When Michelle Gadsden-Williams starting working in human resources in 1990, the mission in her field was called affirmative action. Now as managing director of North America Inclusion and Diversity at Accenture since July 2017, it’s no longer just “head counting and numbers.”
Now, Gadsden-Williams says, “It’s a conversation about culture and inclusion being good for business and how it impacts people. It’s more holistic. We have evolved.”
The New Jersey native has advice to offer about lessons learned in 25 years as an award-winning global diversity expert and successful woman of color in her first book, Climb: Taking Every Step with Conviction, Courage, and Calculated Risk to Achieve a Thriving Career and a Successful Life, that she co-authored with journalist and author Carolyn M. Brown.Michelle Gadsden-Williams has advice to offer about lessons learned in 25 years as an award-winning global diversity expert @Accenture and successful woman of color in her 1st book. #womenauthors Click To Tweet
Growing up, Gadsden-Williams says her foundation for her life’s work in diversity began early as her mother was an entrepreneur and her father an executive.
They told her, “As African Americans your voices are not heard. You have the opportunity and the obligation to speak up and speak out about things that are not fair and not right,” says Gadsden-Williams, who received the Maya Way Award for Diversity Leadership by Dr. Maya Angelou Sand, serves on boards of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, Lupus Research Alliance and the Women’s Leadership Board of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
After earning a BA in communications with a minor in marketing from Kean College, Gadsden-Williams later went on to earn an MS in organizational dynamics from the University of Pennsylvania. She has held positions of global responsibility for corporations such as Credit Suisse, Novartis, and Merck & Co.
Diagnosed with lupus in 2005, Gadsden-Williams is now in remission and she serves on the national board of the Lupus Research Alliance. She offers that the illness was at times a struggle.
“Lupus impacts women and women of color more often,” Gadsden-Williams says. The ebbs and flows affect all aspects of life, she says.
In 2016, Gadsden-Williams, says she needed a break after nearly 25 years in high profile positions, so she “hit the pause button.” She then became co-founder and chief executive officer of Ceiling Breakers, a consulting organization focused on women’s empowerment and diversity initiatives. She was working with her husband, David Jamal Williams, with several corporate clients “doing work I loved.”
In 2017, the opportunity arrived at Accenture and she jumped in. Taking into account the subtitle of her book, and her climb into the c-suite, Gadsden-Williams offers this advice for all women, especially women of color who are seeking a spot in leadership.Michelle Gadsden-Williams offers this advice for all women, especially women of color who are seeking a spot in #leadership Click To Tweet
Conviction: “Be self-aware of who you are and assess the skills and talents you have. Be honest and realistic about what you are. Be direct and honest in how you show up in the world.” As a woman of color this is particularly important, she says. “I think some of us who are very much concerned about how we are perceived in the workplace. There is the hair conversation, the vernacular; all these things to be concerned about can be a burden and affect you in lots of ways.”
Courage: “I think this requires a lot of discomfort. Sometimes if you are out on a limb by yourself, one of a few in a room, who is diverse from a gender and ethnicity perspective, a lot of what you are saying may be new and others may not agree. You are treading a fine line of trying to fit in and also trying to stand out.” She adds, “Early in my career, I did not have the courage always to say what needed to be said. The more senior I became, there is more safety, so you know you need to speak up because there are not many people of color sitting at these tables. Sitting in silence serves no one.”
Calculated Risk: “I lived in Switzerland for 10 years on assignment for Novartis and then Credit Suisse. In order to be considered for the most senior level roles, you needed to have that global thought process. So I lived in a place where not many look like me at all and I did not speak the language until two years later. That was a risk. Some of my colleagues thought I was crazy, but I saw the end goal. I needed it to be constructive disruption.”
While Gadsden-Williams was a key force in human resources at top global companies for decades, “The Black Ceiling,” is a reality for many women of color. Ellen McGirt writes in Fortune, that women of color in the C-suite are a rarity for a number of reasons. Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox, is a prime example.#TheBlackCeiling is a reality for many women of color. Click To Tweet
“First, she laments the state of schools and communities that fail to care for low-income children of color and graduate them ready to work. It takes 20 years of education to grow an entry-level employee, or more if they are going to have a specialty that employers really want—like STEM or professional services. Even with black women graduating from college in record numbers, ‘not enough are coming out of the education system to get them all the way through to the C-suite,’ says Burns.”
McGirt writes, “And the black women who do make it often end up in support positions rather than the operational roles that lead to CEO jobs. The juice lies with people who are close to the product and the money. ‘So, now look at the numbers of women we have now. Unless you’re bringing people in from Mars, it’s going to be a while,’” Burns says.
That projection is backed up by the numbers. “In 2014 — the most recent year the magazine did a complete count — there were 51 women CEOs in the Fortune 1000. Fortune did not break down race. A March 2017 count by Talentul reported 54 female CEOs among the Fortune 1000,” writes Martin Simon in BizJournals.
“When looking only at the Fortune 500, there are just 24 women CEOs as of this month, according to Fortune. Only two — Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo and Geisha Williams of energy company PG&E — are women of color.”
While diversity and inclusion efforts are in force in many industries, in some industries they are failing. One in particular is public relations.
Angela Chitkara writes in Harvard Business Review, “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ethnic makeup of the PR industry in the U.S. is 87.9 percent white, 8.3 percent African American, 2.6 percent Asian American, and 5.7 percent Hispanic American.”
Chitkara adds, “The Holmes Report published in 2015 found that while women make up 70 percent of those employed in the U.S. public relations industry, they make up only 30 percent of agency C-suite executives.”
With the launch of her first book this month, Gadsden-Williams says she envisioned this goal for a long time.
“I always had an intention of writing a book and wanted it to speak to my professional journey and offer lessons along the way about how women ascend, particularly women who look like me.”
She adds, ”This is the third and final act of my career. I just wanted to offer candid, sage advice. This is my Lean In through a lens of a woman of color.”