Last year I spoke to a group of industry leaders at an IT security conference in Orlando. My primary focus was on the benefits of female leadership. In my research before the event, I discovered that at the Top Fortune 500 companies, there are as many CEO’s named John, as there were female CEO’s. That is especially shocking when you consider Pepperdine University’s study that indicates promoting women to the executive suite can increase profitability by as much as 18-19%.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of organizations leading the way when it comes to diversity in their leadership. To maintain the highest level of performance, they know to look for greater depth and breadth of experience and perspectives in leadership members. This diversity makes it easier to relate to a variety of stakeholders, such as employees, clients, and potential clients.
The problems that still exist surrounding the lack of leadership diversity have never really been hidden, but they have been difficult to address or discuss because they are so entrenched in our economy and society. It can be difficult for those in leadership positions to know where to start.
I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to Dr. Diane Brennan. She currently serves as Assistant Vice President within the Division of Human Resources at the University of Arizona. She is passionate about strengthening leaders and teams. She believes that a culture where people and organizations thrive is created through the mutual strengthening of both.
Before she joined the University, she was president of Brennan Associates, a coaching and consulting company working with leaders and teams in higher education, healthcare, aerospace, engineering, and technology organizations internationally. Additionally, she has over 20 years of experience as a senior executive in private and publicly-traded healthcare organizations.
Dr. Brennan received a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania and a Doctorate in Behavioral Health from Arizona State University. She holds the Master Certified Coach credential with the International Coach Federation and served as president of the global organization in 2008. She is co-author of Back Pocket Coach: 33 Effective Communication Strategies for Work & Life, and co-editor of The Handbook of Knowledge-Based Coaching and The Philosophy and Practice of Coaching.
When Diane started her career in nursing, she says she wasn’t exactly sure what the “bigger leadership” titles meant, but she knew that those were the people she needed to speak with if she wanted to get things done. With that information, she quickly worked her way into a leadership position. She says at the time, she had established a comfortable relationship with the Vice President of nursing who saw something in her that she didn’t recognize for herself.
It was in these early days of her career that she realized her love for being part of and connected to others on their journey for growth. In December of 1999, Diane’s husband noticed an article in the Tucson Citizen called “Coaching: The Alternative to Consulting.” As they read the article and looked more into this very new idea of coaching, she realized that she was already doing much of what the article covered. She found that she was passionate about helping people discover their passions and find new skills.
“If employers can offer support, recognize that we need to learn from the events of the last two years, and maintain that level of flexibility, women in leadership could be poised to spearhead the positive changes we desperately need to see in the workforce. “
Since then, Diane has worked with organizations across the US as well as in Europe. She has worked with leaders and teams in those organizations to help enhance their strategic thinking, navigate change, improve communications, and create a learning culture. She says her coaching approach is strengths-based, encouraging professional growth by increasing an individual’s awareness, performance, and impact within and outside the organization.
She says organizations can get started by making the diversity of leadership a priority. When team members see a lack of diversity in leadership, it’s not only unhealthy but can be demoralizing at times. When you start the process by simply talking about it and raising the questions, you are already making significant progress. The work may not happen immediately, but the long-term effects are amplified over time.
She also says that organizations need to ensure diversity is a priority for their recruiting teams. Diversity is not only important in leadership but across your organization. It helps to keep a clear lens on your goals and be deliberate with your selections.
I asked Diane if she had any advice for anyone looking to diversify their teams and open the door for constructive feedback. She says that leaders need to listen to understand the problem instead of listening to “fix it”. Don’t react strongly in either direction.
“Psychological safety is foundational to that open communication. Even if the feedback is critical in nature. Always be respectful. Stay calm in your approach. You can say anything as long as you approach it from a place of calm and care.”
She also recommends that young people not be afraid to use their voices and ask questions. That is the best way to drive your ideas forward. If you find your employer is not supportive or isn’t getting you the information, you should first consider if they have all the information that they need to be supportive. Also, ensure that you are looking out for your own career and make the moves you need to when necessary. If you can’t find the support you need at your company, Diane highly recommends professional leadership organizations like Greater Tucson Leadership or Tucson Young Professionals. There may even be industry-specific leadership organizations you can join. These are great resources for networking and finding a mentor.
These days Diane has dug into her Human Resources role at the University of Arizona and only coaches occasionally. If she isn’t coaching, she still uses what she calls a “coach approach” to arrive at better outcomes. She remembers early in her career thinking “Coaching is really, just good management.” Diane says it’s a privilege to work with people in a trusted, open, and honest way. It’s a skill that people can develop, and we can all use coaching to impact the changes we want to see. All of us, together, need to continue to push to create change in a positive way. It will be a continuous journey, so be the leader with the spark to encourage it.
Thank you, Diane, for challenging us to be leaders with a spark that encourage positive changes.