This Entrepreneur Successfully Transitioned from Vice President of a Fortune 100 Company to Becoming CEO for The Center for Workforce Excellence—Teaching Women of Diversity to Acquire Their Voice in Corporate America!
CEO Trudy Bourgeois
LT: As a renowned and respected authority on leadership development and diversity, you are one of the featured speakers for the Network of Executive Women Leadership Summit 2014— speaking on the topic: Courageous Conversations: Women and Race in the Workplace. What can audience members expect from your [platform] presentation?
The first thing they are going to be able to walk away with is a proven understanding based upon the research that women are not supporting women as we could be. Co-author Dr. Ancella Livers and I have found in our research this: Multicultural women are having a different experience in Corporate America than their white female counterparts because of cultural lack of understanding. There have been many articles written about bias and the role that bias; whether it’s conscious or unconscious plays in the creation of a culture where all women can thrive.
White women have been the biggest beneficiary of affirmative action, and we believe they are the new sponsors of the Twenty-First century, and we wanted to in part, understand what does that mean for white women. What we uncovered is that white women completely understand diversity as it relates to gender, but they do not understand the diversity as it relates to race. Nor have we had the courageous conversations with which to start a dialogue about the lack of understanding.
Courageous Conversations creates an opportunity where I will be imparting some of the research but also providing a safe environment where people can talk about the biases that we all bring to the table. All women, all humans, have biases. If we’re going to make some substantive changes in Corporate America, in terms of equity and fair representation, then we need to engage more than just White men. White women are catapulting themselves to the top, and they need to understand the unique challenges that people of color, particularly, multicultural women, face. We need to have this courageous conversation about race and women supporting women in the workplace.
LT: You are founder and CEO of The Center for Workforce Excellence. How would you describe “Workforce Excellence” to frustrated bosses and overworked employees in Corporate America?
Most of the work I do focus on women and people of color, find the ability to engage in Corporate America in a different way. The excellence is about creating an environment where people enjoy coming to work and where leaders regard themselves as stewards of the business and stewards of developing their people. If we can move to that stance, then you don’t have frustrated bosses, and you’re able to disburse the work in a way that people don’t feel like they’re being killed. A lot of people go to work, and they hate going. When your mindset is in a position of, “I can’t stand the people who I work with or what I’m doing,” there is no way that anybody will be productive. There is nothing good that is going to come out of that.
The excellence is also about everyone pursuing their sweet spot, using their gifts and talents to serve each other. Fundamentally, I believe there are two customers: Internal customers, the employees and external customers; the consumers, who buy our products and services. We need to make the internal consumer; happy, healthy and whole and stop making them feel like they’re disposable. We need to treat them as the greatest asset of the organization, or we will never solve or meet the needs of the external consumer. It’s just not going to happen! The equation does not work like that and so we have to become far more intentional about creating environments where people can pursue excellence with vigor and zest, but fun as well.
LT: With an 18-year corporate career and having served as Vice President of national accounts at a Fortune 100 company, what was the turning point in becoming an entrepreneur and utilizing your expertise, acquired over the years for your business?
TB: I achieved what some people would say, was a level of success. When I became Vice President, even climbing the ladder to that position, I was the only woman of color, and I was not easily accepted. The inequalities were more pronounced than they are now, and I woke up one day not liking the person I had become. I had adopted behaviors that were not in line with my values. I found myself being in that place where I was frustrated and overworked and so I said, “Okay! Trudy, what are you going to do?” I always had this mindset that you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. I had this dream, and I still have this dream that I was going to step away and fix Corporate America! I was going to make it be where everybody could be successful and welcomed, and this bias was not going to be in place. You have to remember there was not this language of diversity or inclusion when I was climbing the ladder. The only language that was being talked about was EEOC compliances; It was all about compliance at that particular point.
I refer to myself as a truth teller, and I like to touch the truth. In Corporate America, you can’t always speak the truth. I needed to get on the outside where I could speak, write and talk about the pieces of the puzzle that people were afraid to communicate. I often find myself talking about things where people go, “Gosh, I can’t believe you said that!” Like white women have been the biggest beneficiary of affirmative action— That’s a fact! This fact started burning a fire in my spirit, and I think I always knew I wanted to do this [entrepreneurship]. I thought that I would do it in my fifties, but God had another plan, and so at forty-one, I took a leap of faith and stepped out. I was fortunate enough to have sown some seeds early in my career. I believe in giving, and you’ll get. I had done some free speaking for a dear friend of mine James White, CEO of Jamba Juice but at the time he was at Nestle Purina Pet Care. He and I became mutual mentors for each other and so when I left [corporate America] one Friday, he called on Monday and said, “Can you think about coming to work for me?” My response: “No! I was done with that for a while.” I explained I wanted to be a catalyst for helping women and people of color figure out how to get to the top, because they didn’t know. James called me back that Wednesday and said, “Okay, If I can’t hire you then I will be your first client.” He gave me six women to groom to become VP’s and above. Five of the six are now VP’s, SVP’s and CMO’s and doing exceptionally well!
LT: You are the author of: Her Corner Office, A Guide to Help Women Find a Place and a Voice in Corporate America, and The Hybrid Leader: Blending the Best of Male and Female Leadership Styles.
Two-part question: In Her Corner Office, do you feel some women in Corporate America have settled in not fighting to be recognized for their contributions, in the workplace? Would women making minimum wage or an office assistant wishing to advance her career benefit from this book?
TB: I work with women of all backgrounds and hues. It’s not that they have given up or that they don’t know how but we’ve been socialized from a very young age. Women in the 30 to 50+ age group have been socialized as little girls to be seen and not heard. We are struggling with some old baggage that we have to let go and free ourselves so that we can advocate for ourselves. Particularly, women of color because we were socialized that you need to be polite and not be arrogant. People see advocating for themselves as being arrogant, and it’s not. It’s about communicating your value and your impact. What I teach women is to move into a different space…a space where they see and understand their value and be able to tell their stories.
There is research that we as women undersell ourselves because we have this sense of fairness; that people are going to reward us for our good efforts. I would love to be able to say that’s true, but what we don’t appreciate is that people don’t get rewarded in totality for their efforts. Usually, your contribution is the price of entry into the playground.
What is the tipping point from there is relationships and getting other people to advocate for you. Whether you’re a woman who is an administrative assistant or you’re trying to become President of the company, there are things that I think people can benefit from in Her Corner Office. I wrote it from my heart because as I was coaching those six women they kept saying, “Trudy, can you repeat that I can’t write fast enough!” I know there is a thirst, and it doesn’t matter your role.
I happen to think office assistants are one of the most powerful roles that exist in Corporate America. I think people undervalue them because they think of an old secretary or the notion of someone dictating. Office assistants are “gatekeepers” they are the individuals who chart the lives of Senior Executives. They can derive benefits from the book because it is about uncovering who you are and taking ownership of that. It’s being in a space where you’re using your gifts and talents. Where you wake up every day and say, “This is my ministry, and this is how I am going to have an impact on this earth.” If you feel good about that then, you can advocate for yourself and sound like a savvy, intelligent business woman.
I also like to infuse knowledge that is never going to go away. Information will always evolve, but I like to impart principles that people can embed into the way they show up. Embedded into their DNA because whether you’re negotiating for an hourly increase or the complete package, the principles don’t change. There is so much that is inside this book about how you market yourself, how you connect with other people and how you build your plan of development. Fundamentally, I don’t believe in giving my power away. For all the people who do read my book or those that I coach, I will tell them, “Don’t give your power away. Don’t wait for someone to do something for you.” You have to lean into that position of being the architect of your life, career and contribution.. to the time and space you have on this earth.
LT: Please provide an important factor as to why male and female professionals should blend their leadership styles. I am taking this from your book The Hybrid Leader. Overall, how does it benefit Corporate America?
TB: What’s interesting in writing the book and certainly what I observed before writing the book was that Corporate America has a set of leadership expectations that were developed by white men for white men. Part of the struggle for women and people of color is that model does not fit our authentic approach. For years, women were told that if you were collaborative than well, “you need to toughen up a bit!”
Fast forward to the 21st century; 2014, and what are companies trying to do? They are trying to drive collaboration to support efficiency gains. They are trying to make sure their communication is transparent. They are trying to create inclusive teams where everybody can contribute so that they can become more profitable. These are skills [traits] that women naturally bring to the table, and that is not to discount what good pieces men have brought to the workforce but they are socialized differently. Men can have debates during the business day and then go out for drinks at night, and it’s gone…like that discussion never happened. Now for women, we start storing that stuff up into our body and our baby toe and then one day someone steps on the baby toe, and we go exorcist on you (laugh)! There are things we can learn from the men, and there are things we can learn from the women.
As I looked back on my career, one of the exercises that I love to ask people to do is to look at their ten most defining moments in their life. So that they understand the power of what they have inside. A lot of times people go, “I can’t handle this!” Think about what you’ve already handled. You’re quite resilient— you just haven’t recognized it yet.
As a kid growing up in the deep south during segregation, my parents had ten children. The girls were expected to do everything the boys could do, and the boys were expected to do everything the girls could do. I had this mindset that there was no difference; my father could braid our hair, and he was a better cook than my mom, my sister could build furniture. What I am saying goes back to the point about gifts and talents. Corporate America has to realize there are different styles of leadership. There is not one size fits all. Corporate America needs to embrace that because the workforce is changing. More women are graduating from college than men, and the workforce is more multi-cultural. It’s a different style that needs to be viewed as credible and not compared to an outdated command and control style of leadership.
In my next book that I’m working on I’m talking about leaders being stewards and not just using their gifts and talents to serve but to create a new business world. A place where people do want to come and work, and I think that productivity will go through the roof. If corporations want to win, they are going to find a way to reinvent leadership. It’s time for us to innovate the leadership, and that’s what I want to talk about in my next book. What we need to do to innovate the leadership and make it relevant in today’s environment.
LT: With such a long and polished career how did you handle sustaining your place and voice in Corporate America?
TB: I lot of prayer (laugh)!
I learned early on that a company rewards people who deliver exceptional results. You get a little credit where you can use your voice if deliver exceptional results. What I would tell people first is that you need to have your business leadership buttoned up. You cannot half step. You must over deliver! You can then use that to build some relationships that will give you a bit of air cover. I was fortunate growing up in the business world because I always positioned myself as an “agent of change.” I taught people to expect that that was how I was going to show up and the things that I was promoting always was about growing the business. Thankfully, a lot of what I put on the table did grow the business and as a result, I was able to say, “Why don’t we have more women at the table?” Why don’t we have more people of color?”
One of the big accomplishments that I’m proud of is that I partnered with a business colleague and we performed audits on compensations where people received back pay for inequities. We were able to use our voice to say, “This is not right and if we ever get an audit, we are going to be upside down!” People were handed checks in amounts of $50,000 dollars. This example shows that if you’re courageous enough, you can use your voice and have an impact.
LT: Your advice for traditional workers wanting to use their corporate experiences to become entrepreneurs?
TB: Network…network…network! Get out now and network! That is the first. The second thing is to do your homework and figure out what are the challenges that exist and then figure out how your particular expertise can be a solution to the problems. That’s what I did and how I developed my key areas of focus. I am so blessed and appreciative for the 18-years of corporate experience I did have. I use it every single day as an entrepreneur. My only regret is that I would have leveraged and built a network a long time ago, before breaking away.
LT: Describe a “fun day” for Trudy Bourgeois when you’re able to get away from your desk?
TB: I am big a family person, and I love to cook. My father was a cook. A fun day for me is having time to exercise. Time to reflect and pray. Time to convene with my family. Time to think about the blessings and gird myself for the next day. I love what I do! You can get tired as an entrepreneur or working in Corporate America, but I have such a sense of responsibility. I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones that wakes up every day and says, “Gosh! I love what I do!” Fun days can be work!
LT: Thank you. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
TB: This interview was delightful! Looking forward to doing it again. Thank you!
Trudy Bourgeois presented her topic on Friday, October 24th in Atlanta, GA.
October 22, 2014
By La Tasha Taylor
For more information on The Center for Workforce Excellence visit: http://workforceexcellence.com/