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“What I wish I knew then”

Vicki Hawarden, Vice President Events, SHRM – Society for Human Resource Management, talks about her biggest mistakes, women in top leadership, mentoring, women on Obama’s team and blind hiring.

tw: It took only a moment for you to accept the invitation to speak at the very first “She Means Business” conference at IMEX America. Why?
Vicki Hawarden: How could I say no? The invitation included three of my favorites: an opportunity to share knowledge with women in, or who aspire to be in, leadership; MPI; and IMEX America. And now I can add Deutscher Fachverlag as a new favorite, for being a key partner in bringing this important program to our event community. Thank you!

Your presentation is titled “What I wish I knew then”. For those you couldn‘t come to Las Vegas on 9 September 2019 – please share your two biggest mistakes.
I wish I had spent more time building a network of mentors and advisors. I was moving fast, always taking the next step, and not reaching out enough to successful people I respected. I wish I would have set a goal early in my career to have regular lunches or meetings with people who had already achieved a top leadership role. When you get to a certain level, people stop telling you the truth as often and are more likely to tell you what you want to hear, so access to wise and experienced advisors is key. Those relationships take time to develop, so make the time. The second mistake is related to the first. I wish I had realized sooner that what got you here won’t get you there. You spend so much of your career with your hands directly on the rudder where you have immediate impact on the work to be done. And you are usually judged on how much you “do” and how well you do it. The focus is more on the work, and output. When you get to a senior leadership level, all of those “directive” and tactical skills become less important, and what matters is how well you lead, influence, inspire, coach or enable those around you.

A 2018 Fortune report showed that women represent just 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs –down from 6% in 2017. How do we get more women into top leadership?
We get more women into top leadership by getting more women into top leadership who are willing to reach down and help more women get into top leadership! I know that seems oversimplified, but I do believe in a virtuous circle. Humans naturally connect with, promote and mentor people who are like them, people they are comfortable with and can relate to. Getting balanced leadership at the top will not just happen, we have to make it happen through a concerted effort to support each other as we grow, and to mentor and promote other deserving women once we are in a position to do so. Still, I’m not discouraged. Only a generation or two ago, women were considered to be mainly support staff. We’ve come a long way in a relatively short time and true change doesn’t happen as quickly as we’d like. But I also believe (or at least hope) we are at a tipping point, where change can happen very rapidly.

You see a need for leadership development targeted at women. How does this differ?
I think women benefit from any good leadership development program. But we do face unique challenges. We don’t see ourselves reflected in top leadership roles often enough, so we need to be sure we give young women more role models. Also, I’ve worked for and with some amazing men, who’ve inspired me and supported me. I’ve also worked around some men who were clearly uncomfortable with women as their equal, who behaved and spoke in an outrageously sexist manner. How do you deal with that without losing your cool? And there are other issues for women. Like, what’s the best approach to ensure you are being paid equitably and getting the same access to promotions and development? We need content that helps us address all these issues and we need opportunities to network with other female leaders so we can mentor and promote great female talent.

How can mentoring drive women’s leadership and how can it be delivered on a practical level?
On a practical level, I think mentoring is about being someone’s ongoing coach and touchstone. I think those who aspire to leadership need to look at who inspires them and literally ask them to be a mentor. Tell them you want honest feedback on not only your performance, but your soft skills. If you are in a position to be a mentor, it’s a matter of just taking the time to coach those under your supervision, or form a relationship with those who aren’t, and regularly invite them to informal conversations. Last but certainly not least, promote those you mentor. Talk them up to other staff. Nominate them for awards. Help other women by amplifying their voice.


Vicki Hawarden, CMP, a 30-year veteran of association management, is Vice President of Events for SHRM – the Society for Human Resource Management, overseeing a portfolio of events with $33 million in revenue. SHRM creates better workplaces where employers and employees thrive together. With 300,000+ HR and business executive members in 165 countries, SHRM impacts the lives of more than 115 million workers and families globally. Hawarden also served as a senior executive with for several associations, including VP of Events for the International Association of Exhibitions and Events and for Meeting Professionals International. www.shrm.org, www.talkworkculture.com
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Do you know a story where women supported women?
My favorite story is from the women on Obama’s team, which was dominated by men; men who probably didn’t even realize they were speaking up more than the women, talking over them, or appropriating ideas first suggested by a woman. So the women banded together, and began amplifying each other’s voices. They would repeat an idea, credit the woman who came up with it, and force everyone to realize that the women had as much to contribute to the discussion as anyone. The result was that Obama began calling on and consulting with more women. What a brilliant solution to combat unconscious (or even conscious) bias.

Research shows that diverse management teams are often more innovative. How come that most of the board rooms are still male dominated?
It’s all related to what I’ve been sharing about how we as humans tend to be comfortable with people who are most like us. So male boards tend to beget male boards which also tend to lead to male CEOs. It all becomes its own self–sustaining circle. I do believe much progress has been made to not only balance the male-female ratio but also to infuse more diverse cultures, beliefs, and all the other defining characteristics that exist in the world, which can only help a business to better meet the needs of all customers.

Isn't this a Human Resources matter?
HR is definitely part of the solution and can help lead the way to a more diverse management team and staff and to a more limited degree, a board. After all, boards often tend to be selected through a voting process or by a nominating committee, but we all know top staff have an influence. However, it’s important to note that this isn’t just an HR matter. All of us in the workforce, especially in leadership, play an important role in ensuring more diversity and inclusion. To leave it to HR is to miss the boat, since they do not and cannot make all the hiring and promoting decisions.
“I am speaking at She Means Business conference, because I love connecting with leaders and soon–to–be leaders who are dedicated to opening up more leadership pathways to women who in turn mentor and promote other women – a virtuous circle!”
Vicki Hawarden, Vice President of Events for SHRM

The Society for Human Resource Management unites 300,000+ HR and business executive members. Do you address gender equality and female empowerment at your congresses?
We definitely do. Some topics this year included “The Art of Executive Presence: A Professional Woman's Guide to Commanding the Room”, this session was in our Top Five most highly rated sessions or “When a Gap Becomes a Sinkhole: Addressing Wage Disparity in a Balanced Way” and “It’s About More Than Bathrooms: Understanding Gender Identity and Expression in the Workplace”.

Your vision is “build a world of work that works for all”. Women make up half of the population. Many of them don’t feel equally treated regarding career opportunities and salaries. Does the Society of Human Resources Managers empower women?
At SHRM our mission is to empower people and the places they work by advancing HR practices and maximizing human potential. To empower women in the workplace we believe we need to we need to change the culture, not create rules that people will ignore. The discussion around gender in hiring often brings up the topic of bias – conscious or unconscious. One simple strategy HR can initiate for minimizing the latter is to use “blind” hiring. In a recent issue of HR Magazine, we looked at what happens when certain information – such as gender, name, name or college or graduation date – is stripped from candidate applications. The results were really interesting…