Diversity in Senior Positions Needs Progressive Leadership

I like to read the Harvard Business Review to see if there are any new ideas on Leadership. The September 2013 magazine had an article by Ibarra, Ely, and Kolb entitled “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers.” The article starts off by saying, “Many CEOs who make gender diversity a priority- by setting aspirational goals for the proportion of women in leadership roles, insisting on diverse slates of candidates for senior positions, and developing mentoring and training programs are frustrated.”

I have to say that wasn’t my experience at Shell Oil Company. When I was a young CFO in the early 1990s, my boss Phil Carroll came to me and asked if I would be willing to consider Fran Keeth for one of my senior management positions. She was a Tax Manager and had virtually no background in traditional finance positions, but I knew Fran and thought she was very talented. Like Phil, my belief was that women provided an untapped reservoir of leadership that could help us achieve a competitive advantage if we nurtured their growth and development opportunities. It took being creative in finding a senior position where she could be successful which turned out to be the General Manager of Auditing. Fran did a great job in that role, particularly with Shell Oil’s Audit Committee of the Board. They loved her. She went on to eventually become the head of Chemicals worldwide for Royal Dutch/Shell. I would call that a big success.

Later Phil became the President of Shell Oil Company and was very progressive at the time promoting a whole diversity program that included diversity support groups. I had come back from overseas assignments with Royal Dutch/Shell becoming the President of Shell Chemical Company reporting again to Phil. He asked each of his leaders to sponsor one of these diversity groups, and mine turned out to be WAVE (Women Adding Value Everywhere).

In my little talk to this group of several hundred, I told them that women should have a distinct leadership advantage in the 21st century. Historically in the agrarian society and during the industrial revolution, hierarchies dominated with rather authoritarian leaders. Brawn played a role in this more autocratic environment. Men had an advantage in this regard physically and due to their traditional role as provider for the family. The information revolution had changed all that and knowledge had become king. In this world, brains are much more important than brawn. There was no significant difference for either sex on that score, but having a capability to get people working together in these delayered multiplexed organizations could be a real advantage. Women seemed to be more sensitive to the social interactions through their maternal nature and leveraging this adroitly should be a key focus. This was rather strange thinking for them coming from a man. Anyway Phil promoted a cultural transformation on diversity, which included support from senior leaders like myself.

One of the benefactors was Lynn Elsenhans. She had worked for me was when I was the Vice President of Corporate Planning being in one of Shell’s fast track programs for MBAs. In Lynn’s case, she was a Harvard MBA and extremely bright. plus aggressive. She blossomed in Shell eventually becoming the head of Manufacturing for Royal Dutch/Shell worldwide. Lynn then went on to become the CEO and President of Sunoco. Lynn would come to my MBA Strategic Leadership course in the mid 2000s and carry on a dialogue with the students who were about half female. Lynn’s story didn’t always resonate with these women, yet it had a real message. She said early on that she made a choice between having a family and aspiring to be a senior leader. Lynn took the latter course. Going up the hierarchy to obtain a senior leadership position in a very large company requires daunting dedication and effort.

Shell Oil also produced Linda Cook. She was an engineer in the upstream oil & gas business who eventually became Executive Director of Shell’s worldwide natural gas and power business and a member of the big board. I don’t think you can find another super major oil company with women who achieved positions like Fran, Lynn, and Linda. It is my view that the progressive leadership of Phil Carroll made the difference. After retiring from Shell Oil in 1998, Phil went on to become the Chairman and CEO of Fluor Corporation. He would also come to my MBA Strategic Leadership course and all the students wanted to work for him.

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