Inclusion: Pushing for Real Results in Academia

If there’s someone pushing for real results in diversity and inclusion at all levels of academia, that’s Dr. Alison Davis-Blake, the eight president of Bentley University.

RSM #IWDleader Hall of Fame

RSM #IWDleader Hall of Fame

Before this role, Dr. Davis-Blake was the Dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan (2011-2016) where she positioned the school globally for its new mission to develop leaders who make a positive difference in the world. Prior to Ross she was the Dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota (2006-2011.)

Dr Davis-Blake was the first female dean at both Carlson and Ross and is Bentley’s second woman president. She is a talented scholar with expertise in strategic human resource management and organizational design for effective management of human capital.

For breaking the glass ceiling in a historically male-dominated sector, and for relentlessly pushing for real results when it comes to full inclusion in academia, we honor Dr. Alison Davis-Blake with the 2020 Hall of Fame.

The influence of great women leaders

Red Shoe Movement—Why do women make great leaders?

Alison Davis-Blake —In a recent study published by Harvard Business Review, researchers found that women in leadership positions are rated equally or more competent than men in leadership positions. I am not surprised by this data which also show that in particular, across thousands of the 360-reviews used for the research, women leaders were highly rated as “excelling” in “taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty.” I have personally found that women are more likely to engage in integrative (both parties win) negotiations than distributive (win-lose) negotiations in the workplace. It is also my feeling that due to personal experiences of exclusion women can often be more sensitive to the need for diversity and inclusion, thus unleashing organizational potential for creative and innovative solutions.

RSM— How have women helped you along your career?

ADB—Women have been essential to my career as sponsors, mentors, collaborators, and supporters. While the importance of sponsors and mentors is well understood, I think we overlook the vital role of collaborators and supporters. My female collaborators have provided a space where it was safe for me to be myself, to vet concepts, and to test ideas. A space where it is safe to express incomplete thoughts in private with a collaborator or a supporter is vital because so often women face a smaller margin for error in public. I have also been the beneficiary of a great many women who were working on the front lines but who went out of their way to tell me that they were supporting me as a female leader and wanted to see me succeed. Their votes of confidence kept me going during some of my most difficult days.

President Alison Davis-Blake pushes for real results

President Alison Davis-Blake pushes for real results

RSM— You were the first female dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and at the time that made you the highest-ranking dean at any U.S. business school. Why did it take so long to have a woman in that position? What changes were you able to implement during your tenure there?

Business schools and fields of study have historically been male dominated. And there is a very, very long road to the deanship. One must obtain a Ph.D., get a good academic job, obtain tenure, become a full professor, and get some administrative experience. That can easily be a 20-year process. And, research is clear that just like the corporate pipeline data reported by McKinsey & Company each year, the academic pipeline is extremely leaky at every stage with fewer women than men (proportionally) advancing to the next stage. Thus, there is a pipeline issue with regards to women achieving the highest ranks of academia, from which administrators are typically chosen.

When I became dean, it was not uncommon for only 10-15% of the full professors in a business school to be women, and, based on that, one would expect very few women to be in senior administrative roles and even fewer to be deans.

While at Ross, I led strategic efforts to increase global study opportunities for MBA and Bachelor of Business Administration students and formed new partnerships with universities around the world. Through this work we expanded activities in India, Japan and South Korea. Domestically we expanded our Executive MBA program to Los Angeles and introduced the Master of Management and Minor in Business programs.

We also completely revamped our undergraduate curriculum to make it more experiential and more integrated, better meeting the needs of today’s learners.

Iris Bohnet, Dean, Harvard Kennedy School shares how to get real results in gender inclusion.

What can be done to get real results?

President Alison Davis-Blake

President Alison Davis-Blake

RSM—54% of university professors who work full time in degree-granting postsecondary institutions are White males while 27% are White females. Only 2% of the following groups are full time professors: Black males, Black females, Hispanic Males and Hispanic females. What is the reason for this disparity in both gender ethnicity and race?

ADB—If doctoral programs don’t begin with a diverse group of students, subsequent stages of the pipeline will continue to be less and less diverse. The long and leaky pipeline is the underlying reason for all of these disparities. This is why efforts such as the Ph.D. Project, which focus on increasing diversity among doctoral students in business, are so critical to generating a diverse set of faculty and administrators for the future.

RSM—Can you share the story of a male champion who supported your ambitions along the way?

ADB—When I was an associate department chair, my chair (who I was in line to replace in several years) spent time introducing me to every key leader on campus and telling those leaders how much they would enjoy working with me. He was an extremely well-connected and well-respected person on campus. Those introductions, which took quite a bit of time to accomplish, were invaluable when I later became a department chair and then senior associate dean.

Want real results? Set the example!

RSM—As a leader, what are you specifically doing to level the playing field for women in academia and elsewhere?

ADB— “Diversity & Inclusion” is a key feature in Bentley University’s strategic plan. We have put hiring practices in place at the university to ensure that we are developing a strong pool of gender, ethnic and racially diverse candidates for every faculty and staff position. I believe that setting the example starts at the top. When making my own personnel decisions, I’ve mandated that all executive searches feature a broad slate of highly qualified candidates. And the results have been very positive. My Provost is a woman of color, my CFO is female, and my Cabinet (the people who report directly to me) has a roughly equal number of women and men. As we work together every day, we demonstrate that the contributions of men and women are equally valued and that both women and men can be successful at the highest levels of Bentley University.

Board diversity is also a top priority for both Bentley’s Board of Trustees and me. We are actively working to add women from all industry sectors and, importantly, women from academia to our Board.

RSM—What has been the most difficult lesson you’ve had to learn to get to where you are?

ADB—Earlier in my career, I imagined that by this point in my life, the playing field would be more level than it is. So, the hardest lesson I have had to learn is that the playing field is not level and will not be level during my lifetime. I sometimes joke that women of my generation have to work twice as hard to get half the credit. While that may not be exactly true, it has been my experience that women still have to produce better and cleaner results to be recognized. And we know that it is true that women are less likely to be paid equitably. While I believe the world is improving and that many leaders, both male and female, are working to change these dynamics, the work world I hoped for when I was younger has not yet materialized.

President Alison Davis Blake always looking to bring real results around inclusion to academia

President Alison Davis Blake always looking to bring real results around inclusion to academia

Closing the Gender Gap at Sea: The Celebrity Cruises Team

Celebrity Cruises has been making history for years, creating opportunities for women in an industry that has been dominated by their male counterparts for far too long. Lisa Luttof-Perlo, President and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, has focused on closing the gender gap at sea since she took office.

RSM #IWDleader Hall of Fame

RSM #IWDleader Hall of Fame

She believes that having women at the table is key to any organization. She has been a part of Celebrity since 2006, and “paying it forward” by helping other women find their place is something she’s passionate about.

Her commitment to making this happen can be seen across the fleet. Since she became President and CEO, Lisa has increased the percentage of women on the bridge from 3 to 23%. Only a 2% of mariners in the world are women, which makes these ladies and their efforts to carve a place for a more diverse and inclusive workforce even more admirable. These are remarkable women changing the maritime industry and creating opportunities to close the enormous gender gap that exists.

Captain Kate McCue, the first female American Captain of a cruise ship, shares her life as a Captain on Instagram, hoping to get other women interested in life at sea. Nathaly Alban, the first woman to serve as Captain in the Galapagos Islands, has loved sailing since she was a kid and feels that life on land is too simple in contrast. For Nicholine Tifuh Azirh, the first female cadet to emerge from a partnership between Celebrity Cruises and the Regional Maritime University in Ghana, sailing is a dream come true. One she has worked for tirelessly.

For relentlessly working towards closing the gender gap, making history and encouraging other women to join the maritime industry and help reshape it, we honor the women of Celebrity Cruises with the first-ever Hall of Fame Women Ensemble Award.

In 2020 we honor the unstoppable Celebrity Cruises team with the first ever Hall of Fame Ensemble Award

In 2020 we honor the unstoppable Celebrity Cruises team with the first ever Hall of Fame Ensemble Award

Closing the gender gap at sea starts with the CEO

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, President & CEO, Celebrity Cruises

Lisa Lutoff Perlo, President & CEO, Celebrity Cruises is closing the gender gap at sea

Lisa Lutoff Perlo, President & CEO, Celebrity Cruises is closing the gender gap at sea

Red Shoe Movement – Why do women make great leaders? 

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo – I really don’t like to generalize about anyone, including women. What I will say about the women who are the right and great leaders is that they do the same things any other great leader does: They accomplish great things. They have a vision. They get results. They transform their business. But they do it differently because they bring the attributes to the position that are unique to being a woman.  Empathy, emotional intelligence, a higher level of holistic thinking to the problem, diverse voices and thoughts at the table. And leading with their hearts, not just their heads, which encourages discretionary effort from those who work under their leadership – and that’s priceless.

RSM – Can you share the story of a male champion who supported your ambitions along the way?

LLP – My first male champion was the SVP of Sales & Marketing at Royal Caribbean International, Dan Hanrahan. He came into the company and identified me as a person (who happens to be a woman) with great potential. He challenged me to utilize my talents more broadly and moved me into marketing. While I didn’t believe so at the time, it was the best thing that happened in my career and was the beginning of a long and winding journey and experience that all contributed to my ability to become the President & CEO of Celebrity Cruises.

Dan was also my champion by promoting me to my first Corporate Officer role as VP of Onboard Revenue for Celebrity and two years later to SVP of Hotel Operations for Celebrity. He not only gave me different opportunities within Royal Caribbean, but he also continued to champion me after he moved into the President & CEO of Celebrity role. He actually held the same position I hold now before he left the company in 2012. I will forever be grateful to him and he is still a friend and mentor.

RSM – As a leader, what are you specifically doing to level the playing field for women?

LLP – My first experience with being the first woman to hold a position in the company was in 2005 when I was appointed as VP, Onboard Revenue. I was also the first woman to lead Hotel Operations for Celebrity, the first woman to lead the Marine and Hotel Operations for Royal Caribbean, the first woman President & CEO in our company and C-Suite and the first and only woman to run a Global Marine Organization in our industry (I lead this organization as well as Celebrity Cruises). While I have been with the company for 35 years, it wasn’t until 2005 and the first operational role that I realized that gender inequality was an issue. A big issue. Ever since that day I have felt it is my obligation, responsibility and opportunity to help women advance in areas of our industry and operation that have been historically held by men.

The best example I have of that is that since I have held this position (5 years) we have raised the number of women on our bridges across the fleet from 3% to 23%. Only 2% of mariners in the world are women, so this is a huge accomplishment and my team deserves all the credit for it. We hired the first American woman to ever be the Captain of a cruise ship (she still is) and the first African woman (Ghana) to work on the bridge of a cruise ship. Our efforts in finding great women for our bridges is being celebrated on International Women’s Day (March 8th), when we will offer a barrier-breaking and history-making cruise with an all-female bridge team on Celebrity Edge. No one has ever done this before, and no one else is currently able to do this. We have led the way and the industry. What better day to celebrate this as we celebrate women around the world and all they have accomplished?

Don't miss Lisa Lutoff-Perlo's crown-jewel accomplishment: designing a new ship class: Edge

Kate McCue, Captain, Celebrity Cruises

Kate McCue, Captain, Celebrity Edge

Kate McCue, Captain, Celebrity Edge

RSM – As a leader, what are you specifically doing to level the playing field for women?

KMC – It is important to highlight and celebrate the “wins,” whether it be small, like conducting their first briefing, or substantial, like performing their first ship departure maneuver.  It builds confidence in the individual and solidarity in the team.

RSM – Can you share the story of a male champion who supported your ambitions along the way?

KMC – Our Senior Vice President of Global Marine Operations, Captain Patrik Dahlgren, and our Associate Vice President Celebrity Marine Operations, Captain Manolis Alevropoulos, who are both fathers to daughters are also leaders and peers who I look up to because of the incredible impact they are making in the Maritime industry by actively recruiting women for positions that were not accessible to them in the past.  As fellow captains, they are pillars of support, career sounding bars and by introducing more women on the bridge, they are bringing diversity and creativity to our teams. This makes my job more productive and enjoyable.

RSM – What has been the most difficult lesson you’ve had to learn to get to where you are?

KMC – The most eye-opening lesson was to be myself, but in order to be myself I had to discover who I was in the first place. That took time and as we evolve as individuals. I’m finding that I’m learning “me” every day.

Nathaly Alban, Captain, XPloration

Nathaly Alban, Captain, Xploration

Nathaly Alban, Captain, Xploration

RSM – How have women helped you along your career? 

NA – My mother was the first woman who has helped me throughout my career, she is the one who trusted me when I decided to be a merchant sailor and supported me in each of the decisions I made. After her, I have met very few women who belong to my operational area, but the few that I have known have taught me that perseverance is the mother of success.

RSM – Can you share the story of a male champion who supported your ambitions along the way?

NA – My champion is my father, who with his constant unconditional support and great patience taught me that a person’s wealth is in his humility. He could never fulfil all his dreams, but he has something that I have not seen in any other person, an ability to forgive and forget easily. He doesn’t know much about ships, but he listens to me carefully every time I tell him something. He has art in his hands, he is a carpenter by profession, and he likes what he does. That is what he has always instilled in me, to love what you do. He is my champion and the advice he gives me has improved over the years.

RSM – If you could suggest one action that organizations can take to accelerate the representation of women at the top, what would it be?

NA – Allowing them to develop their leadership talents within each workgroup, encouraging them to take the leadership of workgroups and, above all, recognizing their achievements.

Closing the gender gap at sea in Africa

Nicholine Tifuh Azirh, Second Officer, Celebrity Cruises

Nicholine Tifuh Azirh, Second Officer, Celebrity Edge

Nicholine Tifuh Azirh, Second Officer, Celebrity Edge

RSM – As a leader, what are you specifically doing towards closing the gender gap at sea and level the playing field for women?

NTA – I am acting as an ambassador for Celebrity Cruises to Regional Maritime University (RMU), Accra, Ghana. So, I mentor young girls at my university in seafaring careers. I raise awareness of the maritime industry by organizing campaigns to reach out to girls in secondary schools. I’m doing this with the vision of closing the huge gender gap that exists in the seafaring programs at RMU. I help Female Graduates from the RMU to gain employment onboard ships; so far, three girls from RMU have been employed by Celebrity Cruises. All thanks to Celebrity Cruises.

I have also organized various “WoMentoring” programs (women mentoring women) where I have connected about 40 girls in my community with women leaders and seasoned professionals with the experience necessary to influence and inspire the younger generations. I have assisted in organizing various women empowering conferences within my community, where I also distributed 1000 copies of the motivational book, ‘Power of the Mind’ by Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, to young girls.

RSM – What has been the most difficult lesson you’ve had to learn to get to where you are?

NTA – I have learnt to be patient, determined and never to give up. Perseverance is the key lesson here because it makes me stay focused on the goal my eyes are fixed upon and not to worry about the temporal struggle and pain that will eventually pass over time.

RSM – If you could suggest one action that women could take to accelerate their career growth, what would it be?

NTA – Women need to work hard, persistently and with self-confidence.


Cesar Cernuda: Dissolving the glass ceiling fostering full inclusion

Cesar Cernuda’s role as President at Microsoft Latin America and Corporate Vice President at Microsoft Corporation has made him one of the most influential Hispanic leaders and a key player in dissolving the glass ceiling by fostering full inclusion at all levels of the organization.

RSM #IWDleader Hall of Fame

RSM #IWDleader Hall of Fame

Cernuda began his journey in Microsoft more than 22 years ago, serving as president in the Asia Pacific region. In his current position he supervises a business that includes 35 offices in 21 countries with more than 2,500 employees and 80,000 business partners. In 2019 he was named co-executive sponsor of the Women at Microsoft Employee Resource Group.

Cernuda’s key area of focus is to support the Latin American Region to accelerate its digital transformation with the help of AI.

He graduated with a degree in Business Administration and Marketing from ESIC University in Pozuelo de Alarcón, Spain. He then moved on to complete the Management and Development Program (PDD) at the IESE Business School at University of Navarra,  and a Leadership for Senior Executives program from Harvard’s Business School.  Among other awards, he was honored with the Ponce de León ‘Executive of the year 2019’ award presented by the Spain-US Chamber of Commerce.

For relentlessly working towards full inclusion at all levels of decision-making at Microsoft and their partners, we honor Cesar Cernuda with the 2020 Hall of Fame.

 Red Shoe Movement — What are some of the key traits of a great leader?

Cesar Cernuda Microsoft Hall of Fame

Cesar Cernuda Microsoft Hall of Fame 2020- Fostering full inclusion at all levels of leadership.

Cesar Cernuda — I think the central trait of a leader is serving others. True leadership is not about being at the center of anything, quite the contrary, a leader strives for others to succeed. There are many ways in which great leaders achieve this but there is always that commitment and dedication to helping others achieve their goals and find their best selves. Personally, I believe that curiosity, empathy and a passion for learning really help, particularly when you realize being a leader is a journey and not a static final state.

Fostering full inclusion to help great leaders arise

RSM — Why do women make great leaders?

CC — One of the most important and perhaps complex things about leadership is the fact that there is no single formula for it. Of course, we can see some common trends like empathy and creativity, but leadership goes beyond a list of preconceived qualities; it is not designed but developed, and true leaders are constantly learning and adjusting.

Every time we believe someone can or cannot be a leader we are operating on a fixed mindset and pretty much condemning our venture to fail from the get-go. Personally, I don’t believe men are good for some things and women are better at others. I think people have unique talents and the important thing is to not reduce them to any specific set of traits attributed to gender, race or any other category. Understanding that no group could ever possibly lay claim to such a subtle, human and powerful quality allows true leaders to drive success for others. It is vital that we realize that full diversity of backgrounds –gender being one of the most crucial– is the only field from where great leaders can arise.

RSM — How open is your door for your associates to approach you and what’s the best way to do it? What do you expect people to come with when they ask for a few minutes to see you?

CC — I know people in leadership positions want people to be able to approach them as directly as possible, and it’s crucial to communicate this, but it’s also vital for leaders to develop a structure people can trust. Particularly if you are part of a big organization. It’s always positive to know a leader is aware of an issue and is open to direct engagement, but even the most well-intentioned of statements will pale in comparison to structural action.

Having said that, whenever someone approaches me, I really make an effort to not have a preconceived idea of what they need. Even if it’s someone I work directly with and I can probably imagine what they’re there for. In the end, an open door counts for little without an open mind. Perhaps the only thing I would expect from people is for them to be as honest as possible with whatever it is they need; if there is no honesty it becomes very difficult to solve any issue or situation. With this in mind, it’s crucial to make people feel comfortable to express whatever is on their minds, no matter their position or requirement.

Microsoft women with red shoes

Supporting #RedShoeTuesday in the office or at external conferences and meetings the Central America team of Microsoft fosters full inclusion every week- In this picture, bottom row, second from left, Patricia Mejia, a 2019 Red Shoe Leader Awardee. Second from right, Gracia Rossi, Sr.Segment Leader Central America and Venezuela, both, career-long inclusion champions.

Diversity as our reality: making inclusion happen

RSM — What would you say are the most effective ways to get men to become female champions?

CC — I think we need to understand that it will never be enough to assume inclusion will just happen by itself. Although there is undoubtedly a positive trend in this regard, men need to take this as a personal commitment and take concrete steps towards this, particularly in the business world. Having a diverse team needs to be a priority for anyone who seeks to bring success to their projects. That might be easier said than done as sometimes we don’t realize that we surround ourselves with people who think like us, that is undoubtedly a weakness in any team. As men, not only do we need women in our teams, we need women to lead us in order to achieve success.

Specifically, at Microsoft, we work to get men to be female champions, by educating and encouraging male allies to advocate for, mentor or sponsor women during their career journey. Also, in many cases, like our LATAM region, there are male sponsors of our female employee resource groups who provide perspective as well as advocacy for the goals and objectives of the group.

Cesar Cernuda inspirational quote

Cesar Cernuda inspirational quote

RSM — In your experience, how does having a diverse and inclusive team of executives impact your bottom line?

CC — One must understand that diversity is not an ideal or an imagined state; diversity is simply the best description of our realityFor any company of any size, working within any industry, be it locally or globally, the market they operate in is always a diverse one. Once you realize this, it becomes clear that success and innovation can only be driven by developing a business that reflects such reality, and the only way to build such a business is through an inclusive workforce. 45% of my immediate team is female and the diversity of perspectives makes for richer, more effective leadership. You want to be relevant, successful and thrive? You have to be inclusive.

RSM — At your level of responsibility, what do you spend most of your time on? 

CC — To be honest I try to spend my time learning as much as I can. I’ve been fortunate to have global positions within Microsoft and even though this has allowed me to live and get to know different cultures it has also implied I spend a lot of time traveling. I have always been inspired to help others, so in a way, I am lucky to say that I love to spend time with people and learn about them. Specifically, I like to get to know the people I work with, what their motivations are and the challenges they face. In many cases, you end up talking about more than just work and while it’s crucial to respect people’s privacy and whether they want to share something or not, I personally like to get to know my team as much as I can in order to do as much as possible to aid them in their careers and, therefore, in their lives. I always tell my teams that by “getting the people equation right” you will get the results you need.

Ways to overcome inclusion barriers in tech
Red Shoe Tuesday at Microsoft

Weekly social media postings supporting #RedShoeTuesday #RedTieTuesday are one of the ways in which the organization showcases the commitment of its talent to diversity and inclusion

More women in tech and innovation

RSM — What is Microsoft doing specifically to attract more girls to STEM?

CC — There are some good initiatives that we’ve worked on. One of the best ones has to be DigiGirlz, part of our YouthSpark initiative that aims to help students and youngsters develop the skills they need to lead us into the future. Girls Who Code is another organization we partner with around the US to encourage young girls to learn computer programming. Both organizations play a very important role in terms of exposure that can encourage girls to get into technology. Getting more women into tech is vital if the industry wishes to continue innovating. Through these and other initiatives, we have continued to increase our female representation, but we acknowledge there is still an untapped potential including half of the world’s population in this regard. For an industry like ours, mostly dependent on ingenuity and passion, this is simply untenable.

RSM — In terms of leadership lessons, is there a particular mistake or failure that you now “cherish” because of what you learned from it?

CC — Of course, I have made many mistakes during my career and I still make them and will make them. However, in order to learn, you first need to be humble enough to acknowledge your mistakes. It is not always easy to acknowledge or even recognize mistakes as it requires courage, self-confidence, and humility. One of my biggest lessons was years ago when I started managing teams. I hired a person who was not qualified for a specific position. He didn’t like the job, was being overworked and was not having a good time – naturally, he was also not delivering on job expectations. My team eventually approached me and pointed out that I was not doing my job by keeping a talented individual in the wrong place. They opened my eyes by sharing how my lack of leadership and decision-making ability was affecting everybody since the whole team depended on delivering those. As he was reassigned I learned how important it is as a leader to ensure you have the right people doing the right job and how to help different individuals work together as a team.

Explore key diversity and inclusion strategies at leading companies


Sylvia Acevedo: From NASA to CEO, Girl Scouts

Sylvia Acevedo started off her career as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs, not your regular first stop for a journey to become the CEO of one of America’s most beloved institutions, Girl Scouts.

RSM Hall of Fame

RSM Hall of Fame

She left to attend graduate school at Stamford and pursue a career in Silicon Valley where she held executive positions at Apple, Dell and Autodesk. Sylvia is a life-long advocate for universal access to education and serves as Commissioner on the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics. She’s an expert in mobilizing communities to increase family engagement in education.

After serving as interim CEO of the Girl Scouts in 2016, Sylvia Acevedo was named permanent CEO in May 2017. Under her tenure, the Girl Scouts introduced a series of badges in robotics, coding, engineering, and cybersecurity.In 2018 she was featured among “America’s Top 50 Women in Tech” by Forbes.

For relentlessly breaking through the glass ceiling and opening new worlds to women and girls, we honor Sylvia Acevedo with the 2019 Hall of Fame.

Red Shoe Movement — There are few women CEOs but there are probably even fewer women who are rocket scientists and who participated in an actual mission. Tell us about your experience at NASA and how that helped shape your career.

Sylvia Acevedo, CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA

Sylvia Acevedo, CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA

Sylvia Acevedo —It was my first job out of college, working as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The first program I worked on was called the Solar Polar Solar Probe (SPSP). My job was to help figure out the payload and testing equipment that would be carried on a satellite going to the sun. I had to consider questions like how the equipment would work in the intense heat being generated close to the sun, how it would react to the radiation, how its weight would affect the amount of fuel we would need to carry on the rocket. So to answer these questions I had to create complex algorithms. It takes a long time to launch a new space expedition, and this solar probe finally, decades after I worked on it, launched in August as the Parker Solar Probe.

I also got to work on the Voyager 2 mission, which at the time was passing by Jupiter and its moons Io and Europa. This was a long-range program, which continues to this day, sending automated spacecraft to outer planets to record data and send it back to Earth. The Voyager was transmitting amazing images and data, and JPL needed engineers to analyze them. There were some images coming back from Jupiter and its moons that we had never seen before—just amazing stuff. I really enjoyed my time at NASA—it was such an exciting time to be there doing that work.

After the Voyager 2 had gone by Jupiter, I realized that it was going to take years before it went to the next planet and the next project I was on was going to take decades. So at that point, I realized, “OK, this was great,” but I was ready to go get my master’s at Stanford. Once I had that degree I had the background in engineering and the mathematics expertise to pursue a career in Silicon Valley.

It was a lifelong dream to work at NASA and a true honor to take part in such fascinating and world-changing projects. And the work I did on Solar Polar Solar Probe and Voyager 2 had an incredible impact on the way I think and approach problems. I had to consider the breadth of the universe and the complexities it contained. I didn’t just have to think big—I had to think literally as big as the universe! The infiniteness of the questions and the quest for answers to them inspired me—and it continues to inspire me. I also learned the value of “blue sky thinking”—of generating and ruminating on big ideas regardless of practical constraints—and the important role that each team member plays in the pursuit of big goals.

Sylvia Acevedo CEO Girl Scouts

Sylvia Acevedo CEO Girl Scouts

Sylvia Acevedo share traits of great leaders

RSM— What are some of the key traits of a great leader?

SA—I can trace my thoughts about great leadership back to my experience as a young Girl Scout. One of the first leadership positions I held as an adult was when I was still at New Mexico State University. I was asked to join the engineering honor society, Tau Beta Pi, and I was elected president of my chapter. And I thought at the time, and I still think today, that the experience I had as a Girl Scout earning badges, being a cookie entrepreneur, and working as a team with other girls in my troop on projects gave me the confidence to raise my hand, step up, and be a leader.

Great leaders are problem solvers—they are able to break down big challenges into small, achievable goals. They are able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of team members and delegate accordingly. And they are approachable. Open and honest dialogue is very important and helps avoid misunderstandings, build consensus, and bring out the best in everyone so that they can do their best work.

And great leaders stay curious. I had an investigative mind from a very young age—I was always trying to figure out how to get around roadblocks and obstacles that were preventing me from achieving my goals. I think curiosity is an incredibly valuable trait in a 21st-century leader.

Sylvia Acevedo went from rocket scientist to CEO of one of the most beloved American organizations.

Sylvia Acevedo went from rocket scientist to CEO of one of the most beloved American organizations.

RSM— Why do women make great leaders? 

SA—It’s a bit of a cliché but I do think women are consensus builders, and that is something we need more of in our leaders today. I think women also tend to have a mission mindset. It’s so important for leaders to have a real understanding of and appreciation for what their focus is, then have persistence and determination in carrying out their mission.

Sylvia Acevedo has brought a powerful leadership style to the Girl Scouts

Sylvia Acevedo has brought a powerful leadership style to the Girl Scouts

RSM— Girls Scouts is responsible for inspiring a great majority of the female leaders in this country. Could you give us some statistics?

SA—Yes, Girl Scout has incredibly powerful outcomes. 50 percent of female business leaders, 73 percent of female U.S. senators, the majority of women who have flown in space, and 100 percent of female U.S. secretaries of state were all Girl Scouts. More than half of the 106 women in the U.S. House of Representatives are Girl Scout alums, and of the nine women currently serving as governors across the U.S., five are Girl Scouts.

RSM—What are some of the skills that girls develop as Girls Scouts that help them pursue leadership careers?

SA—The values of great leadership are imbedded throughout the Girl Scouts experience. You seek challenges and learn from setbacks. You develop a strong sense of self. You learn to identify problems and develop solutions. You build courage, confidence, and character. And you learn to take initiative.

There are some amazing Girl Scouts who are taking on big challenges in their communities to earn their Gold Award, the highest award in Girl Scouting. To earn the award they must identify a community problem, investigate it thoroughly to understand root causes, create a plan of action, build a team of people who can help them achieve their goal, present their plan and gather feedback, and then execute on that plan. Gold Award Girl Scouts use the leadership skills they learn at Girl Scouts to make a real impact, and they go on to do incredible things as leaders in the world.

Don't miss this interview with another amazing CEO, Deborah Gillis!
Girl Scouts White House Camp out

Girl Scouts White House Camp out

RSM—Why is it important to reserve some spaces for women-only experiences?

SA—Women-only spaces and experiences are incredibly important, and that confuses some people who think, “Why are they necessary?” Well, we need those places where we can connect, create, and collaborate, where we can get encouragement, where we can learn skills that we might not have access to elsewhere, where we can get replenished, and where we can hear things tailored to the way women like to learn and lead.

I was one of the few women in tech when I was in Silicon Valley, and in one of my first jobs at IBM, I noticed that the guys would always huddle with the male engineers on my floor, but they would never include me or any of the other women engineers. They would talk among themselves about the agenda, what the boss really wants to hear, and insidery things like that. So I realized that they were exchanging much inside information that we women engineers weren’t privy to. And I tried crashing the party a few times, and they closed up pretty quickly. This was an important realization, the amount of informal networking that really impacts your career that I was shut out of.

There are more women today in all different industries, but I do think it’s still important for us to have spaces of our own where we can do our own informal networking, make those connections, build those relationships, and exchange information of our own!

Sylvia Acevedo visiting school

Sylvia Acevedo visiting school

Sylvia Acevedo reflects on a costly mistake

RSM— In terms of leadership lessons, is there a particular mistake or failure that you now “cherish” because of what you learned from it?

SA—One lesson I learned is the importance of managing expectations in business relationships. In the early days of the internet and the global digital transformation, I was working with Dell in South America. There was one particular deal we were trying to close with a governmental entity and this prospective client was very used to the traditional ways of working with a corporation, which involved having a lot more people on site and considerable investment in brick and mortar plants. We were coming in and pitching a solution that could be fulfilled with only a few people on site—we brought in fewer than ten—because we could do things globally through a dispersed network of team members.

What I didn’t understand was that for this client, the absence of actual bodies in the building was a big deal. Their expectations were not lining up with what they were seeing from us. It was a very large opportunity, with millions of dollars on the line, but we didn’t close the deal because of mismanagement of expectations.

My failure was in not communicating beforehand our vision of the project, the efficiencies we would bring that would actually lower costs, and what it would require on site. To us these things were obvious, but in those days our proposal was still a new way of doing things. The fact that we had such a small in-person team said to them that we had undersized the opportunity and weren’t taking them seriously, so they didn’t take us seriously. We were really speaking past each other. It was a tough—but a very valuable—lesson to learn.

Girl Scouts Daisies

Girl Scouts Daisies

Kees Roks, servant leader, leads by example

Kees Roks, Head Region Europe at Novartis Oncology, has been an incredibly visible inclusion leader at his organization. A servant leader if there ever was one. Read on!

It’s hard to miss him. Kees Roks (pronounced “Case”) is close to 7 feet tall and usually towers over most people at a meeting. The Swiss native, however, could be the quieter person in a room, just taking in what all the stakeholders have to share. With over 30 years of international experience gained in Country and Regional organizations around the globe, Kees has most recently been the Head of Region Latin America and Canada at Novartis Oncology. In this role, he was a key sponsor of the women taking part of the Red Shoe Movement’s Step Up Plus leadership development program. He wore his red tie every week, made sure to meet and support not only the female talent in the program but any one who required his attention.

Kees Roks has built a career on inclusive principles, living them day in and day out. For his exemplary leadership and implementation of concrete actions to open doors to female talent we honor Kees Roks to the 2019 Hall of Fame.

RSM Hall of Fame

RSM Hall of Fame

Red Shoe Movement— What are some of the key traits of a great leader?

Kees Roks, Head Region Europe, Novartis Oncology

Kees Roks, Head Region Europe, Novartis Oncology

Kees Roks—Being a leader is not about the individual leading. In fact, the concept of servant leadership is one that resonates strongly with me. I see this as someone who offers support, is humble and removes obstacles. The idea of leadership being dictating is quickly vanishing. Being focused on my team, helping develop them and ensure they succeed is of utmost priority; after all when your team does well, so does the leader.

 RSM—Why do women make great leaders? 

KR—Diversity is a critical component of leadership and it builds stronger and more efficient teams. Gender is an important pillar and one we have to support.

I have had the pleasure of working with strong and capable women, now and in prior roles. In my experience, the female mind works differently from the male one. I value what female leaders bring to the table – sometimes offering better solutions because they are able to see an issue in a more 360 point of view and take into account the impact from all possible angles.

In my opinion, female leaders offer a different perspective on issues. They deal with challenges and situations with a more reflective and holistic approach; a man’s approach can sometimes be very solution-oriented and single minded. Neither is a negative but this is why we need to have more women in leadership positions to help find a good balance.

Don't miss Andrés Graziosi's interview for the Hall of Fame 2018

RSM— How open is your door for your associates to approach you and what’s the best way to do it? What do you expect people to come with when they ask for a few minutes to see you?

KR—First, at Novartis, we sit in an open space environment so there is literally no door (laughs). Figuratively, there is none because I believe in being fully accessible to my team. Going back to the concept of servant leadership of which the most fundamental tenant is that our people are our most important asset, I am never too busy to make time for them.

However, communication works two ways – as direct and as open as I am, I fully invite and expect them to be equally so. I want them to ask for time, ask for what they need and be proactive.

Kees Roks in meeting at Novartis East Hanover, NJ office

Kees Roks in meeting at Novartis East Hanover, NJ office

RSM— What do you expect people to come with when they ask for a few minutes to see you?

KR—Well, I never give a few minutes; I give as much time as they need. To dive deep into any challenges or have a deeper discussion, it is important to allow enough time to have the conversation.

Once we have that time, I fully expect and invite them to drive the agenda since they asked for the meeting. It is important to come with an opinion, come with what you need from your leader and what you need them to do. This means you are taking ownership and accountability – you are also being a leader. 

Kees Roks leads by example

Kees Roks leads by example

Kees Roks suggestions for men to become allies

RSM—What would you say are the most effective ways to get men to become female champions?

KR—There are many ways to have men become champions. Put them into a diverse environment – perhaps they are the only man on an all-female team and/or work stream. Women have worked this way for years, often being the sole female in a group or team. Invite men to experience it as well to provide perspective. Also, highlight the successes of women on your team. Show how well they are doing to everyone else – prove it with facts. Personally, I also try to create as diverse an environment as possible and find the right balance of women on my leadership team.

That said, it boils down to the organization – as an individual I can only do so much. Companies need to make D&I a priority and include gender D&I KPIs in the objectives. Of course there has to be a balance, it is not just about filling slots with one gender because forcing something is not good overall. However, it is possible. However, it is possible; for example, if there is a leadership position available, have gender equality and diversity in the candidates being invited to apply. More importantly, it is critical to have gender equality and diversity on the side of the key decision makers for these roles as well, so we really find the best candidate based on qualifications.

Kees Roks supporting #RedShoeTuesday at Novartis

Kees Roks supporting #RedShoeTuesday at Novartis

RSM— In your experience, how does having a diverse and inclusive team of executives impact your bottom line? 

KR—What I can say is that having a diverse team and a diverse organization already, we are doing quite well. We are having deeper discussions and making better decisions. 

RSM—At your level of responsibility, what do you spend most of your time on?

KR—People first. In fact, 80 percent of my day is talking to and helping my team. That can be anything from talking, debating, discussing various topics in both formal and informal settings. Being there for them is how I spend the majority of my time.

RSM—In terms of leadership lessons, is there a particular mistake or failure that you now “cherish” because of what you learned from it?

KR—Every experience is a lesson. I do not know that there is one in particular that stands out but I can say with certainty that, as a leaders, every time you come into a new environment you need to calibrate the need for context. I am not known to be always so patient (laughs.) I really force myself to step back and reflect and find the patience I need to help my team succeed. Mistakes and failures never end but how you handle them defines how you move forward. It is an ongoing journey of endless learning.

Kees Roks Head Europe Region Novartis Oncology

Kees Roks Head Europe Region Novartis Oncology