Janet Foutty On Strategies For Navigating Leadership
By Marianne Schnall
Women seeking to advance in leadership positions in today’s world face a complex and interconnected series of pressures, inequities and obstacles in both their careers and their lives. Women comprise less than a quarter of middle level managers, and that number shrinks even further at each rung of the corporate ladder. Part of the reason for the persistent and glaring inequality of women in high-level leadership positions is compounded not only by the systemic and structural problems they face—which are further exacerbated for women of color—but also by the lack of honest conversation or meaningful resources to help women understand and navigate these challenges and know they are not alone in facing them.
A new book by three of today’s top women leaders in business and academia seeks to take that head on: Arrive and Thrive: 7 Impactful Practices for Women Navigating Leadership by Susan MacKenty Brady, CEO of Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership, Janet Foutty, Executive Chair of the Board of Deloitte US, and Dr. Lynn Perry Wooten, President of Simmons University.
Featuring personal stories and advice from 24 of the world’s most successful leaders, Arrive and Thrive uncovers and unpacks how to overcome some of these obstacles by offering “7 Impactful Practices” that help leaders not just arrive at the top but also thrive once they get there.
I had the opportunity to speak to one of the co-authors Janet Foutty who—as executive chair of the board for Deloitte U.S., the largest professional services organization in the United States—offered some of her personal leadership advice and experiences. Foutty, who is a passionate advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, also talked about the challenges women are facing today, the crucial role diversity and equity play in a successful organization, the importance of women being their full authentic selves as leaders and more. As she told me, “What we really want women to know is that you don’t have to do it alone and you’re not alone. We, collectively, are here to help you.”
Marianne Schnall, Forbes: What inspired you and your co-authors to write this book, and what are you most hoping that readers will take away from it?
Janet Foutty: We wrote this book because we really believed that there are not enough women thriving today. We really wanted to start the conversations with women to be super clear about the challenges that they face and give them lots of good ideas, tips and confidence to thrive once they’ve arrived. There’s so much written and talked about arriving and how you get there, but we really felt there was a gap: once you’re there, how can you bring your whole and best selves to your work to be successful? That was the impetus in what the book is all about.
Schnall: You touched lightly on this, but why did you feel a book like this was necessary?
Foutty: Women are less than a quarter of mid-level managers. And we certainly know that to be it, you have to see it. Women have higher turnover at the most senior levels. So we really saw it as surviving is the floor and thriving is the ceiling. That is what we felt like—not just getting there, but getting there and being wildly successful.
The issues that executives are facing today are second to none. The level of complexity and difficulty and the number of topics coming out, from supply chain to talent to activism, there’s no way that one executive can tackle all these topics. So this is to help women—and by the way, men also—be much, much stronger leaders and allow them to thrive.
Schnall: The book encourages women to embrace our authenticity and bring our whole selves to work, which seems counter to the messages we usually hear that we need to act in a certain way or hide certain parts of ourselves in our lives. Can you explain why you think we should do this?
Foutty: I think authenticity is really two different things that are very related. It’s about embracing what makes you unique, but it’s also about expressing the principles you believe in and creating the space for others to do the same. We need amazing diverse talent in our workforce and more of it. Creating the space for people to bring what they think is unique about them to bear and the principles that they believe in, I believe makes much stronger teams and can create much better outcomes and answers for whatever topic it is that you’re trying to solve.
So one of the reasons I really pushed the authenticity conversation is I think it is so important for women in particular—it’s actually really important for everybody—to be clear about what makes them unique because, frankly, that creates space for others to do so. I don’t want women to be intimidated by or feel like they have to hide who they are.
Schnall: We often hear about the need to earn impressive credentials and degrees to get ahead, but your book also encourages women to cultivate and foster our personal attributes like courage and resilience. Why is this type of internal work important?
Foutty: Time spent reflecting is not time wasted. Ambitious women often have the mindset that if you’re not actively working, you’re wasting time. But really spending the time to discover who you are as a person and a leader and identifying what’s important to you is so important for success. Time for self-reflection is also important to give you the confidence for authenticity and courage, which are probably the two most necessary attributes to have to be really grounded in knowing yourself and being confident in yourself.
Schnall: What are some of the principles you live by as a leader?
Foutty: The first thing I would say is that our only job as leaders is to make those around us successful. When you think about inclusive leadership, that is really what it’s about. I am here today, and I have had the privilege to have written this book and be here with you in this conversation and sit in the job that I’m in, because that was my mindset. It was not about my success; it was about the success of all those around me—my teams, my clients, my organization. So that is number one on my list.
Another thing is, how you do anything is how you do everything. That is at the center of authenticity because it’s about consistency. The way I show up for this conversation today, the way I show up with a very senior executive, the way I show up with my team, the way I show up with my family, the way I interface with the administrative team in our organization—authenticity is about carrying yourself and your values consistently.
Schnall: There is a chapter in the book on committing to the work of the inclusive leader. Many companies now do have diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and you’re a very passionate advocate of DEI at Deloitte. What advice would you have on truly making those programs impactful toward meaningful and lasting change in creating a culture of equity and inclusion?
Foutty: Equity, we have come to learn, is actually what sits at the heart of the matter. So what we’ve really been working on is looking at root causes of inequities. For instance, for me, in my role as a board chair, we have conversations in the board and with management about, what are the cultural orthodoxies that we carry as an organization? And what do we need to do to challenge and change those orthodoxies? That is one way to create the space for equity, which then can create the space for diversity and, frankly, the real ambition of an inclusive environment where everyone truly has an equitable opportunity for success and to feel part of the work of the team, the organization, the community, the society.
Schnall: Why do you think progress has been so slow in terms of equity in leadership positions, and what do you think it will take to hasten it?
Foutty: We spent so many years talking about diversity without talking about equity and the truly systemic barriers that persist for women—economic mobility, professional advancement, health and well-being—they’re so disproportionately skewed for women and even more so for those of racially and otherwise diverse backgrounds.
I really do believe that for organizations—and whether that’s government, academia, business, not for profit—if you are not driving equity to the top of the conversation and having the courage to really push collective thinking on equity around women, then our progress will be as slow and unsteady as it has been. I am an optimist by nature, and I do believe that once we identify the root of the problem that we actually can solve it. I deeply believe that an equity mindset is the lens with which to change this conversation, and I’m really excited and hope that we have a little part in pushing that conversation forward.
Schnall: In addition to external obstacles, women often have their own internal glass ceiling—being plagued by self-doubt and low self-esteem, and they may not know how to advocate for themselves, negotiate for themselves, ask for a raise or even speak up with their ideas. What can we do about that?
Foutty: Actually, you’ve hit on why we wrote this book because it is about giving women confidence and courage. I deeply believe that the best leaders have the courage to have the tough conversations, to ask for what they need, to be fearless in pushing their teams and organizations forward. That is exactly what we’re trying to do. I hope that our book serves as a confidence builder for women to know how fabulous they are, and for them to have ideas, tips, techniques, tools and methods to help them build that confidence and that courage.
I really encourage the women in our organization, both in the U.S. and around the world, to think about who your personal “board of directors” are. If you are feeling self-doubt about anything from raising your hand in a meeting to asking for a raise to talking about a career change, who are the five people you’ll go talk to that you know will not only give you great advice but also bolster you up? And I think that “board” should include women and men if at all possible, but if it’s just women, that’s great too. I think often we have such a go-it-alone mindset. But this idea that you have a cohort of people who help you push yourself when you feel that internal glass ceiling is a best practice that I personally use and have found to be invaluable.
What we really want women to know is that you’re not alone and you don’t have to do it alone. And those are two very different things. The first is that you’re not alone because we, collectively, are here to help you—and that’s we as women leaders are here because I think the business community and society and environment understands it. And then the second part is that you don’t have to do it alone, and that means building an amazing group of people around you to help you solve whatever it is that you’re in front of. I do think that is an incredibly important part of the conversation.