Empowering Leadership: Navigating the Corporate Ladder with Amy Swanson

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In this episode, Nancy Novak, Chief Innovation Officer at Compass Datacenters, engages in a conversation with Amy Slagle Swanson, Former Managing Executive – North America Alliance Leader – EY at IBM.

Amy Slagle Swanson, drawing from her 35 years of global experience, shares insights on empowering women in leadership roles. The discussion covers the progression of leadership, emphasizing the challenges and importance of self-clarity.

Amy addresses stumbling blocks for women, urging them to overcome perfectionism and embrace imperfections in pursuing leadership roles. The power of vulnerability in leadership is explored, highlighting its role in fostering authenticity, connection, and innovation.

The discussion stresses the significance of intention and personal connections, advocating for a balance between power and humility in leadership. Throughout, Amy’s valuable insights offer a roadmap for women navigating leadership roles in various industries.

Read the full transcript below:

Nancy Novak:                Hi everybody. This is Nancy Novak, chief innovation officer at Compass Datacenters, and welcome to another episode of Extending the Ladder. I’m super excited to be introducing our guest today, Amy Swanson, who is an amazing leader and has a wealth of knowledge about topics we really care about. Amy is the partner and managing executive at IBM Consulting. She has over thirty-five years of global experience advising clients on business strategy and transformation. Amy, welcome to the Extending the Ladder podcast.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Thank you. Great to be here.

Nancy Novak:                I’m so happy to have you. We have gone over some of the most intriguing topics that we want to discuss for our audience, and I’m going to dive right in because I really believe that the content that you developed is unique in a lot of ways and it resonated so deeply with me on my own career and my reflections, and kind of [inaudible 00:01:01] that we’re trying to give to our audience. So we’re really going to focus on the empowerment of women and the stumbling blocks that keep us from getting to those elevated levels that we really desperately need to be at, not just for women in general, but for business in general, and for society. So number one, I would love it if we could dive a little bit into learning to lead and flying solo, and what does that mean?

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Absolutely, and it’s definitely a progression throughout your career because the higher up you get, you’ve probably heard this before, often it becomes a lonely place to be, because you’re in situations where you have a large team or you have clients where many of the things that you would normally talk to a coworker or a colleague about, kind of bounce ideas, you no longer can in the same way. So I think that part of it is just being really comfortable with who you are, what your mission and vision is, what your values and principles are, and standing firmly in those. And then no matter what situation you’re put in, whether it be an uncomfortable situation, because there’s always conflict and times where things are uncomfortable and you really have to lean into your own power, and that’s really being clear on your values and what you stand for, versus what would somebody else think? Especially when you’re the leader, right? Everybody’s looking to you to be that model. So I think that’s number one.

                                    The other thing is though, because maybe you don’t have, in leadership, the same peer group that you could say, go to happy hour, or go for lunch and talk about these things. It’s great to have a co-pilot, and that could be someone in your organization, it could be a friend, someone outside of your organization. And I do a lot of mentoring with people who are looking for just that. Someone where, “Hey, I want to brainstorm something with you from a leadership standpoint.”

Nancy Novak:                I love that term, co-pilot, Amy. I think that’s really clever. I always think about that, needing that advocacy and needing those folks in the room that can amplify what you’re saying, or like you said, bounce ideas off of them. And back to the flying solo thing, I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve seen women who are so ready and over qualified, taking that solo or that next step in their career, and they’re hesitant to do so based on some of the things you’re talking about that we struggle with, especially in the male dominated fields. And one of the things I wanted to layer on with what you just told us was the whole potential versus credential conundrum. Google has great data on this, where they have a self-promotion policy. And so when people are ready for promotions, they put themselves up for the promotion, and we found that women actually got their promotions way more frequently than men when they put themselves up, but the reason for that was they were way overqualified and they had waited much longer than their male counterparts.

                                    And I think that weighs back into this flying solo thing of when we feel it and checked every box, sometimes two or three times, where we’re willing to take that risk to say, “I can make these decisions as a leader,” and then also good or bad. Any decision is better than no decision, right?

Amy Slagle Swan…:       And I think that all comes from the same place of looking outside ourselves for our value. Part of it when you’re flying solo is leaning into yourself and having confidence in your decisions, your conviction, always keeping an open aperture to hear feedback, but having that confidence. And then to what you were saying, when you’re applying for a promotion, we see the same thing at IBM all the time, and also with my firms that I consult in talent transformation, they struggle to get the women applicants, but I think that comes from what I see often in women, this sort of perfectionism. “I’m not going to step into that role until I’m a hundred percent qualified, or 95%,” or something like that. And so it’s taking that leap, and it’s a balance. You want to make sure you have enough skill set so that you can prove yourself and be successful for your firm and yourself, but also, be comfortable in the uncomfortable and not carry what anyone else thinks, and just jump in.

                                    So that’s that courage, that sort of braving the wilderness that you hear Brene Brown and others talk about. So I’m always asking my women friends and colleagues that I mentor, “Hey, just be brave and go for it, and don’t be afraid.” I think there’s a lot of perfectionist tendencies that we women have. I did for many years and was late to really fully access my power. And then once I did, it was like all bets were off.

Nancy Novak:                Yeah, I love that. I love that. Be brave, people. That’s great takeaway for the audience, and I 100% percent back that up, and 90% of the time you’re way more ready than you think you are. So Yeah, fabulous advice. I’m going to pivot a little bit maybe on more of the human side of things, and I want you to dig in a little bit on what we do with vulnerability, and the power and vulnerability, and connection with not just your peer group, but also your superiors.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Absolutely. And this is something I learned again late in my career. So I love to share this because I’d like to help others maybe do this sooner rather than later, but you have to be careful. In the environment, you have to first ask yourself, is it safe to be vulnerable? Is it smart and strategic to be vulnerable in this moment or in this situation? And is it the right time? So once you feel those are all okay, what vulnerability is really about is connection. And I was always so buttoned up. Frankly, I had to be the most confident, capable person in the room, not expose my true nature, but then I’m not authentic, and people want to connect with authentic, someone that they can say, “I identify with them, whether it be like my sister, my mother.”

                                    I had somebody tell me yesterday, “you’re so approachable, you’re like the girl next door.” When I was young, I wouldn’t want to be that because that’s not powerful. But what’s good about that is it’s a strategic tool because they’re going to tell me everything, and they’ll be honest and they’ll lean in, and then I can actually help them and guide them and mentor them. So it’s a balance.

Nancy Novak:                Yeah, wonderful.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       So I think that’s the greatest thing, and I’ve been doing it quite a bit, but also for problem solving, especially I’m in tech and innovation is everything, and we have the smartest people you’d ever meet, but for them to say, “I don’t know,” or, “I don’t know how to solve this problem,” is not acceptable. And so I talk a lot about fail fast, be comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” but I can talk about that all day long unless I do it and I model it. So we’ll be in a multi-million dollar project and we have a challenge that we can’t overcome, and we’re working day and night and I’ll say, “no, I don’t know how to solve this problem. I’m really stumped. Do you guys feel the same way?” And then they’ll be like, “yeah.” Or maybe not in the group setting, but they’ll call me after and say, “yeah, we’re stuck.” And then I actually have a chance to help them.

                                    But when everybody’s just quiet and silent and not coming forward saying, “I don’t know how to solve this,” or, “I need help,” that’s when innovation gets dampened. You can’t move forward. So I really try to create that culture of a safe place for people to be honest.

Nancy Novak:                And lead by example that way, Amy, is so brilliant. Here at Compass, one of our top core convictions is humility and crying out, and that is all about the power of vulnerability and being able to say, “I don’t know,” and feeling good about saying, “I don’t know,” and then using your resources to go and figure out what the knowns are, and trying to get to the critical thinking parts of how do you ask enough why’s to solve those problems? And I do want to touch a little bit on the connection part because this is something that men have really figured out on the golf course over many decades and centuries of business, and it’s having those personal connections by having the connection through vulnerability, I think, makes it better for folks to want to pick up the phone and see the other side of you besides just the professional side, and that’s where I think the magic starts to happen.

                                    They understand your tolerance for risk, your sense of humor, your aspirations, and then vice versa so that you feel very comfortable with that conversation. And then when you’re looking at promotions and you’re trying to figure out who’s next on the list, instead of just understanding how someone does their job, you understand more about them in a natural environment, right?

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Yeah, it’s very powerful. I have so many stories, some will make you laugh, where I accidentally was vulnerable and it really helped me close a big deal or drive a connection with a client or an executive.

Nancy Novak:                Well, I think storytelling is one of the best ways to resonate with the audience, and I feel like we could talk about the vulnerability being powerful, and you can see it happening, especially with… I would say the women in politics are many times more vulnerable than the men, and they get a lot done that way. But I would love it if you would just share one snippet for us about when… Maybe it was a surprise… When vulnerability really helped move the needle.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Yeah. I’ll give you a couple early on and then I’ll show you what that looked like 30 years later. But early on when I was struggling, raising kids and being an executive, and balancing all of that, I had a couple of things that were funny. One is, I just got back from maternity leave. The day I was back, I had to go on a trip on an executive call, make a presentation, and during the middle of that presentation, this is so embarrassing, my skirt split open and I’m in a group of eight men and I’m thinking to myself, “there is no way I can get through this presentation.” I was trying not to cry. Of course, my emotions weren’t quite normal. Anyway, I just told the group of folks what was going on. This was my first day back. And I left there and I thought, “I’m never going to do this again. I’m going to quit my job.” I got home and I had a PO for a very large multi-million dollar engagement.

                                    I thought to myself, “they saw my humanity. They saw that I’m just a person who’s trying to get through life like everyone else.” So that was one.

Nancy Novak:                It was a great story. It gave me goosebumps. That’s so good.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       And fast-forward a few years later, these kids are growing up, but I had some little kid’s toy in my briefcase and I went to pull up my laptop and here I’m trying to make this presentation in a board meeting at a big financial institution, and out flies this child’s toy on the boardroom table, and then the whole discussion pivoted to, “how is Mac? And what’s going on?” And we talked for a minute about my child, and then all of a sudden I’m human again. I’m not just a person in here with an agenda trying to drive. I’m Amy and I have a son named Mac. So those were accidental, but in both situations, they could see me. And there’s nothing wrong with that because I can be smart and bright and talented, and human and a mother with a child, all of that.

Nancy Novak:                That’s human nature where the connection matters so much on a personal level, not just a professional level. It’s a little more challenging for women because it’s not as comfortable for us to just go hang out with our male counterparts. And I was telling you on a story the other day that when I would do off-sites with our executive team, it was so interesting to me to have them… We’re hanging out on the ski slopes and they’re saying, “you’re just so different. That I learned to get to know you either in business or through other people, when we’re just one-on-one in an organic setting.” So I love that connection and I think the vulnerability is super powerful. So I hope our audience takes that message away.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       And skiing’s a great one. And I did the same thing with hiking or sailing or off-sites like that with people where you’d really get to know each other, and then you could laugh about it later and tell the stories about someone’s trying to hike around the edge of the Red Rocks and they almost fell. And so then you have this history together too, where you can laugh and joke and be very real and authentic with your [inaudible 00:13:04].

Nancy Novak:                Yeah. It’s interesting because the organic settings are so valuable, so different. It’s different than when you’re with your staff, with your spouse, when you’re just hanging out and you don’t have a certain agenda, you’re not there for business reasons, you’re just there to go… Informal networking, basically. And topics come up, and you have these aha moments of, “oh, I didn’t know that that was a part of your upbringing,” or, “I didn’t realize that you had that type of experience,” or, “I didn’t know that you had relocated as many times as you had in your career.” And I think this is fantastic, and I just wish that we could create environments more commonly for women to have those types of conversations, because I think they’re so powerful that I’m just going to build more on this, Amy, with the humanity, and why it matters, and how being humble can really help you with your agency and how you do your job, and how you leave a mark and with your legacy.

                                    And I really want to focus, I think, on how through the eyes of the female gender, how we can start to change a little bit about how leadership views that power.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       I think one of the important things to remember, especially as a woman, or anyone maybe early in their career, could be a man, where you want to stand in your power and be powerful, but also have humility. So you need both, because if you’re just humble all the time, people won’t notice you. You’ll look like a wallflower. You don’t want that. You want to be a powerful presence with humility. One of the best ways to do that as a leader is constantly building your people up, but also always being accountable if things go wrong. So that’s really being a humble person where even if someone on your team made a mistake, you’re there to protect and care for them, and make sure that if things go sideways, you own it and you’re accountable. Everyone will respect you and look up to you for that.

Nancy Novak:                That’s great advice.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Yeah, if your team does amazing, they get all the credit. And I think that’s just a simple thing that I was just raised with, and I learned and I modeled from some really great leaders. On the other hand, I don’t see it very often, and so I really encourage people to do that.

Nancy Novak:                I was excited to hear you say that, Amy, because it never even occurred to me in the past, but that is so powerful. I mean, literally accountability for anytime your team has a failure, but giving them full credit when it’s successful. I feel like I’ve always tried to practice that. I don’t know if it always comes across that way, but I think it’s a wonderful thing to practice, it’s fantastic advice.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       And it’s funny, this brings me back to the first topic, flying solo. There were times in my career where I had an executive above me, a man, say, “why aren’t you speaking up right away in this meeting and making sure they know you did all the work?” And I said, “it’s intentional. I’m raising my team up. I want them to have a chance to shine.” And then they were like, “oh, this is a strategic move to lift her people up. She knows exactly what she’s doing.” But it wasn’t how they operated. And so I had to have the confidence to be able to push back on that executive and say, “heck no. This is all about raising my people up in front of the executives,” instead of, “I’m going to show how great I am.” So those are the moments where your people will say, “I’ll do anything to work on that team.”

Nancy Novak:                They will. That’s what I call the, “I’ll fall on any sword for this leader,” because they have [inaudible 00:16:41]. And I think the other point that you made earlier is really having their back when things go astray or something, and just really supporting that team. And having that platform and that support system, if they know you’ve got their back, it’s vice versa. They’ll have your back as well. Really, really, really powerful.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       And that doesn’t make you soft, because I can be the tough coach. I grew up with an athletic background and I had two coaches. One was really tough and one was really nice. Guess which one I liked? The tough one, because he made me better and he made me grow. So I can be really tough, but my intention is for the goodness and the best outcome for that other person, and they know it. And so you can be tough, but you can also then lift up and raise up the people. So again, everything is a balance, right? Be tough, but lift people up.

Nancy Novak:                That’s that genuineness, right? So you’re just being that… And it shows, I think. It reflects the genuine desire for the outcome to be what the team or the firm or the company needs, versus the credit around it. So as long as the outcome is there, that’s what matters. And giving full credit to your team is what shows them that you have their back. I just think that’s great advice.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       And intention. When you go into a meeting, whether it’s you or your team, I always say, “what’s our intention?” Walk in with intention, because we’re energetic beings, and if we walk in with a dynamic intention that’s good for the client or good for our organization, people sense that and they just get on board. They don’t even know that they are. And it just changes the face of the meeting. Everybody is more open and collaborative. So I always coach and mentor people to walk into every meeting. Like this meeting today, I’ll give you an example. I was rushed. I was going from one meeting to another and a part of me was like, oh, I don’t have time for this.” And I’m like, “what are you talking about? It’s not about you. It’s not about how you show up, it’s about how you’re giving back.” And that’s just about showing up, being vulnerable. I just came from a meeting, my hair’s on fire, but I care so much about this message, and I might just make a difference in one person’s life today.

Nancy Novak:                I like that word intention, Amy. Intention’s such a great word. I was told many years ago that again, decisions can be hard, and some decisions are good and in hindsight, some are not so good, but your intentions are in the right place. Regardless of the decision, you’ve done the right thing. I remember that all the time. So when I make a decision, I think, “oh, that probably wasn’t the best decision.” I ask myself, “did I have the best intentions?” And if the answer is yes, I kind of forgive myself for making a decision that could have been a better one later. I think that word is so important, to really ask yourself that.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Well, and we’re not perfect humans. It comes back to the don’t be a perfectionist. You had a north star, that’s your intention, you know what that is. Maybe you missed it, but you always know how to get back to it. “Oh, shoot, I missed the mark.” But then you’re like, “how do I get back?” And everybody’s focused on that north star. They know where you’re marching and where you’re going together.

Nancy Novak:                Right. No, I love it. And then that helps you be vulnerable to ask the right questions, to say, “well, if this decision didn’t work out, let’s ask the why’s. Let’s dig a little deeper into it so that you can stay on that north star.” I think that’s really good.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       And I think the thing people forget about in the business world is, we’re all humans that have emotions, and that’s okay, especially we should use those because emotions are what make us act, and drive change and transformation. People will typically make a decision emotionally and justify it rationally. So it’s okay to use our emotions, but use them in a way that if your intention is right, you’re driving positive transformation and positive change.

Nancy Novak:                I would love for you to peel that back a little bit because when we get a bound reputation for being emotional versus other adjectives you could use to describe behavior, ambitious or excited or passionate, how do we conquer that image?

Amy Slagle Swan…:       So first of all, I’m going to tell you two things that are almost contradictory. The first one is, don’t care what other people think. It comes back to that, when you’re a leader, you’re checking yourself, what do you think? Does this map with my values and my intentions? So that’s first and foremost. But if you think of emotion as a tool to drive transformation, and logic is a way for you to check and make sure your facts are right, your data, you should always be using logic and emotion. I think it’s important to learn to compartmentalize things. There are times when you shouldn’t get overly emotional and you should contain yourself. But there are times when you say, “I’m strategically going to use emotion to make connection, a human connection.” Let’s say you’re in a heated conversation and there’s conflict, and you want to address it with maybe even someone above you.

                                    I think it’s great to say, “I really thought through this. This is the decision I made. This is the logic I used to make it.” But I think it’s really important that we touch and inspire others, and with these cultural things that we’re doing, we’re not, and if we don’t touch the hearts and souls of our people, this company will never compete and thrive. So that way you’re getting to the heart and the crux of the issue, at the same time showing you looked at the data, you understand what you’re doing and you’re not a pushover.

Nancy Novak:                Yeah, that’s great. I mean, you bring it right back to the business case of why it’s important. But still, on that same pocket, there’s one other thing I want to uncover here, and that is maybe when you’re not using that, what we would call emotional decision-making process, but you appear that way. And the story I have, which I’d love your feedback on, is when I was with one of my regional EP’s from a past company, and loved him. He’s a fantastic guy, but I got really passionate and excited on the topic, and I started talking about it and he said, “you’ve got to calm down, Nancy, calm down. And I said, “huh.” And for the first time ever, I said, “when I get excited about something, I talk fast and my octave goes up, and I think it’s just in my DNA and you’re probably just going to have to get used to it.” And what was funny about that was it just diffused the situation.

                                    And he was like, “oh, okay. So that’s part of who you are. And now I know not to assume something about the way you’re speaking around an emotional content.”

Amy Slagle Swan…:       I think that was great because you stood in your own power. You’re first of all like, “Hey, I’m authentic. I am who I am.” And I actually just talked to a woman about the same thing last week where she did the same thing with her supervisor, and it was fine. So I think that’s important. And also have humility. Again, the balance, right? Stand in your power, say, “this is who I am. The emotion just means I care. The emotion means I’m in the boat with you. You should have me emotional. That’s a compliment to you in this organization.” And on the other hand, I realize that sometimes I should probably temper it, and take a breath and kind of see who was in the room and match my dynamic with theirs. So that way you’re saying, “Hey, I’m not going to change who I am. I’m proud of who I am. This is part of my DNA, and yet I heard your feedback and I’ll be sensitive.”

                                    To maybe some others, it could even be cultural. This is a huge thing. In IBM, we’re a multicultural company. I can’t necessarily show up the same way I could in South America that I could in Asia.

Nancy Novak:                Yeah, very good point. Different cultures take things very differently. And let’s say we’re talking about it, that perception is reality, and the way people are perceiving you where you think you’re coming across a certain way or your desires to come across in a certain manner, but you may not be being received in that manner. So being conscious of that and being able to take, like you said, the ownership of that and communicate that back to somebody to say, “this is generally who I am, but I’m aware of it and I am thinking about how you received me in that moment.” I think that’s really wonderful.

                                    I do have a great question that is one of the topics that you like to speak on, Amy, and I think this is so important because it’s one of my favorite topics, and it’s about strategic risk and the beauty of being bold. I’m kind of a deep personality. I think bold is a beautiful word, but I feel like being strategic and taking risk are both critical to the success of advancing women in the entire world of business.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Absolutely. It’s always been my nature to be a risk-taker. I just kind of came in that way. But you can be a risk-taker even if that’s not who you are. So I encourage all people to take risks because really what it is, it’s being brave and living a courageous life. And so strategic risks are things where you’re not going to put yourself in a vulnerable situation that’s not safe. Again, you have to be thoughtful about it. You don’t want to maybe set yourself up to be fired or lose a job or anything like that. But first you get consensus, whether it be your executive team, your clients. Do you believe that opening up this process, whether it’s like an innovative project or a big decision that will impact you financially or any of those things, do you think that this risk climate would be good for us to innovate? And you kind of get feedback and get everybody on board with it.

                                    And typically most people will say, “yes, we need to, but we’re afraid for this.” So you create a culture of risk and you get other people on board with the value of it. And then if you do it once or twice, you start everybody going, “wow, we need to be risk-takers.” So I think the first is to create a safe place and a culture of risk if you’re the leader. If you’re not yet the leader and you want to take a risk, I think it’s okay to do it, but have one of those co-pilots where you say, “I want you to support me in this. I have this decision, which I know it’s kind of an outlier, but here’s the gamble I want to take. This is what I think the return is on it, and I want your support to do it.” And I bet you nine times out of 10, somebody will do it because you took the time to think. You’ve thought it through, you know it’s a risk, and you’ve sold them on the idea, if we don’t get out of our comfort zone, how do we compete and thrive?

Nancy Novak:                And having that advocacy, because there’s strength in numbers, honestly. And there’s also strength in having more collaborative ideas and experiences that will help making better decisions. But while you were talking about risk, two things came to mind right away for me, and one was on the personal side and one was on the professional side. So on a personal side, I want your feedback on risks that we look at from a career growth perspective as far as crossing bridges before we get there. “I would love to take that opportunity, but what if I get married in two years and then my husband doesn’t want to move?” Or, “what if I decide to have a child?” Or, “what if…” Things that women think through and then cross these bridges before they even get to them without realizing that they could probably do both. But what do you think about those kinds of risks?

Amy Slagle Swan…:       I love this topic, and I’ll give you a story again to ground it in my background. I had kids late twenties, early thirties and was on a trajectory then to move up the ladder in IBM. And I thought, “oh, I can’t do that and be a good mom.” So I still had a great career in sales where I had a lot of opportunity to have high income, but I didn’t want to be rising the ladder. I thought I can’t have free time to run off and do things with my kids if I wanted, etc. And then I waited. And then when they went off to college, it was a fast track up because I didn’t have any of my own things holding me back. But it was only me that held me back. And then I realized, why did I wait so long? I have so much more experience than all these people that are even above me now, and I could have been adding value to the firm. But what was my area for development was, was I didn’t know how to set proper boundaries.

                                    So you can be a leader and you can take the risk and take the promotion, but you can also set a boundary that says, “from these hours to these hours, I’m with my children,” or whatever it is. “I care for my elderly mother.” We all have life things. So I’m seeing that now and I love it, whether it’s men, women, people. We’re saying, “oh, I have boundaries too.”

Nancy Novak:                And I love it when I see the men taking time for their kids. They want to be with their families as well.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Absolutely. They one hundred percent do. And I love that. And a lot of the people I’m mentoring now are the men coming up in the next generation because they don’t like the old control and command leadership kind of patriarchal style that was in existence for many years. They like this more, what I would call, open collaborative culture. And it is actually not a weakness, it’s a strength. It makes us innovate.

Nancy Novak:                It’s doing the job, but maybe doing it differently. And remind me again, before I get off this personal risk taking, of a CEO of one of the largest curtain wall companies in the world. He said, “I want you to come speak with all my women. I have amazing, powerful women and I’d just love for them to hear your voice.” And then he, right away in the same sentence said, “there’s no way I could ever do the job I have without having of support of my wife at home and doing all the things she does to manage our family.” And I looked at him and I said, “I know you meant that as the highest compliment on the planet, but what you just told a young woman is that she can’t do your job unless she has what you have in your personal life.” That was the message behind the scene there.

                                    And I said, “the fact is, it’s likely that she could do your job, but she would do it differently. Possibly, right?” And so that’s kind of like that words are powerful thing, and he had the aha moment of, that’s a good point. Because what we do to ourselves as women is we say… Because by the way, it’s systemic. There are lots of men in the careers who look at these young women and they think they’re wonderful in their careers, but they also think, “well, I couldn’t do what you’re doing if I had to balance family and job. That’s why I have a stay-at-home wife, and that’s why I have a situation the way I have it.” So then that gets projected onto the younger folks. “If I can’t see myself doing it, I don’t see how you could do it.” And I think sometimes it’s the outside implicit bias that gets in the way of elevating women and not letting them make these choices and cross those bridges when they get there. And by the way, those bridges will get crossed, right?

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Yeah, I think you bring up such a very important point though. I mean, this is a very real thing, and I can… Almost always throughout the trajectory of my career, even though I did delay some promotions intentionally, I was in a room full of men because I was in a technology field where there weren’t a lot of women at the time, and then as I grew, I was in a room full of men. And I’d say nine out of 10 had a partner or a spouse at home that didn’t work, that did all the stuff I also had to do. So it took me a lot of years to actually figure out why I was disadvantaged and I was because I didn’t have a wife at home. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

Nancy Novak:                I hear you.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Once I realized that, a couple of things came to mind. One is, it’s okay to talk about it. It’s okay to say to… Especially if you have a trusted relationship with whoever you report to and say, “it’s a disadvantage for me. I want to take care of all these things. I don’t have someone to delegate it to, so I’m going to set some boundaries. I’m a very good person on your team. I’m adding this value, but if I say, ‘I’m not going to go to that golf outing,’ it’s because I’ve got to help the kids with the homework,” or whatever. It’s important. So I would also get back to boundaries, back to communicating. You know what they’d say? “Oh, a hundred percent. I didn’t even think about it. You go do that. Take care of Mac and Riley.” But I was ashamed because I didn’t want to be different.

Nancy Novak:                That’s a systemic thing. But I love how that communication is great advice because again, implicit biases are usually unintentional. I mean, they’re unintentional and they’re done with usually good intentions is what I was trying to say. And so when you bring that awareness about, then there’s the awful element of, “oh, I don’t have those lenses. It didn’t even occur to me that that would be a barrier for you.” So I think that communication is really, really good advice.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       One thing I do want to add though, and this is happening at IBM, and it’s not just IBM. I’m on the board of directors for a financial institution, and we talk about this at the board level, in talent transformation, which is huge for everybody with the war on talent. There’s a section of women and now young men who are not wanting to step into the promotions. And we need this diversity, equity, inclusion. It’s on everybody’s radar. But if we don’t create a culture where you can parent, or you can have outside responsibilities and still raise up the ranks, because this diversity makes us more competitive. It makes us richer, it makes us better for our clients and organizations. So we at IBM are working on that right now to get better, smarter, faster about, how do we find this niche of women who are opting out, or now in dual working families? So it’s so important and it’s things that we all need to get better at collectively.

Nancy Novak:                And it’s that talent, that limited resource pool of talent is not going to get better anytime soon. There’s lots of demand. It’s good news, but it’s also news where we have to be very cognizant of the fact that we have to figure out how to balance these things, and do more with less, but do it better, right? Because there’s better ways to figure that out. So I was going to wrap up really quick, but I wanted to go back to the strategic risk and the beauty of being bold. So we talked about the personal part, which I thought was a fantastic deep dive on risk in your personal career and crossing bridges when you get there, and communicating to your bosses. I want to go back to the business part, which resonated with me. And you already kind of touched on this, Amy, and it was getting people on the same boat. So saying, “we’re going to take some risk.” I’m on a really big multi-hundred million dollar project and it feels very, very risky, and there’s a lot of unknowns, and I’m trying to garner this support.

                                    So being able to present these options to the entire team in a collaborative way and say, “here are the paths and the choices that we might have, and let’s all talk about these and then come to a conclusion together,” to stay with not just the collaborative way, but the innovative way of getting ideas from all different walks of life, all different parties, having the empathy to really understand. You’re in each other’s shoes. And it could be, whether it’s in our business, contractors, partners, team members, you name it, supply chain, everyone has a different set of risks that they’re looking at. And I think that women bring a certain amount of power to having that empathetic view of saying, “how do we make everyone successful so that we are all in the same boat and we’re all rolling in the same direction?” I’d love your feedback on that.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Absolutely. So what I do for IBM is I do business transformation. So that could be operational processes, systems, culture, change management, you name it. The systems and the processes are easy. People think that’s tricky. What’s difficult is the behavioral change, and getting a person to change and evolve and take risks. So you really have to make sure you go there, and you go where it’s uncomfortable, you seek out discomfort, and you get to the crux of what that is. And I have a background in system science, which is understanding an organizational ecosystem. So it could be something like, just as an analogy, the human body, or the sea, or any sort of self-sustaining ecosystem.

                                    Well, organizations should operate that way as well, but if your people and your culture are not going to take risks and they’re not even going to expose why they won’t change, you’ve got to get to the crux of that. So transformation is all about understanding, what’s the person? So you have to understand all the people on the team, and if that’s typically the C-suite and the leaders, the CEO, the CFO, whoever’s doing the transformation, what’s their personal and professional win? And you have to understand that so that you can get them… So nobody’s going to jump into the abyss of discomfort unless they get a personal or professional win, and they need both. So business risks are done if the advantage is higher than the risk. And it’s not just about financial. It’s about, how does this make me look? Am I a successful CEO? Have I transformed my company? Are my people coming with me? Do they believe?

                                    So when it’s a business risk, it’s all about getting to the what’s in it for them personally and professionally, understanding it, and then demonstrating it’s possible. And then once you do it, bring it back to them and say, “see how we made this possible for you?” And then you know what happens? It’s so exciting. They start doing that in their culture. And not only have you done a transformation for a client or your own organization, you’ve just taught maybe a hundred or more people how to do it themselves by modeling.

Nancy Novak:                Totally. And that’s that buy-in of owning that, or accountability as well, but also learning. And then, I call it the ripple in the pond. So now that will get shared and perpetuate in other ways. I think that’s fantastic. It has been such an honor to talk with you, Amy. You’re so amazing. You’re so powerful. Your advice is just spot on, and it resonates really, really deeply with me. So I just so much appreciate you coming on Extending the Ladder and sharing your knowledge.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       Thank you. Well, my pleasure and I’d love an opportunity to talk with you more. I wish you the best, and I hope some pearls of wisdom here resonate with others. And for all the listeners, women, men alike, I think it’s a great opportunity to be vulnerable, step into your power, have some humility, and don’t be afraid to fly solo.

Nancy Novak:                Fantastic way to close it out. Thank you again, Amy.

Amy Slagle Swan…:       You bet. Have a great day.