A company can only be as great as the people in it. One of the greatest things that help produce employees and team members that can be key players is its culture, particularly one that is inclusive. Lisen Stromberg greatly believes in this, and in today’s show, she joins host Elizabeth Bachman to help you make your company culture your competitive advantage by tapping on women. Lisen is an award-winning writer, human capital innovation consultant, and a widely regarded speaker who empowers people and companies to reimagine the future of work through work+life success. Centering on diversity, she speaks about the important role of women in the workplace and how companies can create a truly inclusive culture. With her book, Work Pause Thrive, Lisen sheds light on the struggles women face when looking for opportunities to excel at work as well as balance their home life. She then offers hope by speaking about how they can bounce back and relaunch their careers to greatness.
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Company Culture As A Competitive Advantage With Lisen Stromberg
Making DEI Actually Work
My guest is Lisen Stromberg of PrismWork. Before I get into introducing Lisen’s incredibly impressive bio, I want to remind you that if you’re interested in how your presentation skills are stacking up and whether your presentation skills are getting you the results you want, you can take our free four-minute assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s wherein four minutes you can see where your presentation skills are strong and where a little support might get you the recognition that you want. Lisen Stromberg is an award-winning writer, human capital innovation consultant and a widely-regarded speaker who empowers people and companies to reimagine the future of work through work plus life success. She’s been on stage at numerous high profile conferences including TEDx, South by Southwest and others.
Through her consulting business, PrismWork, Lisen and her team partner with companies, leaders and advocates to ensure women and Millennials thrive in the workspace. It’s rooted in quantitative and qualitative data. Her culture assessments drive customized solutions to meet the unique needs of companies ranging from global Fortune 500s to tech startups. They also offer 21st century leadership workshops and training to ensure that the workplace has the necessary skills and insights to thrive in the modern workplace. Lisen is an award-winning independent journalist whose work can be found in The New York Times, Fortune Newsweek and other top media outlets. Her book Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood without Killing Your Career reveals how trailblazing women disrupted the traditional career paradigm to achieve their personal and professional goals and how forward-thinking companies create workplaces that enable women to thrive.
We had a fascinating conversation talking about what’s happening with women, especially the she-cession of women dropping out of the workplace. We’ve also talked about the role of fathers and the role of companies. How can they create a company culture that is truly inclusive even when diversity, equity and inclusion policies aren’t enough? It was a fascinating conversation. I’ve learned so much from it. Let’s go to the interview.
Lisen Stromberg, I’m so happy to have you on the show. Welcome.
Thank you, Elizabeth. I’m happy to be here.
I start all my interviews with the question, if you could interview someone from history someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be? What would you ask them? Who should be listening?The reason women leave the paid workforce full-stop is childcare challenges. Click To Tweet
My answer isn’t somebody we know in history. I think the untold stories of the men and women in history to me are what are truly fascinating. My great, great grandmother many times removed, arrived from England in 1619 to Jamestown, Virginia. She was one of the first people to colonize this country. She and her husband, Dr. James Woodson, came to the new land. He was a second son. He wasn’t going to inherit anything. She was a Quaker, so she was looking for religious freedom. The story that we have is that they “bought land” which means they stole land from First Nation people and were tilling the land with tobacco. They had African slaves working on there. They were certainly part of that first wave of slavery. In 1622, their land was attacked by the First Nation people who were there, the Indians. Her husband James Woodson died but she survived by killing off 40 native people and she saved her two sons. She put one in a coal bin and the other in a potato bin and fought them off and then went on to have many more children with her second marriage.
Her story is a story we don’t hear about. What I would love to understand, how do you make peace with being a colonizer? How did you survive that? What was your life like there? What were the relationships with the other women? What were the relationships with the other communities of people living in that environment, the First Nation people, the slaves that she had enslaved? What is that story? Who is that woman? What does that mean for our country? For me, it’s going to be a fascinating interview.
I always say that rule number one in speaking is who’s listening? What is their cultural context? What is it that they care about? I imagine that she would look at you and go, “What do you mean?” These aren’t people. These are the slaves and this is how you survive.
In my path, maybe she didn’t. She was Quaker. I’m not a Quaker but my understanding of Quakerism is that’s not the approach that all humans matter. Who knows? It’s not she that’s relevant. She was colonizing the land, the First Nation people. There are so many others that story we could be involved in. The cultural environment, they’re so rich.
It would be interesting when they finally invent time travel or a time viewer so that you could go back, and look and see what it was like and what it was like from their point of view, what they were taught and how they grew up. Lisen, you work on company culture. This is interesting that we were talking about culture. One of the first things I learned about you is that you wrote a book called Work Pause Thrive. Tell us a little bit about the book and then what you’re seeing. What have you seen since that book?
I wrote the book in 2015, 2016. It came out in 2017. I wrote it because at at the time and still now, the conversation was why aren’t there more women in the pipeline to leadership? What’s happening to women? Where are they going? There was this belief that women were opting out and going home. I’m talking about college-educated women. That was who my research was done on. I interviewed 186 college-educated women and surveyed 1,500 more. I wanted to understand what their career trajectories were? Where are we losing them? Why? My answer was in fact that we saw these incredible forcing function women once they had children face barriers in the United States that frankly, I don’t see with my relatives in Norway, to give that comparative. I did analyze Norway versus the US and what’s the difference.
I have a cousin who’s my exact same age and has three children, my three children are the exact same age. Her career trajectory, experience, emotional wellbeing has been so different to mine. Understand when it comes to her career, to me, was important. Why was it different? Here’s what I learned. One that in fact women’s careers and ambitions aren’t necessarily linear, they’re much vaster, broader, if you will. The women I interviewed, 186 highly-successful women, many of them had great ambitions for careers. Seventy-two percent of the women I interviewed consider themselves ambitious but the majority of them paused their career. They took time out of the paid workforce or downshifted.
The interesting thing is the vast majority didn’t talk about it. Many of them hid their career pauses because they didn’t want to be presumed as not being ambitious. They were hiding this model of career and family integration. They weren’t telling their truth because the narrative is if you’re not productive all the time, not the ideal worker, which is that person who has no obligations outside of work who can work 24/7 then you’re not ambitious and you’re not committed. What I learned was women have a different model. Their model is a model that we’re seeing Millennial men in particular really aspires them to.
It’s interesting when you ask what happened. The research showed that about 2.1 million women are out of the paid workforce at any given year, college-educated women, to care for family obligations. When we look at the she-cession as they’re calling it and looking at what’s happening to women’s careers, my answer is the truth of matter is this is not new. What’s different is we’re now seeing women who didn’t have choices because they either didn’t have a partner, they didn’t have the college education. They’re being forced out of the workforce because of caregiving responsibilities.
We are doing this in the middle of a pandemic. This is what the pandemic has shut down. I would be curious before you go on, if I had asked you this question in January 2020, what has changed since you wrote the book? What would you say compared to what you’re saying when we’re doing this in January 2021?
There are a couple of things that have changed. Companies have begun to recognize that offering meaningful paid parental leave is a retention tool. Particularly in the tech world, we’re seeing that but in many other industries we’re seeing. What we’re seeing is where a woman in the United States used to get, if they were lucky, six weeks paid vacation, assuming they work for a corporation over 50 people that offered it, which by the way is not that many women in this country. The vast majority don’t work for those companies. They would have six weeks. We don’t have a national paid leave policy. In fact, we’re 1 of 2 countries, part of the UN, that don’t offer it. One hundred ninety countries in the UN, we’re 1 of 2 that don’t offer paid parental leave on a national basis. The other country is Papua New Guinea.Motherhood bias is absolutely real. Click To Tweet
What’s changed in the years since I wrote my book and the years since it came out in 2017 and by 2020 was in those short years, we saw companies stepping up and starting to offer meaningful paid parental leave. We were seeing younger women stay in the paid workforce. We were seeing a change in the trend, which was exciting. They had children, babies but they weren’t leaving because they didn’t have an option. We’re also seeing men take more paid leave. They wouldn’t take it before either because they weren’t offered it or because they were worried the implications that meant for their careers. Are they not the ideal worker? We’re seeing more men take it. That’s wonderful.
A year later on a national level, we’re seeing a couple of things. One, when we talk about Biden’s inauguration, we’re seeing a real commitment to potentially offering paid parental leave for all Americans, a national pay policy. If we meet a few years from now, we may be able to boast about that we’re finally catching up to 190 other countries in the world. The difference I think is also that we’re now beginning to focus on childcare as a priority. The reason women leave the paid workforce full-stop is childcare challenges. This is what’s keeping them. What we’re seeing in the she-cession in the midst of this pandemic is that those non-college educated women who don’t have any other option and don’t have childcare solutions are being forced out because they have no other options with their children. Four years from now, it won’t be about maternity leave or paternity leave. It will be about childcare solutions.
One of the things that I found is interesting about that is how you manage taking care of the family that’s been disparaged by so many people.
Motherhood bias is real. I teach at Stanford University a class on leadership. An amazing professor there, Sherrie Coval, has done extensive research on motherhood bias. Take two resumes, Jane A, Jane B, exact same resumes. The only difference is if you do a list at the bottom of your hobbies, interests or volunteer work and you say PTA President, if you take those two exact same resumes and they only indicate differences and indication that one of them is a parent, you see a dramatic difference in employers being willing to hire Jane B, the parent, their willingness to consider Jane B leadership potential. If they are going to hire Jane B, they’re going to offer her less money to the tune of about 24%. No difference in these resumes. That is motherhood bias embedded. That’s real.
It’s one of the reasons why women are still being paid less than men and why women are not advancing as fast because this whole bias of, “She’s taking time off.” For that matter, the companies are not having the pipeline of qualified women because you have the ones who drop out to take care of the children.
I think one thing we are seeing that’s different from when my book came out is more women are getting beyond those early childhood years, which are the key years that we see women drop out and are managing to not drop out. I call it Pause because I think dropout is a judgment. Pause is a temporary moment in your career. The vast majority of women I interviewed relaunched to great success. No one talks about that truth, how incredibly agile, innovative and trailblazing these women are. We’re seeing more women rise into leadership. In fact, we’re seeing a huge sea change. Four years from now, we’re going to have a different story when we talk about the success of white women. We’re still not seeing it for women of color, briefly black women or Latinas.
It brings me to one of my next questions. Talk a little bit more about diversity and inclusion. Lisen, I’ve heard you say that diversity, equity and inclusion programs in corporations are not working and this is why you founded your company PrismWork. Why aren’t they’re not working? It’s supposed to be a good thing.
I would say that initiatives for white women are working. We’re starting to see some real breakthroughs for women in the C-suite. What’s exciting is we’re seeing so many accountability partners forcing that function. For example, BlackRock, which is a major private equity firm, will not invest in the company unless they have a women in leadership and women on the board. Nasdaq announced that they’re now going to require diversity metrics where you have to have a woman on your board to be placed on Nasdaq. In the state of California where I live, we now have a law that says at your certain size company you have to have at least one. I think it might be up to three women on your board depending on your size.
It was one woman by the end of 2019 and three by the end of 2021.No one talks about that truth, how incredibly agile, innovative and trailblazing these women are. Click To Tweet
The point is we’re seeing these forcing functions but when you look at who’s benefiting from those dynamics, in most cases, it’s white women. When we talk about diversity inclusion, what we’re code for is how is it supporting other diverse voices? Unfortunately, oftentimes it comes down to how are we supporting African-Americans, Latino, etc. The problem with these conversations is they end up being code for a lot of things that we need to deconstruct. What I look at as are we creating cultures of belonging because you can have all of the diversity metrics and diversity objectives in the world where the people, those diverse talents want to stay, if you’re not creating an environment of belonging, you’re going to see them leave.
These problems, we’ve been having these for years. People come in. They hire. There’s a campaign to hire black people, let’s say. Sometimes it’s successful. They bring in. They’re able to change it but if you track that over time, you see them leaving. The reason they’re leaving is that they’re not in an environment where they can thrive. The work we do is partnering with these companies that help them look at their culture. Understand what those leverage points are. What can they do differently to create environments where people are truly thriving? It’s complex. It’s not easy.
I did a show in June 2020 with Lance Dorsey from McKesson who is in the diversity and inclusion thing. He said, “You have to be proactive.” There’s a pushback that’s saying, “Let merit rise,” but that doesn’t work. Does it?
No, unfortunately. Merit doesn’t work because it’s presumed in the fact that it’s a level playing field but it’s not. If it was a level playing field of merit, hypocrisy would work but it’s not. We have to unpack that and understand what’s going on around that. Proactive is interesting.
Intentional I think was the word, proactive and intentional.
You can be proactive and intentional and do all these wonderful things but if you don’t have leadership, sending the message that this as a priority, sending a message that this is deeply believed in the bones of that leadership and it’s embedded in the DNA of the company, it goes across all the governance from how we hire, promote, manage team meetings, handle remote working and reward. You can’t get your bonus if you don’t meet certain diversity metrics. There are so many ways to turn the levers on these problems. There are levers and you can be intentional about it but if you don’t have senior leadership who in their bones understands why this benefits them, benefits the business, the new way to lead in this new world of work and the way we were taught to leave doesn’t work anymore, you won’t succeed.
Tell us a little bit more about how we can do something about it. I always want to say how can you fix it but fix is too simple. It’s a big complicated issue. Besides hiring PrismWork, how can we help untangle this thorny problem?
We think it’s a two-pronged approach is the one that makes the most sense. What we do is we look at how were you operating inside out and outside in? What does your brand external messaging say? Every company is a brand, whether they’re B2B or B2C. What’s your branding look like? How are you engaging with the external world? Your website, your social media, your PR, your advertising, what is that saying to the world? What is your internal culture in terms of your employee sentiment experience? We have a proprietary assessment that we do around that. What are your governance policy programs? How does that measure on the continuum of 21st century best in class? Where are your governance metrics? Where could they be? Lastly, what’s your leadership belief system? How are they operating? What are the messages they send?
We call it The HEARTY Workplace. HEARTY stands for the six attributes that we know to be effective in this modern work world. That is Humility, Empathy, Accountability, Resiliency, Transparency, Inclusivity. We know that of workplaces, cultures and leaders aren’t completely aligned on those things, you’re going to have a rub. Somewhere there’s going to be a problem. Somewhere something is going to come out. You’re going to have a #MeToo moment. You’re going to have a Black Lives Matter feel. You’re going to have employee activism like never before.
You’re going to have external customers saying, “That’s not working.” You could have an investor saying, “You’re not doing it right. I’m not investing you.” Supplier diversity. Many of our clients are dealing with the fact that the companies they’re trying to supply to are saying, “You’re not diverse enough. We don’t want to work with you.” The leverages that are happening to me are incredibly sighting but how if you’re a company trying to tackle this, what do you do? That’s what we do. We work with companies that are trying to figure this out.You can't get your bonus if you don't meet certain diversity metrics. Click To Tweet
I always think of it when people say, “Why do they have to legislate something like that?” If you’re trying to fix something that is unconsciously embedded, having a penalty would help. I always think of it like seatbelts. I am old enough to remember when the law requiring seatbelts came in. I was in a carpool going to school and one of the fathers in the carpool had tied the seatbelts so they couldn’t use them because it was restricting his personal freedom. He was a major egotist. Let’s put it that way because I was too young to know that. Not humble on the HEARTY scale. When the country passed the law requiring seatbelts, people complained. People said it restricted their personal freedom but traffic deaths went down and now we take it for granted.
I think we want to use everything in our arsenal to make the change. I think that in certain cases, legislation as you’ve given a beautiful example, can truly be to the benefit of humanity. Money talks. If you are trying to get a close a deal with Facebook and Facebook says, “You white company. You white advertising agency. You white furniture supply company. You white law firm. If you want to work with us, you’re going to have more diversity because a bunch of white males aren’t going to serve our business.” You can be damn sure that company, that agency, that law firm, that furniture supply company, they’re going to look and say, “I got to do something different.” I think that the leverages we have can be applied in a variety of ways. Many business leaders have the tools within it, not just to impact their own companies but to look at how they can impact others. I’m starting to see that. It’s so exciting to see the change that we’re starting to see. Leaders say, “I’m a leader. I work on my own company but I can impact the companies I work with.” It can be downstream and upstream. That’s where real change starts happening.
I think that’s got to be our ending. Lisen Stromberg, it’s been such a joy to have you as a guest on the show. If there’s one thing we can start with, people who are reading this, what’s one thing you could do to start?
I think it’s great to get self-aware. Let’s start with ourselves and build from self out, understanding your own. I think everyone’s a leader by the way. Five-year-old girls are a leader. Six-year-old men are leaders. That opened our eyes to what leadership is. For the very least, we’re leaders to our own lives. How are you navigating those core traits? How are you humble or not? How are you empathetic or not? Where is accountability in your life? Are you resilient? If not, why? Transparency, what are you willing to reveal? What are you holding back? What are you not comfortable with? Inclusivity, does that belief system work for you? Why? Why not? Understanding those core behaviors, which I think are the elements of success in the 21st century. That would be a great place to start.
Thank you, Lisen so much. It’s been an honor and a delight to have you as my guest. This has been Speakers Who Get Results. This has been Elizabeth Bachman. I’ll see you on the next one.
- Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood without Killing Your Career
- Lance Dorsey – Past episode