Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Balance is a myth for executive women

In the technology industry, with few women in the executive ranks and fewer still in the board room, we live in a world where balance is a myth. We talk about balance but the reality is that women in the corporate world are competing with men most of the time, appropriately competing on skill and hard work, but up against significant gender stereotypes and so we have to work harder and smarter to get ahead.

Balance is hard for most working women – but it is particularly elusive for women wanting to be a senior exec, be in the board room, run a billion dollar division or be a CEO. It’s elusive because:
- Business is global today and travel is a part of any executive job because you have to meet your customers and your sales and distribution teams. When you are a leader you can’t lead from your desk, even with great communications technology.
- As CEO I do have more control over my time than in any other job, and the ability to make a better culture for my own female employees, but I also have the ultimate demanding boss – my company - and there is no excuse I have ever been able to come up with to not put my company first when it really needs me. My employees depend on their jobs and I am accountable to them.
- Many men at the top of companies, even today, have wives at home taking care of the family and house. A couple of years ago I found myself the only women on a large company executive team. I strove to hold my ground against weekend meetings, or endless late night dinners, but it was clear that I had to conform to the schedule to do my job.

So given these types of challenges how can women survive and thrive at the top of companies?

Women often have an over developed sense of responsibility – the belief that they have to care for it all: work, children, husband, aging parents – caring for everyone else. Recognize that’s what’s going on in your head, give it up and prioritize what you have to get done. You just can’t do it all and be Wonder Woman every day so explain this to your kids, they will understand. My kids learned early on that I didn’t play the same role in school as most of the moms, but they’re confident in the world because they have travelled extensively instead and I have shared my work world with them whenever I could.

Many women have highly honed multi-tasking skills (try running a board call while cooking for hungry 2 and 4 year olds). You can use these skills to juggle the conflicting demands of work and family. And with the level of travel executive management often requires it’s important to have a partner, your spouse and/or child care help, that you trust.

And in the end I have found the most powerful tool I have is to be conscious of the choices I make every day. Choosing carefully rather than being dragged along in the turbulence of my daily demands. I’ve had my share of tough choices, like when on maternity leave and my company needed me and deciding whether to go to my son when he broke is arm. There is never an easy answer but being aware of the choice each and every time helps me stay sane.

Women can and will find new ways to be executives, and we need this in order to bring women into the executive ranks of companies and so create more diverse companies and more opportunities for women. It’s amazing that even today Fortune reports that almost half of the California tech companies have no women executive officers. And Diane Greene of VMware was the last female CEO in the top 150 in Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs has all white men in his executive staff at Apple, and the pervasive prejudice in the VC world still shocks me.

But it’s important not to be naïve about how this can and will change in the future. We can only be effective in the boardroom if we are just as committed to the job and the business results as men are, and willing to work just as hard, or harder. So it’s our responsibility to get more women to the top and only from there can we change the culture of companies to make balance easier – but we will always be challenged by the need for long hours and travel that just goes with any executive job.

Submitted to Huffpo today

Monday, November 17, 2008

Risking our best talent

Wall Street will be facing a talent retention challenge very shortly unless the bonus issue is elegantly handled this year.

Over the past week the news has been full of "outrage" and questions about whether bankers should get their bonuses this year. Talk of large chunks of the bailout going to top bankers and class-warfare type language.

But unfortunately this problem is not as simple as the government, or the "public" controlling the pay of an industry they don't understand. I'm a pretty hard-core democrat and yet when I hear talk of the US taxpayer wanting zero bonuses on Wall Street this year - per a Bloomberg article today - it concerns me that the public doesn't understand how talent works.

Our best companies are very, very competitive. In all but a very few rare cases, a company is only as good as it's people. And companies, like fish, rot from the head. It's a common adage in my world that A players hire A players and B players hire B and C players. Talent is everything. So, in the competitive world of banking it is essential for the long term health of our institutions that they keep the talent, within the institution if at all possible, and definitely within the country. Our best deal-makers will go where the money is and that had better be in the United States and at the institutions that make our financial systems work.

So while I understand that taking public money and using it to pay bonuses may be optically obscene - and it is certainly a good idea for the very top management of the institutions to not take bonuses - if that action is taken too far down there will be a negative backlash - and the talent which is so critical to long term health will leave. There are too many other firms, and countries, that will be happy to hire them.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

On the passing of Prop 8

Guest author: my business partner YY Goka-Lee and her wife, Kate


An Open Letter to Our Friends and Family about Marriage and Prop 8 -- from YY and Kate

We want to send our heartfelt thanks to everyone who voted NO on Proposition 8 in California, who worked on that campaign, who made donations, who talked with your friends and family, who sent emails and reached out to your networks, and who hoped and prayed for a compassionate and just outcome to this incredibly hateful and unfair campaign.

Proposition 8, which aims to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage, has passed in California.

We are jubilant about the election of Barack Obama, and the renewed hope that gives us for the health of our country, our citizens, our economy, and our role in the global community. But at the same time, we have found ourselves unable to really celebrate after the outcome of yesterday's election.

This election season with Proposition 8 has felt so personal for us. During these months, we heard public "debates" which put the existence of our marriage and family on the same spectrum as illegal and abusive activities such as incest. We confronted the cold fact that our fellow citizens across this country have given tens of millions of dollars to deny recognition and legal protections for our family, for no reason that we can fathom. We have read how people believe that our happy family somehow harms them and their family. We saw fear and lies perpetuated in the name of God and religion, in order to justify writing discrimination specifically targeted against us into our state's constitution.

We have been somewhat quiet about this issue throughout the campaign, because we knew we would be preaching to the choir with our friends. But also because it was hard to face the fact that these hateful ideas were being given the real weight of consideration, and even needed to be rebutted... that now they have actually been affirmed by half of the voters in California... and that it may be actually written not only into law -- but into our constitution. Here are some of the things we wish to say to the people behind this vicious campaign:

- Our marriage has no effect whatsoever on anyone's religion. We would challenge you to find one Orthodox Rabbi who was forced to perform an interfaith marriage, or one Catholic Priest who was forced to marry a previously divorced person -- these non-religious marriages are perfectly legal, and no sane person would support banning all marriages that are outside these types of narrow religious definitions. So why target one group of people to ban from marriage, because they fall outside of some subset of religious definitions?

- What you have done is to single-out a group of people to have a basic right ripped from them, by a vote of their fellow citizens. This ugly and un-American proposition flies in the face of our own U.S. Constitution which says that "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."

- The Prop 8 organizers have lied shamefully to score their hollow victory. They are willing to do this in the name of religion and children, with their God watching them. Shame on you. If the existence of our family somehow threatens your marriage... We wonder about the strength and sincerity of your marriage, not ours.

Fifty years ago, if states had been allowed to hold a popular vote to institutionalize racial segregation or Jim Crow laws, these horrible ideas would also have easily been adopted in many many states. It is unthinkable that that would have be justified in any way. But in fact, that is exactly what has happened here with Proposition 8.

This entire campaign, and now it's winning vote, has made it a socially-acceptable matter of personal opinion whether to hold gays and lesbians and our families as second-class citizens. It says "You and your family are inferior to mine. You do not deserve the same rights, dignity and protection as mine does." And after this ugly campaign, that attitude is now credentialed as the winning side of a reasonable public debate. Giving credibility to these types of views makes it more likely that workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians will be tolerated as "just a difference of personal opinion", that our children will be harassed because some parents "have the right" to teach their kids that our family is inferior to theirs (after all... it's in the constitution), and frighteningly leads to real increases in anti-gay violence.

Because we feared that this proposition would pass, we did get re-married in San Francisco City Hall last Tuesday (one week before the election). It was a joyful occasion to be able to share this ceremony with our 3 beautiful and beloved children. But it was honestly also tinged with mixed feelings... because we are ALREADY married, and have been for over four years. It was fun. But none of our straight friends have had get married multiple times under legal duress, simply to be a married couple.

We are at this moment legally married in California. But one of the first things that we heard at the end of election night, was a Prop 8 campaign organizer announcing that they were now moving onto their "next big priority, which is to annul all the same-sex marriages that took place between June and November". It is depressing to be targeted by anonymous hatred over something as important and personal as our marriage.

If our marriage is not recognized, it has real practical effects on our ability to protect our family and our children's future. We will need put in place many expensive, separate legal documents which give us only a fraction of the rights and protections that every family has. But that is not the main reason we got married. We got married because we believe deeply in the institution of marriage. We will join in the fight to ensure our marriage remains legally valid. We know that significant progress is being made against bigotry and discrimination. We know that equal civil rights will be eventually be extended to gay and lesbian Americans and our families, just like it is to every other American. We ask you to understand and advocate the importance of this issue, not just in terms of marriage, but for what it really is about -- discrimination, civil rights and true equality for ALL Americans, including us and our children. We cannot put this behind us simply as a lost proposition battle about the unpopular idea of gay marriage.

What happened in this broader election across the country will ultimately lift us to a fairer future. With President-elect Obama, it is more clear than ever that Americans are capable of transcending mistakes and bigotry of our past. We ask you to join us to actively work to overturn Prop 8 -- but more importantly, the basic mindset of discrimination in which it is rooted.

With deep appreciation of your love and friendship,

-YY and Kate Goka-Lee

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What else can I say?

What else can I say except hip, hip, hooray!

I don't usually post on politics here - it really has nothing to do with being a CEO or FirstRain, but today is such a big day I'll stray for once. My sense of relief when CNN declared for Barack Obama was overwhelming. Relief that the steady move to the right of the Supreme Court can be stopped - that women's rights will be preserved and restored. Combined with the relief was a surge of hope. Hope that my children can grow up in a fairer world - a world with equal pay for equal work, hope that we can now move to sustainable energy and reduce global warming, hope that we will play a collaborative leadership role on the world stage and bring our wars to a conclusion, hope that we can restore the rest of the world's faith in America, and finally hope that we can restore our economy and prosperity for all, not just the top 5%.

And one more thought. Sheer joy at the youthquake - seeing the new generation of voters coming out, caring and getting involved in such record numbers. The right to vote is a hard won privilege, one millions of people around the world do not enjoy, and one I am thrilled to see so many more Americans honoring.

OK I'm done now.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Coaching in tough times

I've always been willing to share my time with people as they navigate their careers, but never more so than times like now which are so tough. I stepped out for a quick coffee today to meet with someone I did not know, but whom a friend asked me to help. Her story is not unusual: engineer by training, 25 years of sales, business development and marketing experience, large companies and small (including 7 years in sales at HP), left a failing startup a year ago to take some time off to travel and settle an aging parent, and came back to into the storm at the worst possible time to look for a job.

Obviously I gave the usual service over coffee - brainstorming ideas on sectors that are doing better and people I know who may be able to help - but I also took a less traditional track today, inspired by the increasing readership of my blog.

I advised Ms RK to plug into the new media way of building her brand. Not just the usual Linked In, but to try writing a blog. Here's my thesis:
- Ms RK likes to write - she wrote terrific emails to her friends from her recent trip to Africa
- her journey over the next three months will be ordinary, and yet every human journey is extraordinary and interesting if you look closely, and many people will be going through the same experiences
- by blogging on her job search journey she can capture her past as well as her present, writing up snippets from her past experience as they come to mind
- by sharing her reactions to the people she meets and the opportunities she sees she'll build an online brand of who she really is, beyond her resume, and what makes her talent different
- and if nothing else, she can share what she learns with all her peers who find themselves in a similar situation.

It occurs to me that the panel of tools you can use now to build your personal brand (my set in decreasing order of richness in the blog, twitter, linked in and facebook) provides a much deeper experience of who you are than a resume ever can. The resume is the dry, static view of your past; your online presence is the living current view of who you are. Of course it comes with risk. Not everyone is comfortable living out loud, and I definitely have to censor my opinions at times, but overall I think the investment will pay off for any one with a sense of humor looking for a job in these times.

Activism is still on a roll

Six months ago I posted on how activism is on the rise - and now in early November one of the top stories of the year is the activist shareholder Jana’s successful play around CNET. This is written up in a terrific Bloomberg trend piece on activist investors – definitely worth reading if you are interested in how activists operate. In one case they describe how a specific focus on vulnerabilities of the by-laws and other corporate governance issues can create openings and weakness they can take advantage of. The devil is, as usual, in the details.

With current rock-bottom prices for a lot of companies, the extreme value style of activist investment would seem to have a good run in front of it. Even without the ready liquidity of former times, the private equity firms still are sitting on a considerable amount of cash – when very few others are – and the activists with strong reputations are potentially at the front of the line as new money comes in.

But while activists get a bad rap much of the time, they are not always bad for companies. CEOs and boards can get complacent, enjoying moderate returns, or even declining returns, but not having the vision or courage to break out and try another strategy. While I am (for obvious reasons) pretty sympathetic, I have a board member who is an activist hedge fund manager – Charlie Frumberg at Emancipation Capital – and he is thoughtful and substantive in the positions he takes and the companies he gets personally involved in turning around, breaking up or selling.

You can see a household name example of the difference of opinion between management and an activist shareholder in the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s article on Ackerman and Target. In this case there is definitely a schism long term strategy – specifically whether Bill Ackman’s push to get Target to sell out its land holdings to generate a short-term investment return is good for the company in the long run.

I think, in the end, most boards are responsible (I know the two I sit on take their responsibilities very seriously) and running a large company is a hard complex task that can look much easier from the outside. But challenge is also good because it keeps boards on their toes and focused.

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