A Leadership Competency in the 21st Century
by Steve Boehm ('78)
Executive Vice President - Card and Payment Solutions Group
There’s a tremendous amount of conversation about change right now, mainly about what’s going on financially in the country, but the changes go so much deeper than that. A focus on diversity, for anyone that is serious about wanting to be a 21st-century executive, is now critically important for effective leadership.
You Have To Connect With People
I have three sons. My youngest is about to enter college, and the world they’re growing up in is much more multicultural than the one I grew up in. This reality may not be something that was stressed by your family or school, so if you’ve been raised in an environment where everyone looks exactly like you and comes from the same background, you may have a fairly one-dimensional view of the world.
Frankly, anyone who thinks business is just about numbers and formulas and textbooks really must learn an appreciation of difference in this multicultural, increasingly global, environment. There are people all around you every day whose experiences in life are different than your own, who aren’t like you-- whether that’s by race, gender, religion, socioeconomic background, or any number of factors. If you want to connect with people and be able to build teams, you have to be able to relate to people in an authentic manner, one that indicates you’re comfortable with people who are not exactly the same as you.
“Ah-ha” Moments at Wachovia
If you think about the transformation of business, to a certain extent it follows society and to a certain extent it leads society. As an example, in our company we focus on diversity along three primary dimensions: race, gender, and sexual orientation. The reason we chose those three? We believe it is our obligation as a company to make sure people are treated fairly and have the best opportunity to advance and increase their personal livelihood as they help the company achieve its objectives on behalf of our shareholders and customers. At the end of the day, our company had to go back and examine some of our policies. I’ll give you a couple examples of big “ah-ha” moments.
1. At one point I led a big call center operation inside Wachovia, and we discovered that we had a very high number of involuntary terminations, where we were firing people among our teammate population. We began to look into this and learned two key things: we had a higher percentage of African-American women being terminated, and the largest reason was because of tardiness. When we examined this even further, we discovered that, proportionately, African-American women who worked in our call centers were single moms more often than other identity groups and, as a result, they had to deal with childcare issues. These childcare issues resulted in a greater frequency of tardiness than other teammates experienced. Many of these single mothers were among our top performers so they were a critical link to our customers. We examined and ultimately adapted our policies to be more flexible which benefited all teammates, not just single moms. This is a really good example of needing to look beyond the initial pattern or data to really understand what is driving differentiated behavior; only by doing so can you make an informed choice about the right course of action that supports the culture you are trying to create.
2. The second example was a real hot issue in society for a while: partner benefits for gay and lesbian teammates. Being a big bank in the South, having a large presence in the Bible belt, you can imagine there was quite a bit of social discourse about our decision to provide partner benefits. Our C.E.O. concluded that if we wanted to attract the best and brightest people to our company, then we needed to provide people in this identity group with the same benefits as their heterosexual teammates would receive. You can get all caught up in whatever tapes are in your head about heterosexual and homosexual partnerships, but when you’re a leader in a big business, you have to step away from that and say, “What are we trying to do here? What’s the right thing to do to create a safe, supportive work environment so that everyone feels they can be successful at work?”
How can you learn to appreciate diversity? Here are some things that have helped me:
I. Pay Attention to Those Around You
The issues surrounding diversity were really driven home early in my career when I discovered that because I look the way I do (I’m a white man) that women had a certain perspective of how they were going to be treated by me. They expected that they would be talked over and their ideas would be discounted. I began to notice that when a woman would make a point, the group might ignore her; later when a man would make the same point people would say, “Wow, that’s a really good idea.” Until you start paying attention to those patterns that are going on around you, you can’t recognize how you can draw the best out of every person.
II. Understand What Makes You Different
For me, the most important thing about understanding diversity was really about me. It was about understanding my dominance, the things about who I am just by birthright that give me some unique position in life, in a company, in a career. Once I was conscious of those, I could use whatever power I have, whether its positional power or personal power, to connect with people who are different than me. This allows them to reach their full potential as well.
III. Make Yourself Vulnerable
I was very fortunate that our company compelled senior leaders to go through a three-and-a-half day diversity training. I have to say it’s one of the most powerful emotional exercises I’ve ever been through in my life. What it taught me was that in order to develop your own sensibility about diversity, to understand your place in the world, you have to make yourself very vulnerable. It’s a matter of putting yourself out there socially, professionally, and in your student capacities. Try some of these tactics:
• Be self aware about your behavior. Ask yourself, “How do I show up in a group of people who look like me? Is that different than when I’m in a group of people who aren’t like me? Do I use my group membership to somehow grant myself special privilege?” The single biggest factor, I think, in developing your own sensitivity and diversity capability is really around understanding yourself and your willingness to be vulnerable. Be willing to acknowledge and talk about your own fears, your own biases, and what you’re comfortable with.
• Be willing to subvert your ego, perhaps confront your own ignorance, prejudices. Here’s a really amazing thing that I learned, not being raised as a woman, a person of color, or a gay or lesbian in our society. When you’re a member of one of those groups, you face people everyday who look like me, and you immediately have to figure them out – to use your ‘always-on radar’ – to decide if they are authentic or not. To understand this mental calculus that people go through all day, every day, in every situation, was very humbling. It made me realize that I’m privileged to rarely have to think about that.
• Find situations where you’re the minority in the room. We held meetings of our Diversity Councils at Wachovia in different places around the city and around the country. We chose to have one in a gay and lesbian center in Charlotte, and I have to tell you that walking in, being a straight, white man, was a very uncomfortable thing for me the first time. Ultimately, it helped me realize what people must feel like who go there for shelter.
• Leave your comfort zone. How are you going to understand people who are different than you if you don’t interact with people who are different than you? That may be easier on a college campus than it is in a work environment. In my work setting, I chose to participate in an employee group in our company called the Black African-American Employee Resource Network. I started attending meetings because it was interesting to learn how group members were thinking about their careers and their work environment, what obstacles they were facing, in the same company that I’m in. The most important thing is to understand that you can’t learn about difference without encountering it. That’s number one.
Perhaps the most amazing discovery is that if you really want to learn, people in other identity groups will help you IF you are authentic about your intentions. Give it a try…you’ll be amazed at the richness of the multicultural world around you every day.
Steve Boehm (’78) is Executive Vice President for Card and Payment Solutions at Wachovia Corp. He has 17 years of experience in the credit card and payment systems industry, serving in banking, affinity and association leadership roles. Boehm led Wachovia's effort to begin direct marketing credit cards in 2006. For a decade, Boehm led Wachovia's contact center operation, which is credited with making Wachovia a leader in customer service. He has also been involved in past merger integration efforts. He holds a bachelor's in business administration from James Madison University and an MBA in information systems from George Mason University.