural or societal moment or something in the news – yeah, that makes PR sense; it's relevant — but don't do it if you don't have the long-term commitments to back it up.”

No more 'male' and 'female' roles

“Any advice for the next generations as they move up the corporate ladders?” Migita asked.

“Rely on those who have been there — not only on the women leaders in sustainability but the men who are also driving this in a good way and accepting of different points of view, different ideas, new perspectives,” Luscher said. “And continue to try and change those patterns when it comes to innovation in STEM roles — typically roles men have been taking, but let's try and reinforce the importance of women to take those roles as well, so that we can build that pipeline.

“Don't be afraid of those typical ‘male’ roles and don't feel that you're responsible for taking typical ‘female’ roles,” she added. “We may be the role models and are continuing our journey, but we need the younger generation to be able to carry on from where we will leave off.”

“Someone I turn to a lot is Brené Brown — she says, who we are is how we lead," Peters offered. "I think that women's leadership starts with us as individuals, with being self-aware, with demonstrating self-compassion and empathy; we have to do that first — we have to take care of ourselves. I saw a phrase the other day called ‘intentional flexibility,’ and that's what we have to embrace as leaders. We have to continue to be flexible as leaders and as employers; so, I think it's intentional flexibility in that context and intentional flexibility with ourselves.

“And women's leadership means using our access to power and resources to make more room for voices, to get more people at the table," she added. "I mean, the number of challenges that we're facing as a planet — we're never going to solve them unless we all work together to build a more resilient and regenerative future.”

Decker closed by addressing the audience, packed full of female leaders: “You're all change agents here — you're part of leading some pretty major change in your companies or with your partners. When we can connect the emotion or the heart of the situation with the logic, heart + head = change.”