This is the transcript of a speech Beth Brooke-Marciniak, Global Vice Chair of Public Policy at EY, gave to graduates at Babson College, a US business school. It includes her advice on diplomacy and unlocking your leadership potential, drawing on her experience of coming out as gay in the corporate world.
Class of 2016. Congratulations! The finish line is in sight.
I’ve given one commencement speech in my life. At my own high school graduation in 1977. Here’s how it began: “In the words of a popular song, the road is long, with many a winding turn, that leads us to who knows where. Who knows when.”
In the 39 years since then, my own road has taken many a winding turn. And in the bends, I learned a skill that absolutely unlocked my leadership potential. Diplomacy.
Whatever exciting roads you choose, you’ll have an important job to do… As global diplomats.
What do I mean by that? If you're a CEO, you’re a diplomat. It takes incredible diplomacy to juggle and meet the short and long term demands of all your various stakeholders. If you decide to be an entrepreneur and build your own company, diplomacy will be your key to leading a team that can see the needs that your company can fill. And if you're in an NGO, you may think of your role as an activist, but you'll be far more effective promoting change if you’re a diplomat. If you’re a politician – in fact if you’re president – you’ll quickly realize that you have no power without skillful, patient diplomacy.
You’ve learned at Babson to experiment, to do things differently, to rethink responses to the disruptive forces that challenge our society. You’re fired up to run out ahead of the accelerating pace of change today. But I urge you to slow down, slow it down and pay attention to the disappearing art of diplomacy.
Because disruption today is not just from technology redefining business. People are being disrupted by the income inequality that is convulsing politics all around the world. People are fearful… and so it’s natural for them to turn inward and look to surround themselves with people who look, think and act like themselves. I see it everyday in the UK debating Brexit; in the EU’s struggles with waves of refugees, or here in our own presidential campaign.
Make no mistake. You will define your futures in this volatile world. And it won’t require walls. What it will require is leaders like you who see themselves as global diplomats, with diplomacy at the core of your leadership - skilled at negotiating the creation of a better world for each of us. I won’t lie. Diplomacy is brutally time consuming. But worth every second.
So I want to share three important lessons I’ve learned that can help you be great at it.
Lesson #1: Diplomacy takes courage
First and foremost: Diplomacy takes courage: have the courage to be who you are. Authentically. Otherwise, you’ll never be trusted. And trust is the foundation for everything good in life.
I summoned my own true courage about five years ago when I came out of the closet as a leader who is gay. I came out because of gay teenagers who are at such high risk of taking their own lives because they’ve been rejected for who they are. My message to them was, “You are valuable because of your difference, not in spite of it. Hang in there. Life will get better. ”
That message came from my own experience. When I started in my profession in 1981, the field was predominately male, straight, extroverted and with a political leaning different from mine. Yet as a woman, an introvert — different from my peers in so many ways — I’ve been fortunate to work in an organization that valued my different perspectives.
How does this story apply to you? Well, there are all kinds of closets. If you are openly gay, research shows that 62% of you will go back into the closet as you begin your career. And whatever your sexual orientation, you will have a temptation to conform all along the way. Your instincts will tell you that success requires fitting in, no matter what.
Let me tell you right now, that instinct is wrong. Babson hasn’t just equipped you with an entrepreneurial mindset. Babson has helped you discover who you are. And ultimately, the most valuable thing you can bring to any setting is exactly who you are. Someone who doesn’t think, look, or act like anyone else. Someone who has the courage to value difference, both in yourself and in the people you will lead.
Before I came out five years ago, I had no idea EY wasn’t getting the best of me. The world’s not going to get the best of you unless you stay true to who you are. And don’t forget that everyone around you wants to succeed by being who they are.
Diplomats get that. Diplomats meet people where they are, whoever they are.
Lesson #2: Diplomats listen more than they talk
Having the courage to know who you are doesn’t mean you know everything. And the best way to deal with that is simple: listen more than you talk. (Introverts, you have an advantage here.) No leader today has all the answers. Answers are gathered from countless little pieces of input – from each person you listen to and from each experience you have.
I learned this lesson when I was 19 and landed a job as an intern at a General Motors factory in Kokomo, Indiana. My job: to supervise the assembly line producing audio speaker systems for the cars.
Picture this scene. I walked into the plant where the average age on the line was between 50 and 60. I was younger than many of their daughters. One look said it all - “Who does this kid think she is?”
So I decided to start by just listening. Sitting with each of them. Asking questions.
“What are you doing? How are doing it? What do you like about it? What drives you crazy? How can we do better?”
Over the summer, we worked together to change things. By august, we were running a zero-defect line. We all succeeded.
By listening and getting all their perspectives out and on the table, we built trust. We built commitment and buy in. We created a shared sense of purpose. And all I did was to listen, empower the workers on the line to think bigger, to challenge the status quo and to knock obstacles out of their way.
Diplomacy brought us together and ensured that we succeeded.
Lesson #3 : Diplomats compromise, and do the hard work that demands.
#3. Diplomats compromise. And see it as a strength, not a weakness.
What is compromise? Is it a win-win solution, and everyone goes away happy? That’s not my experience. To me, compromise is when everyone is marginally unhappy with the solution but agrees to the decision for the greater good. Each person or group gives up a little to get to a shared solution.
Compromise is hard. One of the hardest things you’ll do, if you do it well.
I learned this first-hand in the 90’s when I was in the Clinton Administration, as part of the Superfund effort to clean up toxic waste. The problem was that 88 cents of every dollar was going to pay environmental attorneys and only 12 cents going toward clean up. My mission was to design a scheme to assign liability for the clean-up to each party involved, none of whom was legally responsible, but all of whom had a stake in the solution. Insurers, polluters, politicians, environmentalists. Each one was at the table with a viewpoint. Each viewpoint perfectly valid.
My job was to question and keep digging— until we understood everyone’s perspectives. Until everyone believed that we understood. It took two years, but we finally knit together a compromise. Everyone was marginally unhappy, but signed on to the solution.
Problems cannot be solved without that kind of effort. Because problems cannot be understood without that kind of effort. As the pace of change accelerates and you want to run ahead as fast as you can, don’t let the hard work of compromise lose out. Perfect your diplomatic skills and you will succeed and create all sorts of economic and social value.
I’d like to close with a final challenge. The best advice I ever got. From my dad. He used to tell me, “Girl, you’ve been given gifts, use them. But never get too full of yourself, because you’ll fall on your face tomorrow.”
Of course he meant, stay humble. But he also meant… You’ll be successful. You will. But that’s not good enough.
Success only matters if you do significant things. Things that matter to others. You don’t have to change the world. Just work with the platform you have to do things that matter.
Today, I am the Global Vice Chair of Public Policy at EY. That’s my platform - to do things that matter. As a senior female executive in a global policy role, I can do things that help make a difference for all women in business. That matters.
And as one of the most senior openly gay business executives in the world, I work with a handful of other leaders just like me in other companies. And there are only a handful of us. While we can’t control a state or country’s laws or culture, we can control our workplaces. To diplomatically exemplify respect, tolerance and inclusion for all people. And because the economies of our companies are bigger than many countries, what we do together truly matters.
For you, the road ahead is long, with many a winding turn. Whatever you do – whether you pursue liberty for a nation of people or tackle your own business endeavor, remember three things my fellow diplomats:
- Never lose your courage to embrace and value difference – in yourself and in others
- Listen more than you talk, and
- Know that compromise is rooted in strength, not weakness
You’ll have ups and downs. How you handle the downs will build character. How you handle the ups will tell the world a lot about who you are.
There is one thing that you have to get right. Your integrity. Guard it like your most precious possession. Because it is. There are no do-overs.
So, Class of 2016, as my dad would say, “You’ve been given gifts. Use them.” But success isn’t good enough. Pay attention along the way to your significance. And whatever path you choose, be the global diplomats Babson has helped you become - to build a better world where people are more hopeful and opportunity is more equal.
I know what you are about to do will matter. Use Your Gifts.
Thank you very much. And congratulations!