Enabling Ecosystems

Prof. Kevin Sharer

Many powerful and influential men are being called out and finally being held to account for egregious behavior towards women that range from truly monstrous to profoundly stupid and wrong.  This is long overdue.  The history of mankind has a few enduring themes.  Some are inspiring, and some are discouraging.  The fact that men have not consistently and fully respected women is one of the more discouraging truths.  Only recently in the span of history have women been allowed to vote and own property.  Some aspects of many religions do not treat women equally with men.  Respect in this context means accepting women as fully capable, equal, trusted, and worthy of a full role in the life of society.  With rights, freedoms and opportunities equal to men.  The list goes on.  Women have been admired, loved, supported and recently in most countries been given legal rights.  Some have risen to the heights of influence, power, and accomplishment.  Women today in America fill almost every role in society and there are reasons for optimism.  Yet the harassment of women by men continues on a scale and scope that cannot be tolerated.  Why does this happen and what do you as leaders of the future need to do to accelerate progress?

First, why does this happen?  There are elements in the human DNA that are in the mix, there will always be men who make wrong choices, and women will always consider the consequences of speaking out.  But the enablement ecosystem of looking the other way, making it almost impossible for women to speak out, a cottage industry of protectors of the powerful must be recognized and changed.  We could take any of the recent egregious examples to make the point.  By the way, the Catholic Church’s shameful denial and protection of the pedophiles in their midst follows the same pattern.  The ecosystem is based on powerful men who are given license by their peers.  These peers overlook their behavior, because they value some other aspect of the individual’s makeup as useful to the group.  They make money, win elections, have otherwise good policies, support popular causes, dispense jobs, green light projects, etc.  Next there are a group of shameless and unprincipled people who find it profitable to protect the offender.  Famous, previously respected lawyers do reprehensible things because it is “legal” and everyone deserves their representation.  Some public relations types and some private investigators are happy to feed the no standards internet with rumors, lies and half-truths that are picked up and distributed as truth.  Elements of the press fawn over the men because it sells.  Due process in the legal system gives license to try to destroy any woman who speaks out.  Women do not always support each other.  We do need to hold onto our core values of due process and presumption of innocence until proven guilty, but the current system does not work.  There are no easy fixes, but men looking the other way is a central problem.  Making women terrified to speak out must stop.  The press needs to be more aggressive and courageous.  Forgiving serious offenders because we like their policies must stop.  It is not one thing, it is everything.   

As future business leaders what can you do in the ecosystems you will construct and manage?  The central idea is to realize that you must lead, and that the natural forces of society will too often not be supportive.  Table stakes are that the values, policies and opportunities in the firm must be supportive of women and real in practice.  Very small organizations of one hundred people and less may need their own techniques to assess a good environment but no one can afford to wait until later to start.  Think Uber.  If one third to one half of your top 100 leaders are not women, you are falling short.  If you do not conduct electronic, semi-annual all staff surveys you are not aware of the facts.  If the surveys do not explicitly ask about harassment as well as equal career opportunities, you are ducking.  If the results show issues and you do not take effective, prompt action you do not deserve to lead.  If you tolerate leaders who cross the line, you’re a hypocrite and coward.  You need to have an anonymous reporting hotline, track volume and severity and disposition of comments.  This information must be discussed at the highest levels.   You need to have a women’s leadership forum that has a voice and the ear of the C suite and CEO.  When the big decisions are made, women’s voices need to be in the mix and count.  When my generation had the privilege to lead, we made progress.  But it was not enough.  Your generation can do more and better.  The world will be a better place for your efforts.  

Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.