Businesses Need New Leadership for a New World

On March 4, 2021, the Berkeley Haas Women in Leadership (WIL) group launched its 25th annual conference on the theme, “New Leadership for a New World”. The COVID pandemic presented complex challenges to businesses in all industries, and the conference celebrated women leaders who have been at the center of it all, showing their true grit and resilience during times of crisis. Using their leadership skills, they continue to lead through social and public health upheavals and uncertainties. What kind of leadership skills did they utilize? A two-day agenda, packed with the stories of more than 25 female leaders, including Berkeley Haas’ very own Dean Ann E. Harrison, who took the participants on this discovery journey.

The first day opened with a story salon from Jordan Sale and Vrinda Gupta, female entrepreneurs from Berkeley Haas. Sale founded 81 cents, a company that supports salary negotiations by providing market value reports to women. Gupta founded Sequin, a company that provides financial plans for women to come out of credit card debt and improve their credit scores. Through their desire to educate and boost the financial power of women in the US, they are continuing to push the envelope to ensure that they stay true to their passion to empower women from all walks of life.

Elena Gomez, Chief Financial Officer at Zendesk and a Haas graduate, emphasized that the pandemic has increased the appreciation for a leadership style that puts people first at all times. Connecting with people doesn’t just mean networking. Having the emotional connection and creating space to have employees express themselves in these unprecedented times is a crucial part of leadership in the new world. For example, in a 30-min meeting, she has allowed her employees to take the first 20 minutes to share “How are you doing?”. Such an unconventional leadership style gets us thinking about what “natural” or “obvious” leadership practices really are. As the first day came to a close, the participants felt energized and inspired, in anticipation of the second day.

The next day in her opening remarks, Dean Harrison highlighted recent McKinsey research showing that the pandemic impact was heavily shouldered by women — in particular, women of color. The following session with Mikki Kendall, author and activist, reminded the audience to remember what happened when we didn’t have the power. She emphasized that being at Berkeley Haas should define our leadership style in a way that ensures looking out for those who are left behind. Having privilege doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard; it simply means you don’t have obstacles that you didn’t need to face. Therefore, it’s about how we exercise our privilege that dictates our leadership style that points to re-shaping the future of true diversity, equity, and inclusion.

So how do we go about exercising our privilege? The following breakout session suggested 3 ways. First, celebrate. Second, Include. And third, Equip. Celebrate the community, the stories, the people. Include others who are interested and desirous to learn and be a thought partner and ally. Equip yourself and others to build the strength necessary to lead in times of crisis.

A panel discussion, moderated by Berkeley Haas’ very own Kellie McElhaney, founding director of the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership, expanded on strategies. Archana Gilravi, VP of Partnerships at LeanIn.org, and a founder and host of the Unstoppable Women Podcast, shared her insights on how to “poke” at a system level. Ask the businesses to set specific targets on race and gender. Surprisingly, less than 10% of companies actually do this. Also, take a hard look at promotions and see if the leaders are held to account when they are not meeting their targets. Promotions don’t just come in forms of positions; think about promoting and augmenting voices when needed. For example, for an event during the Black History Month, why not use the occasion to suggest your black colleague as the speaker? That opportunity will help your colleague’s leadership development. Visibility and representation matter. Just because you may be the expert or be at a higher position, doesn’t mean you need to always exercise it.

Christine Tao, co-founder and CEO of Sounding Board, added that we need to create the system and allow it to exist. How? By practicing it. Normalize conversations and practices that enable a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion to change naturally. The future of leadership development programs should be such that it’s personalized, honoring, and using the background and culture of the leader as a person, first and foremost. As we have more women and BIPOC in the leadership positions, the power of their stories will enrich the community at large. Diversity of needs is very high and will continue to increase, so leveraging the power of our stories will be the key to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world.

Here are some key takeaways for satisfying the need for new leadership for the new world:

  1. Celebrate with intention: The success of one is the success of many for generations to come
  2. Include: Honor and dignify your community
  3. Equip: Continuously learn and be ready to evolve as a leader
  4. Be proactive and ask: What’s holding you back?

Above all else, aggressively make the effort. The new world of business depends on you.