Barry Salzberg – “The Sound of Leadership” – Cicero Award-Winner

Barry Salzberg, CEO, Deloitte LLP

Speech for The Conference Board Women’s Leadership Conference, April 2010—“The Sound of Leadership: What Women Know and Businesses Need to Hear”
Winner – 2011 Cicero Speechwriting Award: Best-Written Speech on Diversity

My Role:
Not every client would be comfortable delivering this speech, but I’d been working with Deloitte and Mr. Salzberg for nearly six years so I knew that even if they thought I was crazy for proposing it, they’d give me a mulligan on the first draft. Fortunately, they trusted me—and an award-winning speech was born. This excerpt comes from the opening of the speech.

For the last day and a half, you’ve heard from some of the most successful women in business. You’ve heard how these remarkable women handle a range of talent management and other leadership issues. You’ve heard a lot of what it takes to thrive as a woman in the workplace. You’ve heard the “sound of leadership” from many women’s voices.

From my reading of the conference agenda, it appears I am the only man you will hear from. So I am honored to be here and provide my perspective or perhaps you might say “the flip side of the coin”—what is it like to empower strong, successful women in the workplace? If our goal is to attract, retain, and grow women leaders—what works? And what can we do better?

Let’s start out with a case study.

A young woman—we’ll call her “Maria”—begins an entry-level job with high hopes of success. But she soon discovers it’s a much more restrictive environment than she had imagined.

It seems like she’s at work 24/7. Her supervisors expect her to perform the tasks assigned to her the same way every time, with no leeway to add her own personality. All of her work has to be done at the workplace, with no exceptions made for any other pursuits in which she would like to engage. For instance, she could never leave work early to go to her child’s softball game.

Fortunately for Maria, she doesn’t have any children…yet. But she does have something she loves to do—and her work schedule definitely interferes with it. So every once in a while, Maria just ducks out of the office, unannounced.

Where does she go? She grabs her guitar and runs off into a lush, mountain pasture. Then, twirling her skirt joyfully, she bursts into song.

In case you haven’t recognized her by now, Maria is the protagonist of the great musical The Sound of Music. In the movie, she’s played by Julie Andrews and, while it’s practically un-American to be critical of any character played by Julie Andrews, let’s consider Maria from her managers’ point of view.

Maria was a postulant at the convent—kind of a nun-intern. It’s a job she really wanted—at least that’s what she told her interviewers. But now it’s clear that she either doesn’t understand or doesn’t respect the rules that have governed work at the convent for as long as anyone can remember.

She won’t stick to the duties or the working hours she’s assigned. Compliance is a real challenge for her. Eventually, her coworkers get so frustrated that they complain to management—singing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” But Maria wasn’t a “problem.” She was a leader, even a pioneer.

The problem was that her employer—the convent—wasn’t set up to recognize, nurture, and capitalize on those leadership skills. So they encountered a situation that many businesses deal with today: generational differences in work styles led to the loss of a promising recruit.

When Maria was given a different opportunity—a more self-directed job in the secular world—she thrived. She rapidly changed the culture of her new organization and dramatically improved the morale of her new colleagues. And, if that weren’t enough, she employed a combination of quick thinking and bold action to save her entire team from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of leader I want in my organization.

Maria’s story is a true story. Okay, maybe not the part about the singing nuns—but Maria von Trapp was a real woman. She really did set out to become a nun and she left the convent to become a governess.

There are “Marias” in companies everywhere in the world. Women whose talents have not been properly recognized or deployed. Whose different modes of problem-solving have been overlooked instead of celebrated. Women whose out-of-the-box thinking has not been received well and perhaps been stuffed right back in the box, lest it CHANGE the way things have always been done.

For more than half my career, Deloitte has been working to ensure that fewer and fewer Marias slip through the cracks…