About Sally Helgesen
Sally Helgesen is an international speaker and leadership consultant. She is also the author of the book, “How women rise”, co-authored by Marshall Goldsmith. She is a greatly sought after leadership coach cited in Forbes as the women’s premier expert on women’s leadership. Along with numerous of her great achievements, she has also consulted with the UN to build more inclusive offices in Africa and Asia. She has been listed among the topmost leadership coaches in the world by many global organizations. We are very happy to have someone of her stature in our interview series today.
We have the pleasure of welcoming Sally Helgesen today to our interview series. I’m Aishwarya Jain from the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick intro of PeopleHum - peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work.
We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.
Welcome, Sally Helgesen. We’re thrilled to have you.
Thank you. It's wonderful to be here.
So Sally, firstly, I hope everything is safe and sound.
I know you're based in NY, can you give us a sense of how is it going on? And how do you see it impacting workplaces, businesses and the general economy in the long term?
I'm about 100 miles north of New York City. So in New York City, it's very bad. I talk to friends there all the time. I've had four friends who have died in New York City. Friends who live there say that it's a constant sound of sirens and helicopters overhead.
So it's been a very bad situation there. Where I am, I'm in the country. It's called the Hudson Valley. It's an area about 100 miles north of the city on the Hudson River. And it's pretty rural here and very low density. So for us, it's mainly been locked down since March 10. Staying at home. It's been really kind of wonderful. I was supposed to be in Brazil last week and in Dubai this week. It's good to spend this much time at home.
It's relatively easy to stay safe in this kind of environment where we can take a long walk every day and see nobody. So we've just been very careful to stay out of hospitals and to stay away from meeting any medical care. And it has not been that difficult here but it has been for many people in New York City.
Yes, I can totally understand. And it's quite a trying time for everyone and people are facing situations that they never even thought of. So it's really hard.
But on a lighter note, I do see a lot of books in your background, and I see that you’re a vivid reader. So are you currently reading any books right now?
I'm reading mostly fiction right now and poetry. I tend to read at night. I mean, I was doing work around the world all spring. And of course, all of that is gone. But ironically, I am like many of us busier than I've ever been because I'm doing programs like this that I often don't have the opportunity to contribute to, doing some writing, and I'm really thinking very deeply about how this period is going to impact the world for my clients, the people I coach, the companies I work with all around the world, what are the impacts of this going to be, many of which are unknown. But it is...
I think it's a time for real reflection, and I'm trying to take advantage of that.
Absolutely. I think everyone should do that. Learn from you and a lot of others who are just hunkered down but they're constantly trying to understand and trying to, upskill themselves, looking at everything in perspective and doing a lot of introspection on that's very important. And we can leverage this time to do that.
And you’ve also co-authored the book ‘How Women Rise’. Can you tell us a little about that?
Oh, certainly. How Women Rise, which is about the habits and behaviors that are most likely to get in the way of successful women. I wrote it with my co-author for that book, Marshall Goldsmith. Marshall had written a big bestseller called ‘What Got You Here Won't Get You There’ is about the habits and behaviors which are most likely to get in the way of successful people as they try to move into leadership.
I thought his model was brilliant. His idea was that the same behaviors that get you to a certain level, can then start to get in your way as you try to move higher, but that we remain attached to them because we know that they got us where we are.
That was a brilliant idea. But Marshall's coaching base is about 85% men. So I found that there were a number of habits and behavior in the book that didn't really didn't apply to women. And a lot of things that I had noticed over my 30 years working with women leaders around the world that would have been more suitable. So I suggested to him that we collaborate on the book, ‘How Women Rise’ is the result.
We did the launch in India for the book together in August of 2018. So we did a number of very large events in both Mumbai and Bangalore. I was supposed to do one in Hyderabad and it didn't work out, but, it has been a very successful book in India and that has been very gratifying. The reception was fantastic.
Absolutely. I think the work that you're trying to do and trying to empower women. And I've spoken to Dorothy Dalton and Debra Ruh and all you're just trying to make such an inclusive environment and really trying to put the spotlight on things that a lot of people just like to take for granted.
So what are the challenges that you mostly face when you're trying to bring women to the front seat or you're trying to bring them to the table?
Well, I think the challenges are three. The 1st two are cultural and structural. They're still in place and to different degrees in different parts of the world. By culture, I mean a culture that tends to view certain male characteristics particularly, the ability to demonstrate dominance and overconfidence, often extreme confidence. I can handle that. Even when there's no proof that the person can handle it.
They're those kinds of culturally where organizations have not surprisingly grown comfortable with those kinds of behaviors, and they tend to see the mis leadership behavior so that's an impediment for women. That's the cultural aspect and I've watched that begun to change, as they've just been more women and organizations. There's less assumption that what men demonstrate is the natural form of leadership. So that's cultural structural.
And I think this is why this time is going to be very, very interesting. Cultural aspects like the workplace as we know it is built on a very strict separation of work and home. You do one thing at work, you do one thing at home and as an individual, you kind of figure out how you could make that work for you and your family.
And, so companies have worked over the last 30 years to begin to accommodate that with all kinds of programs ranging from parental leave to in some places on-site childcare, but it's still a struggle.
How much can we develop our own schedule, our own way of working and make it work? And organizations were seeing how that plays out as well. So that's a structural thing.
This is one of the reasons I think that this time is gonna be very interesting, and not that it's not extremely difficult for women with small children to work from home because I've sat in meetings where there was a three-year-old crying in this period. But I think that both people have gotten more used to the idea of how much of what we do in an office, really looks at what requires us to be there.
And then the third thing, which is really what I was trying to focus on in ‘How Women Rise’ are certain behaviors and habits that women having assumptions, women make that do tend to get in their own way. A lot of women are very resistant to the idea of having to claim their achievements and they're uncomfortable with it.
As a result, they will expect others to spontaneously notice and value their contributions. Rather than having to figure out a way to bring attention to it themselves. Women often overvalue expertise and feel like all I've got to do is be the best person at this job and it will lead me to the next job and the next step in my career.
And where is, in fact being the best person that the job you do often proves that you're the best person for that job and can therefore keep you stuck, and your team and your boss can come to depend upon you. Women have a tendency to ruminate and question themselves too much apologizing when it's not necessary. Some of these things. So that's what in ‘How Women Rise’ we work with.
Right. I understand.
Have you seen where women really change their mindset and get bolder with time. Have you seen that?
I have seen that and that's been one of the joys of my life to watch that happen. I've seen women get bolder, more comfortable taking risks that make sense, not ridiculous risks but risks that make sense, more comfortable evaluating what those risks are and how much tolerance they have for practicing habits and behaviors that may be outside their immediate comfort zone.
I've seen, and this is so important, women becoming more comfortable asking for help in building their careers in achieving both tactical and strategic objectives and engaging other people to help them with that. That is a symbol of great growing confidence that I think is very, very important.
So the concept Cheryl Sandberg put out there in that book, leaning in, you know, really saying, Okay, if I want to build a career, I want this career to be enjoyable. I want to be in an arena in which I can exercise and develop my real talents and make a contribution in the world.
Okay, if I want to build a career, I want this career to be enjoyable. I want to be in an arena in which I can exercise and develop my real talents and make a contribution in the world.
I've got lots of other considerations I’ve got a family, I've got the rest of my life. But I'm gonna put time and attention into trying to make this work. I deserve a seat at the table. And I will tell you in the 2008 financial crisis, I saw a lot of it.
Women were thinking, Wait a minute. You know, these guys, especially financial service, these guys, the male leaders were telling us we didn't always appreciate the finer points or understand how business works and look at the mess they put us into. I noticed things were going wrong, and I should have spoken out. I should have exerted more influence.
And I think that really began to change things for some women and that they began to see, It's not just the way I do things. It's actually a leadership style that has tremendous value, and it's what organizations need now.
Absolutely. I agree with you. You know, I think before women were really scared and they could not really ask for help or call out things. But I think you know, we're kind of getting more and more comfortable in workplaces and we have the ability to be good leaders as well as call out things that are not right and that's very important, for having an inclusive workplace.
And also, Sally, when it comes to leadership, how is leadership supposed to respond to having an inclusive organization, what should be their mindset or behavioral change?
First of all, it is understanding what an inclusive organization really is. And an inclusive organization, in my mind is a couple things. First of all, "An inclusive organization is able to value its people not just based on the positional power that they hold."
An inclusive organization is able to value its people not just based on the positional power that they hold.
So is able to see the value in what people might have not connected necessarily to their position. And a non-inclusive organization will only usually really place value and the people who hold the most powerful positions. So that's number one.
Secondly, an inclusive organization is one in which, and this is a corollary of the first one in which people are valued for their potential, not just their contribution, and that requires that the organization be able to see and evaluate what people could do in a situation and not just what they are doing.
And this takes real observation. It takes a degree of sensitivity. It takes a degree of what I call empathic notice so that you can observe your people and say, 'Well, that's interesting. She did that. She was successful in that I think the skills she exercised in order to do that were A B and C, so she probably has potential in this other area.'
So when I talked to people who have left organizations who have left jobs that look good on paper, the most common thing they say to me is they had no idea what I could do. They had no idea what I was capable of.
So I think an inclusive organization is an organization that is really able to see what its people are capable of and therefore provide the opportunities and also the learning situations, so that people can develop.
Absolutely. That makes a lot of sense. I think for all the grey head men out there, it's a big learning of how they must see not only what they are doing currently, but seeing their potential and then making the right environment for them. And there's a lot of debate of, you know, young women standing up and millennials and Gen Z.
They are quite bold in their actions, right? So there's always a gap between, let's say, the gray head men or the baby boomers as such with millennials? Do you see that?
I see it to some degree. I see it often because, you know, I'm in the baby boomer generation. I'm at the start of the baby boomer generation. And so people in companies who have the attitude you're describing feel very comfortable saying to me, 'All these young people, they just don't understand.'
And I always think, you know, they understand much more than you do! That they understand much more the direction that things are going in and what kinds of skills they need to develop and what technologies are capable of doing in terms of connecting and helping people work to collaborate.
So, I think that, you know, they're they probably need to be, and I try to work to facilitate this greater understanding of an appreciation for these differences that we have, those of us who come from a more traditional environment and background, where there were certain kinds of behaviors and ways of speaking that were accepted.
We have something strong to contribute because it's that sense of tradition and stability and, then the millennial generation has so much to contribute. And I do see it in many places that there is an appreciation. I see it in the Silicon Valley, where you often will find people who are in their sixties who have a mentor that's in the thirties.
And I do see it in many places that there is an appreciation. I see it in the Silicon Valley, where you often will find people who are in their sixties who have a mentor that's in the thirties.
That's very common out there, and I think it serves them well. So I think those are some of the kinds of practices that could be useful all over the world.
Right. Absolutely. I think they should just bridge that gap. And then we'll see that something great can come out of it and we can really be successful, right?
And you do a lot of leadership programs and workshops, seminars, right? What kind of learnings do you give to your audience? And what is it that people should be aware of, especially at this point in time?
Well, I think partly what I try to do in my programs, I always try to stress what is practical and what has application in the lives of the people in the audience, as opposed to any sort of theories about leadership, etc. I come at this as a practitioner, not as a theorist, not as an academic.
And so my emphasis is always on, you know, what are the practical skills of whatever you can do. So that's pretty much what I emphasize. And that seems to get a lot of resonance because the response I most commonly get especially when I do workshops, which has sort of been the core of my business.
I need to speak as someone whose entire business disappeared around the first week in March. But it'll come back. The primary comment I always get from people is you've really given me an idea of how I could do things differently tomorrow morning.
How I can show up differently at a meeting, how I can be more effective at asking people for help, how I can get comfortable talking about the contributions that I've made, how I can think about how I balance my commitment to the job I have and the larger career that I'm trying to create and for how I can work on being less perfectionistic and causing less stress for myself and for the people around me.
So those are the kinds of responses I really look for and rather than well, now I have a new definition of empathy. Well, that's nice. It's good to have a new definition of empathy, but Understanding how you begin to create empathy in a situation, how you demonstrate it, and how you elicit it. That's more important, in my view.
Understanding how you begin to create empathy in a situation, how you demonstrate it, and how you elicit it. That's more important, in my view.
Absolutely. I think the work that you're doing is absolutely phenomenal. We need more people like you, and people often tell you that you've kind of pioneered women's leadership, right?
What are kind of, the basic or let's say, the baby steps for women to get to the leadership position. What does it really take?
Well, the model I like to use, which has become much simplified over the years because there are lots of habits and behaviors, but what I always ask women to think about are three things. How are you going to be intentional? And that's a range of Intentionality, intentional about how you show up, intentional about how you communicate, intentional about what it is you are trying to achieve or contribute to the world.
Think through and specify in very clear language what it is when you come into a job. What do you want your chief contribution in that job to be and what you would like that job to lead to. So be very intentional and aware of what you do and cultivate that capacity for intention and clarity of intention.
Second, be connected. Stay connected. Build your connections. The research shows that people who have satisfying really exceptional careers are all people who are able to balance expertise, visibility and connections. Your relationships.
Women are very good at building relationships. They're not always as good at leveraging relationships, that is, engaging others to help them and being a resource for offering help, often there could be a resource for offering help. They don't engage others to help them. So cover both in the process but stay connected.
And this is a really interesting time to do that. And I think I noticed about myself, I belonged to the Big Professional Group, and in the 1st two weeks of the crisis, everybody lost most of their work. So people were a little confused and, often a little bit desperate and everybody was saying, 'We've got a pivot, we've gotta pick up, We've gotta change how we do everything' and I remember thinking at the time that's true.
But let's just take a little time right now to reflect and really feel what's going on here and feel the impact of this. It's one of the biggest things any of us have ever lived through. It is a historic event, so we need to take the time and what I decided I was going to do in that time, rather than trying to reinvent my business in two weeks, was just connect and reach out to people I've worked with, people in the past.
People who have made an impression on me, the people I knew from my hometown, obviously extended family, clients, colleagues, just to connect with them. And I think that that capacity for staying connected is really an important thing.
So intentional, connected, and then the third thing is present. To be present at all times for what your intention is for the person in front of you, for what you want your contribution to be, for what your task is, for what you're hearing, for what you're seeing, for what you're doing.
So I think that map of intentional, connected and present is a very powerful template for women to use in terms of thinking about developing themselves as a leader.
That map of intentional, connected and present is a very powerful template for women to use in terms of thinking about developing themselves as a leader.
And I think during this particular time, it's especially helpful. How intentional am I today? It's a day of a lot of confusion. There's a lot going on. I'm not on my usual schedule. I'm balancing things at home as well as work. How am I gonna be intentional today? Who am I going to connect with and how do I want to connect with them? What kind of quality do I want in that connection?
And then how am I going to be fully present for the moment, for the day, for the opportunity and most importantly, for the people that I'm with, whether they're a very limited group at home. I've got one person at home, my husband and I, or whether we're in a situation where we're physically present with a lot of people.
Absolutely. So you need to be conscious about what you're thinking, being intentional, and then you need to connect with people, build relationships. And finally, you need to also be present. be kind of proactive into what you're gonna do and how you're gonna do it. And that really builds confidence in a woman.
An odd question for you Sally, have you also seen women, not being open or not being as supportive of women’s leadership. Have you seen some downside to coaching women for leadership?
Yes, definitely. I have seen less of that than I used to years ago. You know, 30 years ago when I got into this, which I just kind of backed into I wrote a book called ‘The Female Advantage - Women's Ways of Leadership’. And it was really the first book that looked at what women had to contribute as leaders rather than how they needed to change and adapt.
And being the first, it became very popular, and suddenly people were looking at me as a leadership expert. So I just developed more material, wrote more books and articles, did more coaching and speaking and that's how I built my career.
But 30 years ago, it was very common in organizations, when an organization would start a women's network or women's initiative that the senior women wanted nothing to do with it. Nothing. They didn't come. They didn't want to speak, they didn't want to support it. And it's because they felt that, you know, I would hear them say I want to be seen here as a leader, not a woman. This is very rare today.
You find women in senior positions really seeing that support of women's initiatives and women's networks is something that they want to do because that is going to be a career builder for them rather than a career ender. So this has changed a lot.
You find women in senior positions really seeing that support of women's initiatives and women's networks is something that they want to do because that is going to be a career builder for them rather than a career ender. So this has changed a lot.
The other thing is, research demonstrates that the more women who are in an organization, the less well women who are who don't support other women, the less well they do, the less likely they are to achieve a leadership position.
So I think just the numbers of women coming into organizations have made it harder for women who enjoy that kind of what we always call the queen bee situation where it's just you at the top and nobody else. It's made it harder for that kind of woman who has that attitude and approach, to really thrive now.
That said, there are still women of my own cohort who are, at the older end of the baby boom who came into organizations and really had to claw their way up and experienced an enormous amount of very blatant sexist behavior that is not common or certainly not viewed is acceptable anymore.
A sort of madmen era. If you've seen that show, set in the late sixties and they went through that and they survived and it was an ugly experience and you will hear women who come from that say, I had to come up the hard way. I don't see why it should be easier for younger women.
So that attitude, which doesn't really serve them and doesn't serve the organization and doesn't serve women or men. I would suggest that attitude still does exist but to me, what's been remarkable has been the change and how women who you know the last thing on their mind was supporting other women 30 years ago are now actively involved in that.
Absolutely, thank you so much for sharing that because a lot of people kind of are still in the shadows. And they need to understand how they can really, especially, in the developing countries it's still very much prevalent. Yeah, it's going to be important to kind of make them aware. And if you know we can do that as a channel, I think that's wonderful. Thank you so much for bringing that view.
What is your impression of the future now that we move out of the pandemic? Will you see some kind of change? Or do you anticipate some kind of change with respect to being an all-inclusive workplace?
I hope for that. I believe that as we come out of this it's going to manifest differently in different places, depending on the decisions that have been made. On the downside, I do think that there's a potential for real divisiveness as we come out of this with people blaming.
There's also going to be a lot of pain because especially smaller businesses that don't survive, there's gonna be a lot of resentment. So I think that there are some things that we are going to have to deal with that are gonna be real and are going to be painful.
And I really caution against the idea of, 'Oh, now we're all gonna be wonderful collaborative people who are gonna work from home, and the future of work is gonna look great'. I believe that ultimately, but I think that there will certainly be some pain, disappointment, resentment, and division that will also be more short term or medium-term impact.
I think that there will certainly be some pain, disappointment, resentment, and division that will also be more short term or medium-term impact.
But I also believe that this is a period in which collaborative skills and entrepreneurial skills as well, people taking the initiative to figure out, 'Okay, I've got to do this job. I don't have these resources, who can I call on? How can I try to get those? If I can't get those resources, what substitute can I make?'
People are really being tested in a way, even in larger companies to build more entrepreneurial skills to build more technological skills, to connect with people more broadly, not just the people in their unit of division, but because we're thrown into, we're not co-located anymore with the people we work within this period. We're having to learn how to develop collaborative skills outside a narrow band of a network.
And so I think that the environment that we develop and I don't think this is going to be a really long recovery in most places. I think that we probably have 18 tough months, you know, six really tough months and then another year of uncertainty, some steps back, some steps forward. A few new waves definitely will occur of illness and different places. But I think as we recover from it, I don't think it's gonna be like a 10 year like the Great Depression or even like recession.
I think within two years, there'll be a lot of recovery in most sectors and that we will have learned different skills and it will be more self-reliant, and it will be more internally disciplined rather than being disciplined by the parameters of our office or our workplace. And we'll be thinking more along the lines off. What can I do? How can I show up what's going to be effective rather than okay, the boss says this, I have to do it.
So I think that that's gonna be very, very good for people and that it's also going to suit us better in terms of creating the next iteration of the economy that we live in, which is going to have to be more holistic and environmentally minded.
I absolutely agree with you on that. And it's gonna be interesting how things kind of unfold. And if you're really resilient, I think we will definitely be able to kind of go through this phase. And really come out successful. So thank you so much, Sally, for really putting out your views there. It was really a pleasure talking to you, and I really appreciate your time and all the views. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much. I've really enjoyed being here.