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Several hundred women, including approximately 30 chief human resource officers (CHROs), participated in Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women Summit,” an “invitation only” event held during October 2010 in Washington, D.C.
As part of its “We Know Next” campaign and its partnership with Fortune magazine, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) was a gold sponsor of the event and conducted a photo shoot of the more than 400 women in attendance. In addition, SHRM hosted a reception for the CHROs, including Susan Chambers, executive vice president, Global People Division, Wal-Mart Stores; Lori Goler, vice president of human resources for Facebook; and Beth Axelrod, senior vice president of human resources for eBay.
Fortune offered a live webcast of the plenary sessions held during the conference and gave SHRM members and staff access to the session titled “New Realities of the Workplace—What’s Next in Workforce Trends and Best Practices.”
Over 1,600 off-site attendees logged on to the “virtual” session in which Jessica Shambora, a senior writer for Fortune, interviewed two CHROs. She asked first about the impact of the economy on the level of trust in the workplace. “Transparency and a sense of community—regardless of whether it’s virtual or face to face—can help rebuild trust,” said SHRM Board member Gabrielle Toledano, executive vice president of human resources for Electronic Arts Inc. and one of the participants in the session. “Employees are looking for authentic leadership and humility,” she said.
eBay’s Axelrod, the other participant, agreed that trust has diminished and that employee engagement is down. “There's a lot of work that leaders have to do to instill confidence in their people,” she said, “such as having ‘real conversations’ with employees.”
They agreed that employees want more frequent feedback, from peers and subordinates as well as from managers, and that there is room for improvement in the feedback and performance review process. Though some managers might fear that they are being hurtful or demotivating when they provide feedback, Axelrod said she tells people that “it's a manager’s responsibility to provide feedback, and it's the respectful thing to do."
Toledano noted that the ability to build relationships is critical for functioning in a global environment; she suggested that values, integrity and leadership are as important, and in some cases more important, than work experience and educational credentials.
“Employees are looking for a much more holistic experience from their employer,” Axelrod added, such as the opportunity to work for a great company that stands for something meaningful.
But HR can’t create such an environment on its own.
“In HR we see ourselves as influencers of the culture,” Toledano said. Though the culture comes, in part, from the leadership of the organization, increasingly, she said, she finds that culture comes “from everyone.”
“The culture is not the responsibility of HR,” agreed Axelrod. “It is the sum total of everyone in the company.”
That’s why once an organization’s values are defined, it’s up to employees to put it all together. Axelrod said leaders need to make it OK for employees to make change happen.
Be willing to experiment, she added.
Toledano agreed: “Sometimes top management needs to get out of the way so that anyone anywhere can make things happen.”
Other Notable Speakers
President Barack Obama made an appearance at the summit, as did Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
During his speech, the president spoke of the grandmother who helped raise him, saying that he “watched as men no more qualified than she was—in fact, usually men who she had trained … [were] promoted up the corporate ladder ahead of her.”
He spoke of obstacles that women have to overcome and the need for girls to have access to math, science and technical education, noting that “our economy cannot compete unless our workforce can compete—unless we harness the potential of every American and ensure that their skills match up to the work of the future.”
But the president questioned whether today’s workplaces “are mobile and flexible and accommodating enough to give people the opportunities they need to contribute and raise a family.” Noting his audience, he was quick to add, “This is not just a woman’s issue. It’s not just a work-family balance issue. It’s an economic competitiveness issue.”
The goal, Obama said, is “to get all our people doing the very best work that they can” by breaking down barriers, being inclusive and “setting aside the outdated assumptions that keep us from appreciating what each of us has to offer.”
During an onstage interview, Ursula Burns, chair and CEO, Xerox Corp., echoed Obama’s comments on the importance of education in science and technology. “I am the product of a reasonable education system and a supportive family,” Burns said, but she noted that is not the case for most minorities in the inner city. “The fact of the matter is that the system is not working,” she said.
Burns encouraged audience members to get involved by engaging with a local school or a young person and providing internships and mentorships. “It takes a little bit of engagement every single day to make it better,” she said. “We're smart people. We run companies. We can do better than we are doing for the kids of this country.”
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