As we continue to progress, we are getting more and more conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusivity. Rightly so, because it is high time that we recognize that we are better together than apart. Despite this growing emphasis, however, we are still seeing companies struggle to create a culture that embraces DEI. Here to help with a fresh perspective is Nancy Geenen, the CEO and Founder of Flexability—a company that helps management and companies create outstanding teams. Nancy’s solution is simple: go backward. That is, starting DEI with Inclusion. Find out what she means by that and why it is a better alternative to DEI. Plus, hear more unique insights such as why DEI is a skill you need to practice over and over again. and why leadership lives in communication. Tune in to this conversation to not miss out!
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Doing DEI Backward: It Starts With The Individuals With Nancy Geenen
Why Starting With Inclusion Creates A Better Company Culture
Before I get to my fascinating conversation with Nancy Geenen, I’d like to invite you to see where your presentation skills are strong by checking into our free four-minute assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where in four minutes, you can see where you are strong with your presentation skills and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition that you deserve. If you score high enough, you will win a free 45-minute consultation with me, so take four minutes and try.
My guest is Nancy Geenen. She’s a friend and someone I have been trying to get for quite some time and a very busy person. She is the CEO and Founder of Flexability, which is a company that helps companies create outstanding teams. Her official bio is that she’s a teacher and a strategist. She loves watching teams succeed because they trust and communicate fearlessly.
Nancy is known for her witty and humorous storytelling and she leans into her core values, which are put people first, keep your promises, and lead with abundance, bravery, and creativity. Nancy’s book, The Advantage of Other is available for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and through your independent bookstore. There’s another episode in the queue with Nancy talking about the book, so be sure to stay tuned. Now to talk about the advantage of being other, our guest, Nancy Geenen.
Nancy Geenen, thank you so much for joining us on the show.
Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to have this conversation with you.
You are one of the people that took me a while to get you because you are so good. You have got such cool things to say. I’m excited to have this. Before we start, let me ask you who would be your dream interview. If you could interview someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be, what would you ask them, and who should be listening?
I was thinking about different eras and amateur students of history. I was thinking about Indira Gandhi would be good. I would love to interview one of the empresses of China or somebody like a famous woman who did great things in her time and was achieving great things. I thought, “Wow.” I was talking to my daughters about it, and the person I’d love to interview is Ruth Bader Ginsburg because I want to get to not only what she did and how she affected our women’s history, the civil rights movement, and all of the people that she was involved with in and during her career while raising her children and doing all those things. Also, I would like to find out how she communicates. How does she communicate with the rest of the justices? How do they negotiate?
For our international readers. This is the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was the subject of the movie, A Question of Sex. That was on the basis of sex or something like that. If you haven’t seen it, you must. It’s a wonderful movie.
I want to know how she would communicate with her peers and how she communicates up and to the sides. That’s where great leadership lives. I was trying to tie it into your themes and some of the earlier shows I read to prepare and think about how you sit at this round table where essentially everyone has an equal voice, but there’s a diversity of thought, experience, and representation. How do you achieve decisions? It is because that’s what leaders do. In that respect, I thought that would be a fascinating conversation to have. I was thinking, “Who else would I put at that dinner table? Maybe Condoleezza Rice who was in the Bush administration and brought a diversity of women leaders?”Leadership lives in communication. Click To Tweet
She was a Black woman Secretary of State and Republican.
It is so fun to have people who are already good listeners. I want to be the person who pours the coffee and is sitting there going, “What else?” That would be my picks.
The two of them. That would be great. I once saw a live interview with the great mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender and Christa Ludwig. Christa Ludwig was in a bad mood that day and she was giving short answers. Brigitte Fassbaender got up and walked around the table and poked Christa Ludwig in the shoulder. Madam Ludwig said, “What was this?” Brigitte Fassbaender said, “They said if I let you go, you would start telling stories. I was looking for the on button.” I thought that’s an interviewer’s dream is to hit the on button and say, “Go. Tell me stories.” Nancy, tell me stories. How do you describe Flexability?
Flexability is about helping both titled and intrinsic leaders in their organizations build high-performing teams. That’s what we do. We do it in a variety of different ways. I was talking to the leader of the small college who was trying to figure out how to mesh her leadership team who are all good managers. We think about how she does that. One of the questions that surprised her, I said, “What type of leader are you and how do you communicate?” That self-awareness piece, I hadn’t been thinking about that in terms of building a team. I said, “You are part of the team.”
You might be a coach where you are getting skilled players in the right place. Interesting for you, Elizabeth, she was a professor of music and has been all over the world. I said, “I don’t know a lot about music, but I know how to listen to a great opera and symphony.” When you have all the different skill players at the top of their game, they know they matter even if they are not in the first chair. There’s a moment of silence where the audience sits in awe as do the musicians. That’s the definition for many.
I’m a sports person so I can do all the sports analogies, but they don’t often work for everyone in the leadership community. This music, the symphony one, everybody has experienced that moment of a great performance. There is that moment that almost makes you cry. It’s so beautiful. It’s so quiet, and everyone in that room experiences it. That’s what we try to do with business leaders.
How do you manage the expectations? I do know that with opera. Being many years in the opera, it is the most complicated of the performing arts. There are so many moving parts and you are doing it live right there. You may have three people on stage singing but you have got 500 people on the payroll that night. It all has to work together. You learn to live for the moments where it all works, but you never get the whole thing that works. It doesn’t work all the time. How do you aim for that but manage the expectation that that’s going to be the exception rather than the rule?
Talk about performance levels. It’s shocking to hear that most people are performing at or about 51%, 52%, or 53%. That’s pretty much there. I’m aging myself, but there’s that George Carlin quote that, “People work hard enough not to get fired.” What we are trying to do is elevate a percentage. It doesn’t matter what the number is. It matters what the starting point is to a point where everyone in that organization, those 800 people on the payroll, are all engaged in trying to get to 80% to 90%.
Every once in a while, Olympic athletes. The First Lady, all of them are looking for that zone performance where it’s so much in the moment that you don’t aren’t aware of what’s happening. When we move expectations, what we are trying to do is say, “Does everybody know what the goal is or what the bullseye is? What is done? What are the results look like?”
We are never going to get to 100%, and there is no 110%. That’s a common mistake that we try to correct right away. “Work a little bit harder.” I grew up in that. “If you work hard, you tell the truth, and you are going to do great.” That’s true. There’s no more than 100% because then you are probably not taking care of yourself, and that means that your performance will diminish over time because of burnout. We are talking about engagement.
I did some studying, but I’m way out of my depth. If we are talking softball, football, golf, or tennis, I can do a lot. If you can get everybody to know that they belong in their performance, the job they do is critical to get to that 80% to 90% or that experience, and they all experience it. They are there because they love it. They love opera. They are there because they have seen those moments.
This is the belonging piece. This is how we teach DEI upside down. If you can get to inclusion where everyone knows their value, they know they belong, and they know that the one time they do one thing in a three-hour performance, it makes a difference. They are seen and heard. That’s high performance as a team.
I had an idea to play around with the metaphor here with live sports and live performances. We went to Radio City Music Hall in New York City to watch the Christmas spectaculars with The Rockettes doing their cancans and so forth. It’s very impressive. It’s a great big show. It’s a great big theater. The other thing that impressed me was the functional equivalent of the people in the basement who are getting their dirt under their fingernails.
At Radio City, they have 6,000 seats, and they get in about 30 to 40 minutes. They get 6,000 people into that space, find their seats, and then 90 minutes later, they get 6,000 people out of there and ready for the next 6,000 seats. During the height of holiday time, they do a show every 2 and a half or 3 hours. I was thinking about that and thought that the logistical skill involved in that is like the logistical skill nowadays where you have on-time delivery. You were talking about doing diversity, equity, and inclusion upside down. Go through that sequence for me, please.
When we think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we use working definitions, depending on who we are talking to and what we are doing, what the challenges are in the organization, and what the leadership and the organization want to achieve. There are three levels of organization. There’s the company, there’s the leadership teams, and then there’s the individual level.
We believe in order to create psychological safety belongings, that’s where high-performance teams live. You have to start with inclusion because it’s the impact. It’s how I feel and how I respond. I’m a music symphony geek. I have music on all the time. I’m a neuroscience geek. I know enough to be dangerous, but what we want to do is we want to get every individual on the team into a place where they feel seen and heard, and they know they are heard because they are seen.
Inclusion is about impact. It’s how I feel I belong, I matter, and what I do brings value. Talking about equity, that’s more at this company level and leadership team level. We are looking at systemic processes, procedures, and documentation to say in a less overt way, but sometimes very overt, we belong. It is the simple thing being, “Do we put identity labels or gender labels in our email signature?”
An easy one does cost no money, but it identifies to anybody on the outside or to those who feel othered that this might be a place of inclusion and belonging. That’s systemic and equity. We think about equity as creating opportunities for everyone in the organization to thrive and for every individual to thrive individually because we are not all the same.
For those who don’t live or who don’t talk about this all the time, define the difference between equity and equality.
Equality is you give everybody the same box to see over the top of the fence. Equity, you give different individuals different size boxes depending on their needs. In the workplace, if you are short in this graphic, you get a taller box. If you are in a wheelchair, you get a box that has a ramp. It’s creating opportunities for individuals to thrive based on who they are and how they present.
In the workplace. We think about it as tools. You can give everybody the same computer, but if you have those who have low vision or low hearing, additionally provide them software that describes pictures for low vision or that has closed captioning or your hybrid meetings. You are not providing tools where someone who, like me, has low hearing can thrive. I miss stuff along the way.
We will go back to psychological safety and the inclusion piece. The impact on me is I don’t belong. I’m too much on the outside. Some of these things, almost nothing. One of the greatest examples of the twentieth century of creating inclusion around the disability world is curb cuts. These curb cuts are when the curb is cut down so that there’s a ramp from the curb down the street level, which means that if you are in a wheelchair and you are crossing the street in your wheelchair, you can get up onto the sidewalk.
Creating that was a hugely expensive change for cities’ infrastructure ways. It cut down UPS workers’ comp back claims by over 70%. Even though therefore say the disability world, somebody who has mobility or mobility issues can’t get up over the curb without help, it creates wonderful opportunities for others. That’s where we say that it makes good business sense to think about this. You want all of your team members to give their very best feeling engaged. That’s inclusion. That gets you to equity, which is processes, procedures, documentation, and lightweight doors.You want all of your team members to give their very best feeling engaged. That's inclusion. Click To Tweet
You are talking about UPS back problems. That means that the person who’s delivering the packages can use a hand truck and roll the packages on and off the sidewalk. It also means, as you talk about maternal bias here, that mothers with kids in strollers or baby carriages can get up and down, which is something that since the Western business was created by men. It’s one of the things that didn’t occur to anybody until there was an issue or until enough people complained.
That gets us back to inclusion, “I matter and I belong.” Somebody is paying attention to giving me the tools, which is the equity different than the same tool. It’s the tools that I need to thrive in this workspace. Diversity is the metric or the measurement as to, “Do we have representation at the table?” It is the decision-making table. It’s who we invite into the conference room. It’s who we invite to mentor and bring with us to business meetings.
The hardest part about the DEI and some of the backlash that we are seeing is, in a privately held company, let’s say, you have somebody who’s worked for you for thirteen years. They are ready to move up into the executive team leadership. Here comes diversity, equity, and inclusion following the George Floyd murder, which was the murder in Minneapolis, which got worldwide attention.
Not the first and not the last, but it did create a movement along with Black Lives Matter, which had started a while before that. It created this idea that “This slot no longer is going to go to this thirteen-year veteran in my company. I’m going to bring somebody in who’s diverse in representation and identity. We have the big eight identities.”
We all live in those identities, and leaders are in this conundrum. That’s that diversity metric. We have to decide as a company, “How do we get the diversity of thought, representation, identity, and lived experiences to create a company that will be sustainable, will thrive, and we will all understand the mission, values, where we are going, and why we are here?”
It’s funny because it goes back to some of the business thought leaderships in the ’70s and ’80s to say, “If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your consumers, customers, and clients.” How we define now taking care in the 21st century is much broader. People say, “Why does it matter?” It matters because you want a company that is sustainable for the future. Your workforce is between 18 and 52, and they grew up in an environment where equity and inclusion matter. They are going to choose with their pocketbooks the brands that support their values and morals.
In the United States, we are experiencing a very divisive political economy. It’s creating this backlash. It’s mostly about politics. It’s not about progressive values in the sense of this equity and inclusion. If we think about it, you bring it away from this worldwide view of politics and bring it down to the individual, the team, and the company. Great change can happen that doesn’t have to be threatening and dangerous.
All along in recorded history, people have tried to get power by making other people afraid and designating someone as the other. I’m a history geek too. I was looking up the Thirty Years’ War, which is one of the ways of defining it as Catholic versus Protestant. It matters to US history because it was from the mid-’70s to the mid-18th century. These divisions sent a lot of people leaving Europe and fleeing to the new world where they could worship the way they wanted and where they wouldn’t be persecuted.
For the framers of the Constitution, it was Catholic versus Protestant. I remember in my childhood hearing people who said, “You can’t elect John F. Kennedy because he’s a Catholic. America will never do that.” It became no big deal, but it was one of the defining divisions for my parent’s generation, and then people who want power can say, “That’s the other person.” If you look at former Yugoslavia as Serbia and Croatia, Bosnians and Croats used to live together until the politicians said, “You have to hate your neighbor because they are other.”
That’s why we talk about these big generalizations. We have to bring it down to your neighbor. Still, in Northern Ireland, we are seeing those same neighborhood-by-neighborhood pieces of division. In business, what is the mission of the company? Why do you exist? It’s Simon Sinek’s what’s your why in The Golden Circle, then you can get to your what in your how.
In business, we are all there for, hopefully, a single purpose, to help a client, customer, or consumer live better somehow. Those value-driven companies are the ones where we are going to see the most belonging. We are going to see the high-performing teams. I’m going to shift on you a little bit here and say there is this attention paid to stakeholder primacy versus shareholder primacy.Those value-driven companies are the ones where we see the most belonging. Click To Tweet
Is that still happening? It seems to me that since the 1980s became all about the shareholders.
It has. In the 21st century, what we are seeing now is, in the United States, there are companies who have legally organized themselves around a benefit corporation, a B-Corp. Patagonia is probably the best-known brand in Europe, Danone, which now owns Ben & Jerry’s. There are a couple of companies now in India that are going towards that. They were colleagues of mine when I was at Harvard, and focusing where this isn’t to make shareholders’ value go up or to increase the value of the company.
It’s going around these UN ESG or the Environment, the Social, the Governance goals to create a better world, both for the individual, community, business, country and then for the world, always thinking in this pyramid. What we recognize in building high-performance teams is the idea that it starts with the individuals. There’s that great cartoon where the CFO and the CEO are talking, and I have got one now with two women that I did in a keynote that I gave where the CFO says, “I’m not sure we can afford to invest in all this education, training, and upskilling for our employees,” and the CEO saying, “How can we not?”
If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.
People say, “Why is it important?” Huge. I published a study from February 2021 about rainbow washing. We are getting ready to go into the LGBTQ+ and all the other letters about rainbow washing, women’s history washing, or about Latinx washing. For a month, we are going to pay attention to pride and the LGBT community. It makes a difference because, in America, the LGBTQ buying power is a little over $3 trillion. The spend is less, but it gets spent on companies that are not just showing up for a month in June. Their policies, procedures, and benefits are all there twelve months a year.
I’m anxious. June is going to start with pride month, and everybody is going to show up with their rainbow logos and their flags. We support the LGBT and trans communities, which are at risk right now. We are seeing Florida and Texas put the trans community at risk and putting women’s health at risk. How many of those companies are going to say, “It’s not just a flag for us?”
Here’s what we do twelve months a year. Those are the companies where a little over $3 trillion just in America that spend is going to go. Now, because we have paid attention to this, that spending is going to be important to business leaders who want to reach a consumer that maybe they haven’t spent time on before. Here again, we are seeing that the backlash of Uganda passed extraordinarily devastating legislation around the LGBT community. This is a worldwide issue, and we are going into June 2023 in America, which is pride month, and we have got to pay attention to more than the flag waving.
I always think of it as a pendulum, and we have gotten better. I was writing an article about things that are improving and things that broke down into your either this or that. The either/or has now become, “It’s not that simple.” You had a great phrase about identity. When we were doing our preparation call, I was asking you about how we fit along the spectrum. You were taking LGBTQIA+ and all the various letters. There are so many people, especially in the younger generations, who are saying, “I’m not just one thing,” or, “Maybe I’m not one thing my whole life.” Where is there a place for the spectrum of identity? You had a great phrase about identity being a circle. Talk about that, please. I want to hear.
There are the big eight identities, which are race, culture, socioeconomic status, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. I won’t get all eight. We do an exercise with leadership teams, especially in middle management teams to say, “Here’s the circle and we will give you the slide to use. How many of these different identities do you hold?” Almost without exception, there were a couple. Everybody is in every slice of that pie.
Then there’s, “What do you lead with?” You lead with how you present. I present pretty much a White woman privileged just by you looking at me. Your brain is going, “I got this. I’m predicting you are exactly like this, and this is how you are going to act.” Our brains predict our feelings. With our biases, our trigger brain says, “Safe or danger.” Lions, tigers, and bears are like, “I’m safe.” Athlete, perhaps.
We look for commonalities so that we can then have a conversation, “How do we know you?” There are lots of exercises that we do. When we look at that circle of identities, we are never just one thing. That is this lived identity, which has to do with experience. What we are trying to do is get leadership to realize that we have so much more in common than we have differences.
What we want to do as leaders is be curious about those differences because there is great learning that happens in that space of curiosity and new experience, and it’s not unsafe. You aren’t in danger, especially in a workspace. It’s not to be reckless, but it is to be curious and to say, “I didn’t get that quite right.” I start a lot of times. I have a group I work with. I will start with a topic, and I’m trained in Midwest values ladies and gentlemen.
I have a group that every time I do it, and I’m almost trained out of it, but it takes practice. I do this for a living. Like the musician, you don’t get to that first chair symphony without thousands of hours of practice. DEI is a skill. We aren’t born this. We are born to say we are different. Our brains, not our minds, are trained to keep us safe.DEI is a skill. It takes practice. Click To Tweet
Breathing and blood pumping, that’s 80% of what goes on in the whole piece that is the trigger brain, and what we have to do is we have to interrupt that trigger response, but you can’t change. You can’t get unbiased. You can recognize, “I have bias. I can change here. I can have a different response,” and that’s where mindfulness comes in, where we started. Mindfulness comes in to say, “I can interrupt that trigger. I can be curious. Tell me more.”
“When I said this, I saw your face, and it looked like it didn’t hit you just right. Am I reading that right? I’m not telling you how you feel. I’m asking. I saw something that didn’t make sense to me. Can you tell me what you were thinking?” You helped me as a leader get better because you have experience. That’s where this diversity starts to become a powerful economic force in a company to say, “I get that.”
The apology comes not from, “I’m sorry that you feel that way.” It’s that, “I’m sorry I didn’t get it, and I will do better next time, but I’m inviting you to correct me as we go along.” I’m inviting that insight. Not feedback, not constructive criticism, and not all that stuff. I’m inviting your insights to help me make sure that you have the opportunities and tools, and that you know I value, see, and hear you. It’s an Avatar thing like in a movie. It’s a culture shift. It’s bumpy, and it takes time. It’s not, “We can do three trainings a year for middle management, and everything is going to be better.” It’s not. It might make it worse. It has to be a long-term commitment.
Do you have a standard second sentence when you say, “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen?” Do you have a standard follow-up?
I do, depending on the audience. It depends on whether I use a curse word or not. Sometimes I say darn. Give me a moment to redo it because I’m better than that.
Then what do you say?
Colleagues, friends, and folks. You as an audience. It depends on what is a big or little group. Somebody who’s going to raise their hand and go, “You did it again.” I’m going to be like, “I did, but I own it.” I use humor. I ask in a cute and humorous way. “Let’s start over.” Back up that truck, take a deep breath, and let go of whatever you felt. That’s a smaller group, sometimes a big group. Get oxygen to your brain. “Colleagues, I’m here to talk to you about.”
It’s a good speaker to make the mistake and then correct it because it draws attention to the issue. It sets up your talk.
It does. I can’t say I use it as a prop. I don’t think it’s a good thing to do as a prop because it’s inauthentic. I don’t know how many of your readers have Apple TV and watched the Ted Lasso show, but I binge on it every so often. I was watching it. Season 3, the 9th episode has a coming-out scene for one of the players, Hughes, who comes out as gay.
The audience knows he’s gay mostly throughout, but there’s not much in Season 3 about Ted Lasso. The scene is Ted Lasso does a terrible example of somebody being othered by liking a different sports team, Chiefs versus Broncos. For Americans, it would be like Man United versus Real Madrid. They are big sports teams. If you are in England and you like Real Madrid, no one watches with you.
It is a terrible analogy Ted Lasso used in the locker room. Hughes, who is a gay soccer player, says, “Did you use a sports analogy to talk about the difference about being gay?” Ted Lasso goes, “I did. That was American football, a fumble on the field. Let me go back.” The point he was trying to make is that being passive to say, “I’m gay.” “Great. We don’t care. It doesn’t make a difference to us.” It’s harmful.
That’s the point that Ted Lasso is trying to make to say, “We do care about you. We care about you so much that you don’t have to carry this feeling of otherness by yourself anymore.” It’s about 22 to 25 minutes into this episode, but it was one of the strongest messages that I have seen in modern media about how we approach someone who reveals, “I have mental health issues. You don’t know, but I have low hearing. I can’t do that because I can’t climb stairs. I have MS. I have diabetes.” When we bring ourselves forward before being seen as weaknesses and we say, “We care. What do you need? How can I help?” I’m inviting you to ask. That’s the most powerful sense of belonging there is.
If I came in to say one message to all of the readers, it’s care. Care enough to ask, to be curious, and to learn something about somebody you have known for twenty years that has revealed something very authentic and heartfelt because they trust you. The other side of that story is Hughes’s best friend, Isaac, is angry. Hughes thinks it’s because he’s gay. He doesn’t like it. Isaac is angry because Hughes didn’t trust him enough to tell them before. For me, going into pride month and into what we are seeing in America and with the trans community, care enough to be curious.
What if you ask and they are tired of being the example? They are tired of talking about it.
It is the burden of education of the other. It’s a tough interaction. It comes back to saying how you ask. Rather than saying, “Educate me,” say, “What’s a good resource form? Where do I go to learn about this stuff? Can you give me a book list? Can you point me to a podcast? I don’t need you to sit down and tell me your life experience because maybe there’s not enough trust for us to do that, but realize that I’m trying to figure this stuff out. I’m being vulnerable.”
The vulnerability lives with the speaker who’s trying to learn not with the other. The other experience is that harm every day in it’s cumulative. That burden is extraordinary. I come sitting with true integrity and true vulnerabilities saying, “I don’t get it. I want to learn. Can you point me to some resources so I can start to read, and then may I ask questions about what I’m reading?” It’s the, “What did I do wrong or how do I do better?” It’s, “May I ask you if you will help me?” Ask for the invite to come in and say, “I’m interested in this.” It may not be you. Maybe you are so sick and tired of talking about what it means to be an angry Black woman in the workspace. I got it.
It’s got to be okay if they say no.
You have to walk away and say, “Thanks. I’m going to work on this. If you think of something, send me an email with some books, podcasts, or something I can read about.” Coming back to speakers who get results, I think about it as communication. I keep bringing it back to great leaders are good communicators because every poor, expression, and part of their body shows vulnerability, interest, and curiosity. That’s where great leadership lives.
That is a great line to end on. Thank you so very much. This was fascinating. I could listen to you for hours. I have to get you back one of these days and talk further about this thing. Thank you so much for being our guest. If you had a good time and enjoyed this conversation, please tell your friends. Subscribe to us on YouTube. Subscribe to us on whatever app you use. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. That’s the one that matters. Tell your friends. I have so much fun bringing in smart and interesting people like Nancy. In the meantime, I will see you on the next one.
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About Nancy Geenen
Nancy Geenen is a teacher and a strategist. She revels in watching teams succeed because they trust and communicate fearlessly. Known for her witty and humorous storytelling, Nancy leans into her core values: put people first, keep your promises, and lead with abundance, bravery and creativity.
Her book, The Advantage of Other, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and through your independent bookstore.