Why did Fortune Magazine expand their Most Powerful Women activities to include a new event this year, the Next Gen Summit in San Francisco? Because while women only make up 5% of CEO numbers, there is a critical need to provide platforms that inspire and engage leadership aspirations in women who can contribute to changing this statistic in the future.
I had the privilege of being invited to attend this gathering earlier this month, and there were certainly no shortage of inspirational women taking the stage to illustrate what it’s possible to achieve, across a wide range of corporate and entrepreneurial business backgrounds.
There were so many excellent learnings shared, and I’ve summarised some of my key take-aways from the event here.
Roz Brewer, the CEO of Sam’s Club, told attendees if they had CEO aspirations they needed to actively seek out roles that got them up close and intimate with the P&L, rather than sticking to leading support service teams which had less direct demonstrable financial impact.
Alicia Boler-Davis, Senior VP Global Quality & Customer Experience at General Motors, was happy to share her biggest learning from their recent recall: ‘You can’t be too transparent, internally and externally.’
As is the case at events like this the world over, the session around women on boards generated a huge amount of interest and questioning of the panellists. At the start of the session Pattie Sellers asked how many women in the room were on or had aspirations to be on a board, and nearly every hand went up. The revised question around how many currently held board seats saw a much smaller show of hands, and when it was refined again to public company boards, there were virtually no hands left up. No such issue on stage, where the three panellists collectively held an outstanding array of directorships across a range of high profile public companies. The advice they gave was both succinct and sage; know and be able to articulate the value you can deliver to a board, and be proactive in seeking out boards you wish to work with rather than sit back waiting for them to approach you.
Aileen Lee, Founder of Cowboy Ventures spoke of the challenges facing women led start ups seeking VC funding. With only 3% of VC partners being female, this mirrors through to their investment in women led companies. While it’s now easier than ever to create a software start up, that also means its harder than ever to get funding, and Ruzwana Bashir, Founder and CEO of Peek.com said that women needed to be assertive far and beyond their natural level of confidence to have a chance of securing investment in their companies.
Christine Day spoke of the challenges she had experienced while in leadership roles at Starbucks and Lululemon, but made a statement which I absolutely loved: ‘if you’re not prepared to manage through bad as well as good, then you’re not ready to be a leader.’ She also spoke about disruption opportunities only presenting when businesses moved beyond product to engaging through purpose, both internally and externally.
I loved the session on the art of negotiation, where Victoria Medvec told us the biggest mistake women make in negotiating is not asking at all, closely followed by asking for the wrong things. She told us men are far better at seeing ‘no’ as the starting point of the negotiation than women are (which definitely hit home, our ten-year-old son has already well and truly mastered that skill!), while Vijaya Gadde, General Counsel at Twitter told us that communicating fearlessly to build trust was a core value at Twitter, and carried through in the style she brings to the negotiating table. She also suggested when trying to determine your workplace negotiating style to look at the way you negotiated with family and friends – using that approach as your base to build on would deliver a core of authenticity which would hold you in good stead.
Possibly my favorite session of all was the last one of the event, where Elizabeth Holmes, Founder and CEO of Theranos, spoke on how her passion for changing the way blood diagnostic work was carried out had seen her build a company currently valued at $9 billion (yes billion with a b!) by the age of 30. Her motivation has never been about money though, her view being that business provides an opportunity to deliver change in the world, and the change she wants to make is about making lab testing a wonderful experience rather than a traumatic one, so as to provide people with the information they need to live the healthiest lives possible.
On that impressive note the summit ended, with delegates leaving not only with a bucket load of inspiration but purses full of business cards and hearts and minds full of new connections, ready to support each other in a universal goal of being part of the generation that sees real change achieved in those leadership stats, and understanding our obligation to continue presenting as aspirational role models for the generations that follow.