Including Women in Your Conversation

Every day, of course, is a good day to work on improving the way that you engage and communicate with your people. But it never hurts to have a special reason to start (or to restart) a conversation with employees—the sort of conversation that builds real connections with them, the sort of conversation that builds real value for your organization.

IWD logo1.gifNext Thursday, March 8, people all across the world will celebrate International Women’s Day. In some countries, International Women’s Day is a nationally observed holiday. For business leaders, it provides an occasion to think with renewed urgency about the goal of including women fully and productively in the life of their company.

What are the essential ingredients of inclusive leadership? Most executives who take that question seriously recognize that communication ranks on any list of such ingredients. It’s a lesson about the soft side of management that many leaders have learned the hard way: You can’t work with people successfully if you don’t talk with them.

But there’s more to it, we believe. Truly inclusive leadership entails not just talking with your people, but also letting them do much of the talking. By enabling employees to contribute actively to what we call organizational conversation, leaders can substantially boost the quality and the effectiveness of their communication efforts. Just as user-generated content has revolutionized the consumer Internet in recent years, so does employee-generated content invigorate the conversation that unfolds inside an organization.

Which brings us back to International Women’s Day. More and more top leaders today understand that women as a group face particular challenges in the workplace—and that companies benefit from acknowledging (and, in some cases, accommodating) those challenges. Many women, for example, find that meaningful inclusion in the life of their company is largely a function of how easily they can juggle the demands that come with being a working mother. In an organization where leaders pretend that those demands are irrelevant, women aren’t apt to feel very welcome.

In our new book, Talk, Inc., we describe how leaders at one company—EMC Corporation, the world’s largest computer-storage provider—found a way to enhance organizational inclusion by promoting conversational inclusion. They encouraged a group of employees who are also mothers to produce rich content about “the working mother experience” (as those women call it). That move sent a message to women throughout the company: At EMC, their day has come.

Here, excerpted with slight modification from our book, is a story that we’ve titled “Mothers of Inclusion.”

The real work of engaging employees “has nothing to do with technology,” says Polly Pearson, EMC’s former vice president of employement brand and engagement strategy. “It’s all about behavior.” As if to prove that conversational inclusion at EMC isn’t dependent on using the latest digital gadgetry, the company in 2009 published a traditional printed book—a soft-cover tome of coffee-table-book size, just shy of 250 pages in length, written by and for EMCers. It’s an old-media monument to the idea of letting employees tell the EMC story, and to the related idea of letting them tell their own story. Called The Working Mother Experience, the book gathers personal essays by ninety-seven EMC women from fifteen countries (along with one essay by an EMC man).

EMC WME book.jpg

The essays deal with the highs and lows of being both a successful EMCer and a mother (or, in that one case, a single father), and they cover personal and professional matters alike. In one contribution, an EMC program manager discusses her telecommuting regimen, her use of the company’s backup child-care service, and other factors that make her “daily balancing act” possible. In another essay, a member of EMC’s legal team writes: “It is remarkable how much like my two-year-old many of our sales reps can be—they need it now, they need it right, and they often don’t understand how they reached their current predicament!” The book also features a chapter titled “Tips and Best Practices,” in which EMC working mothers distill the wisdom that they have accumulated over many years of negotiating the ever-shifting line between work life and home life.

Producing a book of this kind isn’t out of the ordinary for a big company like EMC. In a standard corporate communication model, however, such a book would emerge as part of a top-down, professional-driven campaign to promote a specific organizational objective. Not so in this case. “It was a peer-level idea, and the people ran it,” Pearson explains. “It wasn’t the corporate inclusion office, it wasn’t the corporate communications office, it wasn’t HR. It was born from the passion of people, from friends talking to other friends at work and saying, ‘Hey, let’s give this a try.’”

The prime mover behind the book project was Natalie Corridan-Gregg, who today serves as a director of technology analysis at EMC. Frank Hauck, executive vice president of global marketing and customer quality, had expressed an interest in efforts to “make women feel connected to each other and to EMC,” Corridan-Gregg recalls. So she took her idea for a book to him. “This was not going to be a rah-rah book,” she says. Instead of offering a PR-spun feel-good message, it would present (in her words) “a snapshot in time” of the way that working mothers at EMC live now. Hauck immediately signed on to the idea. “It was a request and a yes. Within twenty minutes, he was saying, ‘I’m going to fund it. Go do it,’” Corridan-Gregg says.

EMC has distributed copies of The Working Mother Experience both internally and externally, and on each front the book has attracted enthusiastic attention. Inside the company, the book has helped EMC women to send a message to their leaders—and especially to the men in that group. “It’s a decoder ring for male managers,” Corridan-Gregg suggests. By reading the stories that women tell in the book, men come to a better understanding of what makes working moms at EMC tick (or, in some cases, what ticks them off). The book also lets men send a message of their own to colleagues. “Male managers can project concern by putting the book on their desk,” Corridan-Gregg notes.

The physicality of the book, in fact, makes it an ideal tool for starting a conversation. William J. Teuber Jr., vice chairman of EMC’s board of directors, describes one such encounter: “I had that book in my house. A woman I know was there, and she picked it up, and she immediately bonded with it. She said, ‘You know, this personalizes EMC in a way that I had never understood.’ I said, ‘If you like the book, you can have it,’ and she took it home with her. She doesn’t work for EMC, but she’s a working mother, and she identified with a lot of stories in the book.”

In casual interactions like that one and in other settings as well, The Working Mother Experience has had a wide-ranging impact on people outside EMC. Out in the talent market, candidates have seen the book and have responded well to it; according to Corridan-Gregg, some female recruits have chosen to work at EMC partly on the basis of what they have read in its pages. Pearson argues that precisely because the book was a bottom-up operation—because “it reads so genuine and true”—it makes a powerful case for EMC as a women-friendly workplace. “This is doing more to serve that purpose than any artificial, consultant-oriented powwow that tells people, ‘Inclusion is important. Hire women, and treat them with respect,’” she says.

Customers have received a similar message from the company. “Our people are using the book to reach out to customers,” Corridan-Gregg says. “Connections are happening that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.” More generally, people with an interest in “the working-mother experience” have taken note of The Working Mother Experience. Professionals from other companies, for example, have contacted people at EMC to gain insight on how the book project has helped to further a conversation about women in the workplace. In response to those queries, Corridan-Gregg offers up a simple lesson. “It couldn’t be a corporate mandate,” she says. “It couldn’t be a top-down thing.”

To get a copy of The Working Mother Experience, visit the EMC Web site (PDF). For further insight on the life of a working mother at EMC, visit Natalie’s Corner, a blog produced by Natalie Corridan-Gregg.

[Cross-posted on the Harvard Business Review site.]