Young Upstarts

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[Interview] Joan Kuhl, Author Of ‘Dig Your Heels In: Navigate Corporate BS And Build The Company You Deserve’

It’s no mystery why women are leaving the world’s top companies in droves. From the pay gap to the battle to have their voices heard, women feel undervalued as they struggle to thrive in their professional careers, while their “boys’ club” counterparts zip right to the top.

But there’s a way for women to create well-compensated, meaningful, happy, and fulfilling careers — by staying right where they are.

That’s the empowering message from Joan Kuhl, founder of Why Millennials Matter and author, speaker, and champion of women in leadership. Through her international speaking engagements, research, and consulting, she has guided leaders from more than 60 countries and led projects inside of  some of the world’s largest organizations, including Goldman Sachs, Eli Lilly and Company, University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, and the New York Mets.

In her new book, “Dig Your Heels In: Navigate Corporate BS and Build the Company You DeserveJoan arms women with the tools they need to transform male-dominated cultures from the inside and create the careers and work environments they want and deserve.

We recently sat down with Joan to talk about why now is a critical time for women to disrupt the workplace status quo, her advise for young professionals, and how women can bring in men as allies and spark conversations about equality.

What in your professional background led you to become a champion for women?

In 2013, I founded Why Millennials Matter, a research and consulting agency that helps companies understand, engage, and retain the next generation of global workers and consumers. In 2015, I conducted a research initiative for Eli Lilly and Company called The Women’s Employee Journey, and it opened my eyes to the dire need to more actively support women in the workplace.

The Women’s Employee Journey explored the factors contributing to the decline in women at senior levels of leadership. In addition to this project, I launched several research initiatives inside large corporations and top 20 business schools. As I interviewed women at various career stages, including female executives who had chosen to stay with their companies for the long haul, I heard stories of struggle and sacrifice. I looked up to these women, but their stories blew me away. They were far from thriving; they were barely surviving.

As the daughter of a single mother for the first seven years of my life, and as a longtime volunteer and board member of organizations that support girls, including Girls Hope of PittsburghGirl Scouts of the USAStep UpGirls on the Run NYC, and Girls Inc. of New York City, I knew something had to be done to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace. What sealed the deal for me is that I’m the mother of two daughters, so I believe their generation deserves a brighter future — as do I and every woman working today.

Why is now a critical time for women to disrupt the workplace status quo?

More than ever, today’s businesses are primed for disruption and progress. It’s important for women to ride the momentum created by the #MeToo movement, which has opened everyone’s eyes to the discrimination and bias women face at all levels and in all industries. Women everywhere are raising their voices individually against inequality. Imagine what we could do if we collectively dug our heels in and used our influence and enterprise knowledge to begin creating change within our organizations?

It’s pretty obvious that the business world is unfair to women; the pay gap alone speaks very clearly to that fact. We’re past the stage of awareness. Now it is time to do the work to create the companies we deserve and that deserve us.

If you could offer business leaders one word of advice, what would it be?

Act. Increasing awareness is not enough. Pledging to make diversity and inclusion a priority is not going to get us there. We need action and results to prove you are recruiting, retaining, developing, and advancing women from the mailroom to the boardroom.

What advice would you give to young professionals at the start of their careers?

Take control of your growth and development! Did you know that businesses only invest about $1,200 per person when developing their youngest employees? That means, in many cases, companies are spending more money on an employee’s computer than on their growth and development. This means it’s up to you — from day one — to seek out opportunities to advance your knowledge and skill acquisition.

For women in the first decade of their careers, I see a critical opportunity to pursue opportunities that will stretch their skills, increase their knowledge, and expand their context so they can thrive in the next decade when life priorities demand attention. I recommend that women learn as much as they can about how their companies invest in leadership development. Women should set up meetings with human resources to express their interest and dedication in growing as a leader within the organization. I tell women to come prepared to discuss options like conferences, local training programs, or participating in external professional groups while highlighting the “what’s in it for the company” angle.

The single greatest development opportunity I see for young women is volunteering and devoting time on nonprofit boards. Why? Because it gives them a chance to take on higher-level responsibilities than what’s typically available to early career professionals. And it’s a win-win for organizations that desperately need the help.

How can women bring in men as allies and ignite conversations about equality?

To create a more inclusive workplace culture, we need everyone to be actively engaged in the conversation, not just women or diversity groups. I love the concept of reverse mentoring to bring men into the conversation. This type of role play helps men develop real empathy for the challenges women face, and it spurs concrete actions men can take to support the women around them.

A reverse mentor is a person, usually in a more junior role, who takes on the role of a mentor to a more experienced person to expose him or her to diverse perspectives. In this case, men can be “reverse mentored” by women to understand their experiences at work, the barriers they face, and what men can do as allies, mentors, and sponsors to create change. You might be surprised how much a man’s work with reverse mentors can open his eyes and inspire him to become an active participant in the movement toward greater inclusion.

To learn more about Joan Kuhl and her new book, visit her website.

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Young Upstarts is a business and technology blog that champions new ideas, innovation and entrepreneurship. It focuses on highlighting young people and small businesses, celebrating their vision and role in changing the world with their ideas, products and services.

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