Michelle Gadsden-Williams is an award-winning global diversity expert, activist, philanthropist, and a managing director at Accenture who leads Inclusion & Diversity for the company in North America.
She has more than twenty-five years of experience working in the consumer goods, pharmaceutical, financial, and professional services industries. She has held positions of global responsibility for corporations such as Credit Suisse, Novartis, and Merck & Co. She serves on several boards including the Jackie Robinson Foundation, Lupus Research Alliance, and the Women’s Leadership Board of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Gadsden-Williams has a BA in communications with a minor in marketing from Kean College, and an MS in organizational dynamics from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in New York City with her husband, David Jamal Williams. CLIMB is her first title.
PIVOT caught up with the corporate executive and author to gain some insight into her book as well as her career.
PIVOT: Tell our readers a little about your background and what ultimately led you to write your book.
WILLIAMS: I have spent over 25 years in corporate America. I’ve worked in four industries in the US and abroad. I started my career in marketing and over time transitioned to strategic planning and diversity management. It has always been my intention to write a book about my climb up the corporate ladder.
I have had a wonderful corporate career – filled with unique experiences that have shaped me as a leader. At this phase of my professional life, I get great satisfaction from helping the next generation of female leaders realize their potential and ambitions. In sum, I want all women (and girls) to believe that anything is possible!
PIVOT: You’ve worked at several Fortune 500 companies in roles of increasing responsibility. What is your decision-making process as you contemplate taking on a new job assignment?
WILLIAMS: A new job assignment can be life-altering. I am extremely methodical in my assessment and start with the pros and cons in what I call a “plus/delta” exercise. This is my way of making conscious choices by carefully assessing the situation—and the risks and rewards– from all angles.
I also assess from the perspective of whether the opportunity aligns with, or will get me closer to, my career aspirations. I conduct a lot of research, and not just on the company. I seek wise counsel from mentors and sponsors–those who I trust in my inner circle. They almost always have insights about the company or opportunity that I may have overlooked. And, I take the time that I need to make the right choice for me and my family.
PIVOT: CLIMB has been described as the professional playbook for women who are tackling today’s most pressing workplace issues. How do you feel about that assertion and was that your intent with writing the book?
WILLIAMS: I wanted to create a (play)book to provide women—and the men who support them–with the awareness and tools to better understand the unique journey women, and women of color, face in their careers.
Few of us have had an easy elevator ride to the top floor of our careers. Many of us have had to take the stairs—and it can be a steep climb.
In CLIMB, I’ve used myself as the protagonist and share real life examples of how I navigated today’s complex workplace. How you respond to that complexity is a strong indication of the kind of leader that you are. We all have aspirations to be successful in whatever field we work in. How we achieve success varies depending upon the individual, our ecosystems that support us and the choices that we make.
PIVOT: Why do you feel it’s been so hard for women, particularly women of color, to have a sustainable voice in corporate America?
WILLIAMS: Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote an article in the New York Times called “Speaking While Female,” which explores how difficult it is for women to be heard in the workplace without interruption or fear of backlash.
For women of color, it can be even harder. Research has shown that women of color experience a double-bind in the workplace because of their gender and ethnicity (otherwise known as intersectionality which is a term that Kimberle Crenshaw at Columbia University coined several years ago).
As women, and women of color, we are concerned with things like being judged, being labeled too aggressive or proving to the majority that we, too, are intelligent enough to warrant the attention of our colleagues and peers. It is important for women, especially women of color, to speak up and promote themselves.
Working hard and hoping that someone will notice is not enough. And we need to let go of the tendency to stay silent as a means of “blending in.” Women of color are going to be noticed anyway since there are not many of us sitting at the leadership table. My advice: Never leave a meeting without saying something, whether a question or a comment.
PIVOT: What was the best career advice you ever received?
WILLIAMS: Avoid being paralyzed by fear. Taking calculated risks to get what you want is a good thing!
PIVOT: What do you want readers to take away from this book?
WILLIAMS: I would like CLIMB readers to use the book to help them identify what they are passionate about, take control of their career by designing a career plan with realistic timelines, create an effective ecosystem of support (mentors and sponsors) and vocalize what their aspirations to all who will listen. This is how you CLIMB!