When she received the dreaded diagnoses of the chronic autoimmune disease lupus Michelle Gadsden-Williams had to rethink, reengineer and redefine her career. Through determination and putting her health first she was able to successfully remain in the top spot she worked so hard to get to.
Williams has spent over 20 years in corporate America moving the diversity needle forward as the current Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion and HR Management Committee member at Credit Suisse. Her professional career feats earned her profiles in esteemed publications including Black Enterprise Magazine, Diversity Executive, Ebony, Essence, Fortune, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Her Agenda got a chance to speak with Michelle and gain some insight from the industry veteran on her career journey, how to step into your power and how to prioritize within your career.
Her Agenda: Did you dream of being in human capital management as a little girl?
Michelle Gadsden-Williams: Well, I started my career in marketing. That was my major in college and it was something that was always of interest to me. I did that for the first 7 years right out of college. I liked what I did, I didn’t love it.
I learned early on that I am an extravert by nature. I draw my energy from people. My role in human capital management is very unique where it allows me to make an impact on the people of the organization and the culture of the organization. It also appeases both sides of my brain: the human capital side that I love, but also the business side of my brain. I wanted [to do] something that filled my soul, something more meaningful to me as a professional and an individual. Human capital management filled that void.
Her Agenda: Can you speak to specific challenges that Credit Sussie faces in the development of diverse talent, and is there a difference between challenges in the U.S. versus aboard?
Michelle Gadsden-Williams: Like most companies, one of the things we struggle with is the fact that we have a workforce that is multigenerational. We have baby boomers we have gen X gen Y, all with varying needs in terms of their careers, their perspective on career growth, and development.
The challenge when you have a diverse workforce in terms of management, longevity of career, and culture it becomes difficult to design programs for all of the varying opinions perspectives and varying wants and desires of ones career growth.
For example, you may have a baby boomer who has grown up in an organization that took them 15 to 20 years for them to get in to that top job. Then you may have a millennial who is not going to wait 15 to 20 years to get the top job. The question then, becomes what are some of the kinds of things an organization [needs to] do to appease the diverse mindsets. Like most organizations we wrestle with that in terms of talent management and in terms of creating and fostering a culture that is conducive to everyone with varying needs. I would say that is the biggest challenge I see and it is not any different abroad than it is in the United States.
Her Agenda: What would you recommend individuals do in a corporate workplace to make their environment more inclusive?
Michelle Gadsden-Williams:Be more proactive. Learn about the diversity and inclusion strategies that are offered within your company and determine what it is that you can do to make a difference. It is not just about the senior leadership mandating something at the top and then everyone follows, it needs to be a top down and bottom up approach. Participate in some of the programs that are offered and encourage your collogues to do the same. Become a champion and an ambassador. There is something that can always be done. We can always advocate for those that are under represented. If you have an HR role, are you challenging some [processes] that are made in terms of recruitment or promotions? There is no room for passive on lookers to look from a distance –I think that we all have a role to play in order to make it work.
Her Agenda: Was there a defining moment or a difficult challenge that helped you get to where you are today?
Michelle Gadsden-Williams: An unexpected challenge that I faced in 2006 was my diagnoses with lupus. I was at the pinnacle of my career at the time and I was working the pharmaceutical industry. I was the Global Chief Diversity Officer, my husband had just retired we were packing up our home and moving to Switzerland. It was the job and opportunity of a lifetime and we were certainly looking forward to it. Then, in July of 2006 I was faced with the diagnoses that I have lupus. It really turned my world upside down.
My health was paramount it had to be first and foremost. Commuting to Switzerland almost every week from New Jersey just wasn’t healthy. So I had to make some very tough choices in terms of my career. I wrestled with the decision to tell my employer and as much as I worked in the health care industry there is always a stigma [against] someone coming down with an illness. If I [told] them would they think I was fragile? If I don’t say something, will my systems manifest themselves in a way where in a meeting people will notice? I had to do some self-reflection in terms of what was most important to me. I put my career first and foremost all these years and I had to take a step back and say if you don’t have health, you don’t have a career.
I decided to tell the CEO, my boss at the time, and he was nothing but supportive. For me that was a big challenge because I had to really rethink and reengineer how I [managed] my professional life and put myself first and foremost and then put my career second.
I have had a clean bill of health since then.
Her Agenda: Do you have specific advice for a woman of color trying to climb the corporate ladder?
Michelle Gadsden-Williams: First and foremost, is to not only strive to be successful but to also think of ways where you can add value to the organization. Most of us get into this myopic view of: I need to get to the top and there is a linear way to do that. Sometimes we need to think broader about the roles that we play. One of the things that I have always said to my mentees, especially the young women, is that in any organization that I have entered my ultimate goal was to leave the organization in better condition than when I entered. That is what success is to me. You have to think broader about the role that you play and the impact that you have.
I would also say that you should step into your power. One of the things that I find is that we typically will take a back seat in terms of managing our careers. We will wait for that tap on the shoulder to say you’re promoted or I’d like you to take on this stretch assignment. We need to be more diligent and vigilant in terms of how we manage our own careers. We have to look for different and unique opportunities to highlight our strengths and to showcase our talents. You have to figure out what is going to differentiate you from the masses.
The last thing I would say is that speaking is as important as listening. Most of us are taught to be good listeners but when you are sitting in the boardroom and the majority of individuals around the table are unlike you and your voice is not being heard it is like you are listening passively and your not participating actively. We need to conjure up the courage to say what needs to be said. We loose our competitive edge when we are passive onlookers. We should always have something to say in meetings and encourage the other individuals in the room to do the same.
Her Agenda: What is your personal motto or mantra that you try to live your life by?
Michelle Gadsden-Williams: “To whom much is given much is required.” Doing more for others and giving more to others in my view is paramount to success. You have to pay it forward. It is important that we lift others up as we climb and support other women as they are on their career journey as well. It is not just about you and your career but also about what you can do to help others.