The Woman in the Room
How Women Unlock Innovation Through Empathy and Example
It was 2011. It feels like a lifetime ago. Except for my emotion – that’s still palpable.
The boardroom of one of the world’s largest law firms included 12 men from across North America, each tall, with a deep, forceful voice, and veterans long established at the firm. I, the 13th board member, was the newcomer – a petite woman from a cross-cultural background, in a niche practice, and a recent lateral. My voice is high-pitched, stereotypically feminine. And my approach when addressing boardroom issues like setting firm strategy is to consider a variety of options, socializing the pros and cons with a broad group, before taking a decision. It was clear to me that these men were prepared to act in a decisive manner, and that my “turn the prism” style could come across as obstructive or naïve. In that moment, my entrée to senior management in a BigLaw firm, I wondered whether it was realistic to assume I’d gain their confidence and have a meaningful impact on decision-making. In that moment, when I realized how different I was from these men, I understood why the term “glass ceiling” was coined.
My 2011 experience is regularly faced by women across corporate America, including in BigLaw, where I’ve made my career counseling major corporations. While entering associate classes have been comprised of over 45% women for several decades, as denoted in the 2019 report from the American Bar Association and ALM Intelligence, the upper echelon of management in law firms remains thinly populated with women. The National Association of Women Lawyers survey released in April 2022, reported that women comprise only 22% of all equity partners even though associate head count is often over 50%. Women are even more under-represented in science, engineering, and information and communication technology, where only 2 of every 10 global jobs are held by females, according to the latest available Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) data published in the United Nations’ August 22 Gender Snapshot.
So how do the women in the room influence leadership? Why do I feel we have a special skeleton key of sorts, unavailable to men? To us, empathy is natural, even fierce. What I think of as the feminine quotient, a combination of outward-facing relational skills coupled with self-directed diligence and accountability, can transform an organization’s culture in a way that unlocks propulsive innovation.
We Focus Our Skills on Engaging Others, Which Fosters a Genuinely Inclusive Environment. Observe women at any business conference or social outing, and you’ll see a consistent outreach and involvement with others. Women use words and touch and body language to communicate, sending messages that they are pleased to see you, welcome your views, and look forward to the minutes spent together. Compliments flow through their words, tone, and body language.
A study of little girls and little boys interacting is included in Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. The internationally recognized scholar and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University found that the little girls looked at each other directly, they smiled and sought each other out, often expressing a compliment to the other. The little boys looked forward, not toward each other, rarely acknowledging their “playmates.” It was as if Tannen were observing not different genders, but different species.
Women in leadership positions who tap into their interpersonal predilections stimulate an inclusive and humane environment where everyone’s ideas are not only welcomed but nourished. Team members don’t need to fear that they will say the wrong thing, or deviate from a “we’ve always done it this way” mentality, because their authentic views are being solicited. These traits tend to bring more persuasion and influence when implementing leadership decisions, which brings more buy-in by those being led. It’s the opposite end of the scale to traditional command and control approaches, which by their nature don’t allow for new ways of thinking to bubble to the surface. A fascinating example of this dynamic is described in a March 2022 Task & Purpose military history article, How Pairing ‘Female Engagement Teams’ with Battle-Tested Grunts Changed the Military Forever.
When women lead this way, they shift the momentum from transactional to relational, laying the groundwork for a value proposition tied to shared rewards as opposed to individual points scored. As participation is encouraged, rewarded, and nurtured, success of the enterprise becomes personal. Entrepreneurial activity increases, with teams incubating refined and, often, novel approaches. The result can be nirvana for sprawling, complex global enterprises: diverse leadership, inclusive team building along with inherently sticky talent retention, and innovative mindsets becoming embedded.
By Cultivating a Culture Where Diverse Teams Are Invited to Refresh Ideas, Processes, and Principles, We Unlock the Potential for Innovation. When leaders put people of different backgrounds, generations, and experiences together in a room and ask them to give their most creative thoughts, it’s a virtuous process that fuels better ideas and performance, while also honing the business skills of the team. All her team members now have skin in the game; they each become architects of the solution rather than generic task fulfillers.
Back in 2011 in my debut boardroom, I had not yet become cognizant of the importance or distinctiveness of my relational skills set. But as I navigated my new role, I spent a large part of my time seeking input from the lawyers I represented in the Washington, DC office. I socialized ideas with them initially because I did not feel knowledgeable or experienced enough to reach conclusions alone. Little did I realize how potent ideas gathered from a diverse group of talented people can be! These attorneys whom I represented were incredibly insightful and perceptive, understanding the many nuances of the lawmaking capital of the world. They had only to be invited to provide their views. They fleshed out my knowledge, expanded my perspective, and identified alternative avenues to achieve success. With the benefit of their input, I could and did advocate confidently for fresh, often ground-breaking approaches that could, and ultimately did, elevate our firm’s performance and market standing, all while also energizing our DC office to attain record-setting growth. In my tenure on the board and as the office’s Managing Partner, we grew revenue 30% year on year and added world class compliance and investigations practices, while almost doubling attorney head count.
Today I’m in the leadership of another Global Top 25 law firm, Mayer Brown. I am known as both an innovator and a connector of diverse talent from across our firm – we have over 1,700 lawyers operating across four continents, with a rich variety of languages, cultures, and backgrounds. As the daughter of a multi-lingual Ecuadorian diplomat, I’m in my element! Tremendously talented lawyers – from first years to senior partners – and staff across our global firm constantly replenish my core leadership principles of humanity, mutual respect, transparency, and inclusion. I’m also privileged to lead a diverse group of brilliant and committed lawyers and professionals in my practice, global mobility and immigration, a group accustomed to and invested in innovative development of cross-border solutions to meet major companies’ global talent needs.
Again and again, I have seen that it is them, the people I connect, who are the real engines of transformation; nothing seems beyond their ability to rise to the occasion and fashion creative solutions to the evolving needs of the time. Renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead captured this essential precept when she said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
We Are Only Satisfied If We Follow Through To Completion. Simply put, women get the job done. There’s an old poem about the mother who is the last to go to bed; she’s still picking up socks long after the rest of the household has gone to sleep. That’s an old-fashioned portrait, but it could apply in any workplace equally well. I have met and admired many male leaders with unwavering accountability; but I have almost never encountered a woman leader who lacks this trait. We simply don’t like to leave the project undone or done poorly; if we are given a responsibility, we will follow through to the finish regardless of fatigue or frustration.
This sort of personalized accountability inspires teams. Six years ago I interviewed the team of a woman executive who was developing a product for companies to digitize advertising services across social media and remote channels directly, as opposed to through traditional ad agencies. Her deputy told me she initially resented the executive, because she’d been hired laterally to take the helm of the department which the deputy had expected to be awarded. “Within three months, I saw why she was the perfect leader for this job. She arrived first and left last, and she never failed to give it her all – her energy and dedication carried us over the line to propel our success beyond anything we expected. She set the standard!”
In an interview citing her 2021 published memoir, Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, said it this way:
“I wonder why I am wired this way where my inner compass always tells me to keep pushing on with my job responsibilities, whatever the circumstances. … I love my family dearly, but this inner drive to help whenever I can certainly has taken a lot of time away from them—much to their dismay. I sometimes wish I were wired differently.”
This leadership trait is especially critical to innovation, because creative endeavors are by their nature untested and improvisational, requiring more start-up effort, troubleshooting and revision, all of which add to the hours and energy expended. The rules of the road have not been invented, and thus it is only a leader who, like Ms. Nooyi, keeps pushing on, whatever the circumstances, that can achieve trailblazing results.
As I look back on my career, I cannot envision any other way to run an office, a practice, or a boardroom, but to immerse myself in the workings of the enterprise, study the market trends, launch various initiatives and then redirect them as needed, and take soundings throughout to ensure the direction is aligned with the culture. Going back to my 2011 boardroom, a big reason I earned the respect of my colleagues– and broke through that glass ceiling! – was because of how hard I worked. My good friend and co-board member Kevin O’Brien often made Edison-like references to this work ethic, attributing no small part of our success to this commitment. No one has ever forced me to work at this pace or to complete a particular list of objectives; it is hard-wired, just as Ms. Nooyi and countless other women leaders have role-modeled.
Principled women leaders make an indelible impact. By embracing and orchestrating a rainbow of voices and points of view, while setting a standard for accountability by example, women are fueling stunning entrepreneurial endeavors. The imperative to develop and retain talented women, giving them positions of leadership and opportunity early, is unambiguous in terms of both ethics and efficacy. Especially in this post-pandemic era, where we need more healing and reconciliation as the economy and workplace continue to undergo an historic transformation, we need many more women in the room.
Elizabeth “Liz” Espín Stern is managing partner of the Washington DC office of Mayer Brown (the world’s 23rd largest law firm), a former member of its Partnership Board, and spearheads its market-leading Global People Solution™ approach to optimizing every organization’s most vital asset: its human resources. Recipient of the “Immigration Trailblazer Award” (2018) and “Crisis Leadership Trailblazer Award” from National Law Journal, she was ranked by Financial Times as one of the world’s “Top 10 Most Innovative Legal Practitioners” (2020). Liz lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
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WHAT A COMPELLING ROLE-MODEL AND EXEMPLAR!!!
Liz...Such a good piece.