Ahead of her presentation at the Women in Strategy Summit in New York on February 27 & 28, we spoke to Joanne Rencher, Chief Business and Talent Officer, Girl Scouts of the USA.
With 25 years of business leadership experience, Joanne serves as the Chief Business and Talent Officer for the National Headquarters of the Girl Scouts. She is responsible for leading Girl Scouts’ Property Assets, with a focus on increasing investments and elevating the brand; and has oversight of the Talent team. With her passion for developing business and talent leaders, Joanne founded a membership based organization challenging conventional wisdom around career paths. She served as the Vice President of Human Capital for The New Teacher Project (TNTP) and as a nonprofit consultant, leading innovations in the education reform and nonprofit sectors, respectively. Joanne advised senior leaders and Board members at leading-edge organizations in the education, economic development and social services industries – among them, College Possible (recognized by former President, Barack Obama, for its innovative approach to coaching and support for low SES students seeking college admission) and the Children’s Aid Society. Before working as a nonprofit consultant, Joanne served as the Chief People Officer for the American Red Cross in Greater New York; and as a Global Vice President for the first public private partnership, funded by Bill Gates, leading research and development to cure the AIDS virus.
How did you get started in your career?
I joined the GE/GE Capital conglomerate, working for one of their leading edge bond insurance businesses. While I quickly found that bond insurance wasn’t my long-term career, I fully learned and embraced business from every angle in those early days. That early job taught me the importance of holding a business lens up to every role in order to tackle the biggest challenges. I’ve applied those tools and concepts to every setting since – the nonprofit sector, start-up environments, turnarounds, consulting and more. Knowing the business inside and out makes one better in any chosen field.
What do you think is behind the lack of women in senior positions? What do you think companies can do to address any imbalance?
For one, we’re still suffering from age-old stereotypes – both those imposed by others as well as those which are self-imposed by women themselves. Many of those stereotypical views are around female leadership styles and ways of communicating. Having said that, there are clear differences between the genders which should be celebrated and honed to work in our favor, as opposed to becoming caricatures. Beyond that, the leadership ‘bench’ is still too sparse as there is a dearth of women available and ready to ascend to the next level. This is across multiple functions. However, strikingly, even in a female dominated field such as talent (HR), the top talent officer seat at fortune 500 businesses is still more often occupied by a man. The overall share of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies topped 5% for the first time in early 2017, according to Pew, with a scarce 27 women heading major firms! This means that there’s a massive under-representation of a demographic that accounts for half of all consumers. Companies must be far more intentional about succession planning and development, and the talent teams in those companies must view that inclusiveness as a business imperative. When it is seen as such from an economic perspective, a leadership bench without female representation would be unacceptable. Further, women helping women could occur more strategically through networks laser-focused on real skill development and preparation for ‘what’s next.’
Progress has been slow for gender parity in many industries, particularly STEM. Do you see improvements coming anytime soon, or is it likely to be a long journey? Do you think company-wide pay transparency has the potential to help address the issue of gender pay inequality?
It’s true that progress is slow, however, cultivating interest in historically male-dominated fields, such as STEM, must start very early. Research shows that girls are keenly interested in STEM and excel at it. We can change the landscape. Organizations such as the Girl Scouts are already doing that! STEM programs at the Girl Scouts, help girls become better problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and inspirational leaders. Through app creation or video game development, the possibilities are countless. That’s the path to strong, confident female leaders who can bust through glass ceilings and windows. So, yes, I’m completely optimistic. As for pay transparency and inequality, that takes a village. Literally. Companies must be willing to be honest and transparent about gaps and have the stomach and pocketbook to make the economic fixes to the disparity. I’m grateful for firms entering the leadership space who are focused on partnering with companies to close gender pay gaps. The firm, SameWorks, is a great example of this.
What impact on workplace diversity do you will think will come from changes to the nature of employment? Will more people working remotely in the future help to augment innovation?
Simply put, companies still wrestling with the notion of workplace flexibility and remote workers are behind, and their businesses will suffer. Generally speaking, technology is available to support work from any location in the world. Leading-edge competitors are attracting employees who want and need this flexibility to thrive – personally and professionally. So, the sooner companies make the requisite investments in technology and shore up their remote work policies, the faster they can get on with the business of innovation. Both men and women are coming to expect this type of work environment.
How important is diversity for innovation? How can female leaders drive innovation forward?
Female leaders have the ability to drive innovation forward simply by virtue of showing up with their authentic selves. It’s a fact that diverse teams deliberate more carefully and produce better outcomes. Why? Because, as long as they’re in an atmosphere that breeds authenticity, people can bring they uniqueness to the table. Diverse teams also tend to work harder to understand other points of views . I recently read a great Harvard Business Review article that broke this concept of ‘diversity breeding innovation’ down into fascinating detail. In brief, they confirmed that, for companies to outperform and out-innovate competitors, two things must happen: 1 – they must invite inherent diversity to the table (i.e. women, women of color) and 2 – they must nurture acquired diversity where a culture of speaking up is tended to.
What will you be discussing in your presentation?
Is there anyone else you are particularly looking forward to hearing from? In this presentation, the panel and I will highlight tangible strategies which empower women to drive innovation and fuel business strategies. We’ll also talk candidly about the power - and sometimes pain - of women helping other women. We must be more successful at ‘sending the elevator back down’ once we’ve gotten to the next level. Finally, we’ll discuss some systemic challenges found in the workplace – and in the corridors of our own minds – which thwart female leadership and what we can do about them.
You can catch Joanne's presentation at the Women in Strategy Summit in New York on February 27 & 28.