Workplace Diversity: Lessons from Einstein

by Deborah Rocco

"If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes." – Albert Einstein

Einstein’s words are a powerful reminder for all of us looking for solutions that will close the gender gap in senior leadership, something I’ve been considering for a while now.

Recently, I was seeking new inspiration for an upcoming presentation at a client's Women's Network summit and I re-read one of my favorite articles, The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action by Vogt, Brown, and Isaacs. The premise of the article is that the questions we ask matter — and not only do they matter, they shape the solutions available to us.

Let me share an example. In 1982 contaminated bottles of Tylenol resulted in the deaths of seven people in the Chicago area and Johnson and Johnson was faced with responding to the crisis.  During the crisis there were many questions the then CEO, James Burke, could have posed to the executive team. "What happened?" "Are we responsible?" or "How do we mitigate our losses?" Instead, he asked, "What is the most ethical thing we can do?" And that question determined the path of action which resulted in J&J becoming the most trusted brand in the pharmaceutical industry.

As the conversation about the gender gap in senior leadership has been re-energized, there have been many questions generating some strong points of view about why the gap still exists — despite decades of effort by many organizations to remedy the problem. Ken Frazier, the CEO of Merck, was quoted in the Sept 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review with his perspective on the lack of progress. "I think that the progress of women in the last two decades has been so limited, so slow, so inadequate, that it would defy even the most skeptical people from 20 years ago."  And I think many of us are wondering if this time around we will reap different results or if this topic, now front and center in the media and in the consciousness of many CEO's, will again recede to the background before significant progress has been made as it has numerous times in the past.

The questions I hear being asked and the POV's being expressed are typical of our western scientific methodology to which we have all been conditioned. The questions seek to identify the problem and pinpoint who or what is to blame and the answers frequently result in black or white thinking which does more to insight controversy than it does to advance our thinking. Regardless of whether the question is being posed by the tabloid news, "Is it sexist for an announcer at the Australian open to ask Serena Williams and Eugenie Bouchard to twirl and show off their outfits?"  Successful women executives like Cheryl Sandberg ask, "Is the gender gap in senior leadership a result of women's failure to "lean in?” Some academics wonder, "Do women MBA's have the same aspirations as their male counterparts?" Too often, the focus is on what's wrong and who's to blame — rather than what's possible.

To quote Einstein again, "The problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them." I wonder if the current tone of our conversation is taking us down a road already traveled. If so, what can we do to move beyond the limitations of our scientific method, let go of the need to identify who or what is to blame and move us in a new direction?

I am encouraged by the engagement in the current conversation of a group of stakeholders representing a richness of diversity we haven't seen in the past. First and foremost, men are engaged in the conversation in a new way. Both men and women across generations, from baby-boomers to millennials, are willing to share their experience. Globally, leaders from business, non-profits, and governments recognize the irrefutable business case and the urgent call to action.

The stage is set, and we have a unique opportunity to change the tone of the conversation by asking new questions that expand our thinking and open up new possibilities. Einstein's theory of relativity resulted from a question he posed to himself as a teenager: "What would the universe look like if I were riding on the end of a light beam at the speed of light?”  And yet, none of us need be an Einstein in order to help shift the conversation from what's wrong to what's possible by putting into practice a few principles.

1. Take time to reflect on the questions we're asking. Questions and solutions are inextricably linked.

2. Let go of blame and embrace curiosity. It's okay not to know the answer.

3. Invite everyone into the conversation who cares about the issue. Diversity breeds innovation.

4 Say "yes, and" not "yes, but." Keep the conversation alive.

I wonder what questions we might ask if we let go of our currently held beliefs about gender? Together, we might see our way into the future.

Tags : women executives women in leadership women leaders strategic thinking strategy

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