Step One. Honesty & Transparency — I mentioned honesty earlier in this interview. The first step in addressing a challenge is to be honest about the challenge and the data and facts that support it. Denial prologues the decisions and the pain. In my environment, I often inject honesty, or, what I like to call, radical candor, where there is denial. This may require telling a coworker that their words and actions — even if unintentional — have hurt individuals and the team. Honesty is hard, but being radically candid, as Kim Scott, who wrote a book on this topic, advises, it’s the intersection of caring deeply and challenging directly. And for any of us to grow and evolve, we must be challenged.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Victoria Pelletier, Vice President, Talent & Transformation IBM
Victoria Pelletier is a senior executive with over two decades of corporate and board experience in strategy, operations, growth initiatives, M&A and business and talent culture and development.
Victoria is also a published author, an in-demand public speaker and regularly appears on national television and radio. She is a visionary leader with a passion for innovation, creativity and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. In fact, Victoria has won both the 2020 Mentor of the Year award from Women in Communications & Technology AND the 2019 HSBC Diversity & Inclusion in Innovation Award.
An inspiring professional with impeccable credentials, Victoria is a trusted voice among peers and emerging executives.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Well, my childhood wasn’t exactly a fairytale. I grew up in a very dysfunctional home early on — born to a drug addicted teenage mother who severely abused me — I was later removed from her care and adopted to the parents that raised me. In many ways, I moved straight from early childhood to adulthood. The good news? The experience made me strong and independent. I not only survived, but I also learned how to thrive.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Ah, there are so many terrific books out there. I think I’ll go with Start with Why by Simon Sinek. Sinek believes that effective leaders have inspiration in common. Leadership is more than management of people and resources. Leaders inspire their teams to see themselves as key players in the vision of the organization or cause. Sinek reminds me that having a “Why” is everything. If you know what inspires you, and you can articulate it to others, you are leading.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
A Chinese proverb reminds me that, “Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.” While I think the proverb speaks primarily to leadership, it is truly applicable in all facets of life. If you really want to accomplish something, you can’t just talk about what you hope to accomplish. Instead, you must act; you must pursue it. I learned early on in my career that I was the flying type. I am wired to articulate a vision and go after it. In my current work, focused on culture and talent and also around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, I recognize that I must model what I desire to see in my team and the organization. It’s one thing to talk about DE&I and it’s quite another to be a champion of it in the workplace and the community we live. If you believe in something, your actions will demonstrate the depth of your belief.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Former First Lady of the United States Rosalynn Carter said, “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go but ought to be.”
I find this quote compelling because it reminds all of us that we throw around the word “leader” far too often without understanding what it means to effectively lead. Leaders take on all challenges that stand in the way of the “Why,” the vision. In my own work, I exercise leadership by recognizing and rewarding talent, their great work and their personal integrity. If you bring value to the organization, and promote the vision, I will promote you and put you in positions of greater influence and decision making. Conversely, if you hurt the organization or sully the vision, your seniority and history will mean little to me. I’ll swiftly move to manage this performance and leadership challenge, which may result in leaving the organization for those who hurt the cause or their colleagues. Leadership is about keeping the big picture elevated above short-term returns and easy decisions or actions.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I move. I move my body a lot. I discovered during a time of physical and mental exhaustion that my personal wellness keeps my work, my relationships, and my vision moving forward. Whether I am firing up the members of my team on Monday morning or leading a gathering of 500 stakeholders, I prepare my body and soul through sweat, rest, and wisdom-seeking. I invest in me.
Earlier in my career, I traveled so extensively for a particular organization, and one in fact, that I didn’t really believe in, that I neglected my health and the people I loved. As I emerged from that difficult chapter in life, I decided, “Never again.” Today, I take care of my body, I work out daily, and I spend quality time with family, and I help others on my team and more broadly to understand that personal wellness is essential to good work and a good quality of life.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
One word… Honesty. Most of us spend a lot of time convincing ourselves that we fully embrace diversity, equality, and inclusion. The honest answer? Most of us unconsciously, and in some cases consciously, perpetuate systemic racism and other corrosive biases. Let’s just be honest about the fact that we have a long way to go towards building a truly just and inclusive society. We have a new administration that is more representative of the constituents they serve, but the United States has “not arrived.” We are far from it.
The “All Lives Matter” slogan, for example, raises denial over honesty, unconsciously undermining the efforts of those who are trying to articulate their experience of systemic racism. In fact, the more those who experience discrimination try to openly articulate their pain and loss, the more the dominant culture shifts toward denial, or worse, overt aggression and counternarratives. Our present crisis is about honesty. Those who have been hurt by the dominant culture are challenging and calling out those who say there is no problem in this country. And they’re paying for it through violence.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
I have been heavily involved in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for more than two decades — because I was part of marginalized groups — both as a woman and also as part of the LGBT community. I became an executive at just age 24 — not only was I the youngest by 20+ years, but I was also the only woman at the boardroom table and continued to be for years. I have long since been a champion for diverse and inclusive workplaces and communities, so when I was approached to take on a more formal leadership role in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, I knew I would have the resources and support to do this important work in an efficient and effective manner. While I was already passionate about DE&I, my passion was stoked by my organization’s values, intent and willingness to support me to take this movement to our clients and the community at broad. My story is simply a story of intent. If you are part of an organization that is committed to a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture, you will know it from the support you receive, the organization’s intent. If your organization isn’t serious about DE&I but gives you a role or a title because “that’s what everyone else is doing,” you may have quite a climb ahead of you.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I think it’s so disappointing that we must talk about why diversity matters or make a business case about the importance and value of diversity in leadership and business in general. Strong organizations understand that a diverse and inclusive workforce fosters creativity and innovation, builds team engagement and collaboration, grows both the top and bottom lines and advances both the organization’s vision and the communities the organization serves. A diverse and inclusive executive team super charges the health of the organization by infusing creativity and team engagement into all levels of the organization. If your board or C-Suite has a homogeneous group of individuals around the table, you’re in trouble.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
While I am going to look at this part of the discussion through the lens of a workplace environment, I firmly believe that these five steps apply to society at large.
We live in a chaotic time — a vacuum in place of shared meaning and trajectory. If want to replace the chaos with an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society — worthy meaning and trajectory — then we must speak up as leaders.
The Jewish community of antiquity coined the word Tohu-Va-Vohu to describe the kind of power that could address and fill the chaos. The word literally means “breath.” When we breathe — when we speak a word of comfort, guidance, peace, or forgiveness in chaotic settings or eras — we are making a difference. Holding our breath, saying nothing at all, only perpetuates the void. Here’s what I have to say:
Step One. Honesty & Transparency
I mentioned honesty earlier in this interview. The first step in addressing a challenge is to be honest about the challenge and the data and facts that support it. Denial prologues the decisions and the pain. In my environment, I often inject honesty, or, what I like to call, radical candor, where there is denial. This may require telling a coworker that their words and actions — even if unintentional — have hurt individuals and the team. Honesty is hard, but being radically candid, as Kim Scott, who wrote a book on this topic, advises, it’s the intersection of caring deeply and challenging directly. And for any of us to grow and evolve, we must be challenged.
Step Two. Collect and listen to the employees and community members and value everyone’s experience and input.
To improve culture, it’s critical to understand the current state of the culture. To do so, it’s important to spend time with ALL employees talking about what is working and what needs to improve. Note that culture means many things to different people therefore it’s important to collect input by listening to all members of the community and when prioritizing what to amplify or change, remember that everyone’s input is equally as important. A truly inclusive and equitable environment will be supportive of all employees, therefore creating a sense of belonging for all in the community.
Step Three. Be intentional in developing your strategies, practices and technology
Leaders must realize that DE&I is a process, not a program. Remediation is hard work as it must treat systems, not symptoms. Intentionality in DE&I means that it must be woven into the very fabric of the organization. — its people, its processes and its technology. Even the most well-meaning leader resorts to heuristics and snap decision making, rather than making deliberate and goal-oriented decisions. Intentional Inclusion means including diverse people at every part of the planning, implementation, and decision-making process in business. It also means valuing the input, perspectives, and roles that diverse voices bring to the effort.
Finally, intentional inclusion means making sure organizations have both procedures and practices in place to support and promote inclusion.
Step Four. Model the change/practice inclusive leadership
Leaders must not only speak out about their commitment to DE&I, but they must demonstrably take action and model their commitment in order to gain trust, support and inspire the rest of the organization to change. This can start with something as simple as assembling a diverse team and allowing all the voices at the table to share their ideas and opinions equally.
Step Five: Hold leadership accountable
Inclusion must be a core value of the organization — it’s not some kind of box that gets ticked as part of the annual Corporate Social Responsibility report or an annual survey. Therefore, progress must be measured, and leadership held accountable to the outcomes of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the workplace and/or the communities that they lead.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Whenever there are rough patches, courageous ones stand up, speak up, and lead. I am optimistic that our rough patches can be smoothed, because there are a lot of courageous ones out there in the world. Here’s the amazing thing: some of the most courageous souls aren’t even out of school yet. If there is courage among us, there’s hope.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Too bad RBG is no longer with us — I LOVED her. Next would have to be the Obamas, but I bet the waiting list is HUGE!! However, speaking of young courageous leaders, I’ll put Malala Yousafzai at the top of my list. Set aside the activism and consider her age. At just 23, we all know her and what she stands for. That’s courage. That’s power.
How can our readers follow you online?
Find me on the social platform of your choice!
My personal website: https://victoria-pelletier.com/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!