Mulcahy spoke at Iowa State Univeristy as the Fall 2010 Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics.
I often think in a real sense, the successes that my generation of women have enjoyed definitely have their roots to Carrie Chapman Catt and the suffragettes of the early 1900s and Mary Louise Smith and the trailblazers of the mid-1900s. And they clearly went through uncharted territory, and I think we often are allowed to stand on their shoulders as we have our successes in subsequent generations. And I have to say I’ve had a chance to get to know Dianne Bystrom a little bit since I’ve been here, which is great; and I think these great women that are the namesakes would be very pleased to see what Dianne and her small, but talented, staff are doing to honor their memory and advance the role of women in politics and the civil life of our nations. So hats off to you, Dianne, for just great work here. So I also was reading in Dianne’s CV that she actually has published 13 books on women in politics, and that’s clearly more books than I’ve read on the subject of leadership, so I have to say that when I come to an environment like this, I’m always a little bit envious of this amazing opportunity that students have to really focus on leadership in such a powerful way. Really have the experience in an interdisciplinary way, to think about leadership in a way, that I think is fabulous preparation for, you know, your life beyond a university. So hopefully you’re appreciating it and will put it to great personal and professional use in the future.
So this is actually an extraordinary time for women. There’s lots of great progress. I think women have broken the glass ceiling in just about every facet of American life, and when I visit places like this, and I travel across the world, I really feel very optimistic that women, clearly, are at a tipping point in a very long journey. When I became CEO of Xerox, there were a handful of women CEOs, four to be specific. I was saying to the group earlier, now there are two handfuls plus a toe, 11 women CEOs that are in place today in the Fortune 500. There’s a lot of great women that we’ve seen emerge in the political world, a few not so great, that ran for the midterm elections, but the fact is a lot of women are stepping into the forefront and taking on leadership roles. One of the things, that I think is really extraordinary, is that if you think about our last three administrations in Washington, we have had three extraordinary women as secretaries of state from Madeleine Albright, to Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton, who I know recently was here as well. So lots of end roads. Lots of leadership progress in all walks of life. But I think it would be a mistake to be satisfied. I think we can be optimistic about progress, but I’d be the first to say that we actually do have a long way to go. In the long history of the Fortune 500, there have been a total of 22 women CEOs, 11 of whom are in their positions today. And as I mentioned earlier, last time I looked there’s two genders, 500 CEOs in the Fortune 500, so 500 divided by 2 equals 250, and that that ought to be the goal post, certainly, for beginning to relax on the topic. So that’s where a center like this does play a critical role, your internships, your seminars, your leadership education opportunities are such important elements to the development of a new generation of leaders in politics and international affairs, so truly is, I think, a great time.
So I’ve been asked to talk a little bit about what I’ve learned about leadership at the helm of Xerox and how that has translated into my role now at Save the Children. I’m going to be relatively brief because I’d love to leave enough time for dialog with all of you. So let me jump in and talk a little bit about my Xerox experience. And I won’t rehash the situation I inherited at Xerox over a decade ago, it was a pretty well chronicled story at the time, but we were literally on the brink of bankruptcy and I would say most people were writing Xerox’s obituary. And the year, actually, that I became CEO, Xerox was losing about 300 million dollars a year and had an incredible amount of debt. Lots of problems coming, business model challenges, competitiveness issues, regulatory challenges, it was a somewhat of a perfect storm in terms of issues, and it manifested itself, obviously, in a really dire financial position. But I tell you that because five years later, we were making over a billion dollars and we weren’t looking back. And these kinds of results brought a lot of attention to the Xerox turnaround, and when people ask about how we made that much progress, kind of a dramatic turnaround, in a relatively short period of time, the answer to me is always pretty obvious. You do have to have a good strategy, but it can be roughly right. You need to have a good execution plan, but it is clearly not sufficient. The most important thing is the alignment of your people around a common set of objectives, because at the end of the day your success is always dependent on the people and their willingness to commit to a cause and its leadership. So that was probably the most amazing insight for me as I kind of made my way through this complex process; that certainly the most important thing was, for a big organization, to make sure that our people were rowing in the same direction.
So as I went through this experience, I made a list of, certainly what I would call, five fundamental things that are characteristic of really good leaders, and the first is about listening. Good leaders really, genuinely want to hear what other people have to say, and they want to learn from what they hear. They’re particularly focused on their constituencies, their people and their customers. They’re connected to the marketplace, and they never delegate that kind of a responsibility to anybody else. They go out there. They talk to people. They make sure that they understand the issues, the opportunities, and they actually listen with a bias to respond to that as well.
Next, good leaders have a clear vision of where they want to take the organization. They give people a roadmap of where they are heading and, most importantly, they have to inspire them to take the journey. And when I talk about a vision and inspiring people to take the journey, that’s not PowerPoint slides or corporate speak. That’s really about being able to articulate a story that people can relate to. That is, all of your people have to be able to relate to it, and see themselves in it, and see how they can make a contribution. And I remember in the early years of being a CEO at Xerox, with lots of problems, I would travel around the world and do town meetings in all of the Xerox locations, and I always expected Xerox people would ask me as to whether or not the company was going to survive, because that’s what they were reading in the papers every day. And that was never the question they asked. They asked, “what would we look like when we came through all this?” They were asking for a vision. They wanted to know why it was worth staying, and, I mean, it was a remarkable amount of optimism on their part, but a huge responsibility to be able to deliver a compelling reason why people should roll up their sleeves and stay, and that was a really important message to management. And rather than try to put a deck of slides together, we did an interesting thing. We actually wrote a mock Wall Street Journal story and it was dated five years in advance, and we talked about what the company would look like and what our customers would be saying about us. What technologies we would have launched. How the analysts would have felt about the company. When we’d be profitable. And it was a story about the future, but very much based in reality, but a story that provided hope. And it really took off because it was something that people could really see and understand and feel committed to.
The next thing that good leaders have to do is actually invest in their vision, and for Xerox that meant research and development. We are a technology company and it’s all about investing upstream, so that you can bring the best and the most innovative solutions and technologies to your customers. So even when we were in a struggle for survival, and we were literally taking billions of dollars out of the cost base, research and development was something that we continued to invest in. As a matter of fact we didn’t just protect the dollars for research and development, we expected a lot more from research and development, so we really raised the bar on making sure that our research and development pipeline was productive and prolific and that we would get good returns from it, and during the 90s it was really a pretty barren time for us in terms of new technologies and new product development, there were just a couple. And I remember one of my predecessors would say that we didn’t launch products, we actually let them escape. And I think it was indicative of, certainly, a pipeline that was not meeting our expectations. But in the last 10 or 12 years, the company has consistently launched 30 to 40 new technologies a year, and actually has one of the most prolific, now, research and development pipelines in our industry.
So next, good leaders always set clear objectives, and not too many, establish accountability for them, and then they communicate endlessly, and they do that actually with candor and with honesty and really give people a really grounded sense of what’s going on in the company. And the challenges can be extremely complex, but you really have to simplify the problems down to a critical few. You have to measure them, and you have to communicate consistently throughout the period of time. It’s interesting sometimes people think we have to protect your people from the harsh realities of what the company’s experiencing. And I remember doing one of these town meetings with a manufacturing line and one of the manufacturing line employees came up after the session and said it had been particularly rough communication. We were in a bad, real tough, place and he came up and he said “I’m so glad that you know how bad things are.” And it was his way of telling me that if I had gotten up there and not acknowledged the seriousness of the problems, it would have been a huge credibility gap for him and for others. So honest communication about the problems is really important, but also with the opportunity to fix those problems in giving people confidence that they can be fixed.
Next good leaders are authentic, and by authentic I mean they’ve got a clear and consistent set of values that guide their decision making and problem solving. That allows people to know what that they can expect from their leaders, and they actually then come to trust them if they’re authentic and real and don’t waver from their inner-moral compasses. And we were talking a little bit about, today, that often times it’s really during those tough times, really tough decisions, that you get tested in terms of authenticity. I call them moments of truth, and those are the times you get judged as to whether your actions are aligned with your words. And they’re the most important times in terms of leadership credibility. So not just talking about authenticity, but living it, is something that’s hugely important to really develop the kind of trust you need from your people.
So these are the kinds of things that I learned when I was running Xerox, but I absolutely believe that these are universal leadership attributes. Whether I was running a sales team in New York City or, quite frankly, chairing the board of Save the Children, or being CEO of Xerox, the context of leadership can be very, very different; but the behaviors of leadership are very, very consistent. And I had this brought home to me. I was actually giving a lecture at West Pointe and it was on leadership, and you would think if there was ever a place for kind of command and control leadership, that would be the place. But they really get this context to followership better than any place I’ve ever been, because they understand that the hierarchical and autocratic style of leadership actually can win peoples’ minds, but authentic leaders win peoples’ hearts. And that’s because authentic leaders almost intuitively establish this thing called followership, and they get it. They know that the power of leadership doesn’t come from the title, but from the people that you’re privileged to lead. And that’s whether it’s a team of 20 or it’s a company of 100 thousand, because authentic leaders actually do walk the talk and lead by example. Maybe some of you, many of you, may be familiar with Jim Collins’ work Good to Great. I happen to love the results that he actually established in his book Good to Great. He did a very factual study of companies over a long period of time that looked at the results of companies over years and then looked at the differentials between the companies that had great sustainable performance and those that didn’t. And the not so surprising answer was the quality and the caliber of the company’s leadership. But it wasn’t the kind of celebrity CEO leaders that he highlighted, these were leaders that actually over 10 and 15 years had delivered sustained results, they were not household names, and he made the conclusion that the difference between good leaders and great leaders is this kind of paradoxical blend of personal, humility, and professional will. So they’re leaders who build great teams. They give credit to others, but yet they have this unbelievable resolve to do whatever they have to do to make sure that the company is successful. But it is all about the company and making the organization great.
So now I’d like to maybe spend a few minutes just talking a little bit about the status of women around the world. I talked earlier about how lucky we are to have such incredible role models like Carrie Chapman Catt and Mary Louise Smith and because of women like them in this country we vote; we run for office; we marry who we want; we divorce who we want; we control our own finances; we own our own bodies; we can live anywhere we want; we can move. But that is not true for a really large proportion of the world, particularly the developing world, where quite frankly basic human rights are not there for women in many, many parts of the world. And I’ve had a lot of opportunity to visit some extraordinary places with Save the Children, and in the last few months I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan, and I just got back from Iraq a few weeks ago. I traveled in Iraq from Basra in the South, up through Baghdad and north of Bagdad, fully clothed as an Iraqi woman, and embedded kind of in the communities of Iraq, and for a very short period of time lived a little bit like an Iraqi woman who can’t eat with men, who can’t drive a car, who barely will make it on average through the third grade because women are not really encouraged, enabled, and don’t have access to an educational system. Most of those women were married before the age of 15 in arranged marriages and live a very, very different life than women in the developed world. And in those situations, families can deny education, food, medical care to girls, by the way, in order to prioritize that for other members of the family. And it’s really coming to a point were the situation is actually getting worse versus better because of the extremists that are actually growing in these parts of the world. As a matter of fact, suicides among young women in many parts of the world are on the rise and are reaching dramatic numbers.
So this is a situation that has to change. Yes, it’s a moral imperative, but it’s also a huge economic problem because this there’s this mounting body of research that shows that helping women is probably the most successful strategy for fighting poverty and stimulating economic development in that part of the world. Larry Summers actually had a very good quote in terms of the developing world. He talked about, and I quote, “investment in girls’ education may well be the highest return investment in the developing world.” So why is that? Because research shows that when you help a woman, you help an entire family. The money they earned gets reinvested in the family unit. Children live longer, grow healthier, and receive more education. And the plight of women and children are really tightly linked. Today, 22 thousand children die a day from preventable causes, things like pneumonia and diarrhea. These are all solvable problems, and a big part of the solution is actually empowering and educating women to begin to address some of these issues.
So this has really got to be a major priority on the agenda screen for global leaders, because in the coming decades the majority of the global population growth is going to occur in countries where gender disparities are greatest and where repressive traditions and cultures work against women’s rights, and that’s the bad news. But the good news is that if we are able to breakthrough, and actually start to educate and empower women in these countries, it is an enormous emerging market. A recent Booz Allen study suggests that women in the developing world represent what’s called the “third billion”, a market the size of China and India, and that’s the kind number that gets the attention of businesses and governments alike, and I have to say it’s one of the major priorities for Save the Children. We’ve targeted 11 countries, from Bangladesh to Vietnam to many others, where we’re focusing on educating young women and girls, and we’re advocating for women’s rights, and fortunately we’re not alone. Our own state department, the Gate’s Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, there’s a lot of both nonprofits and also corporations who see this as the right thing to do, particularly since those are the markets that are going to be the source of economic growth in the future. So I’m hopeful that working together, and that’s the nonprofit world, the corporate world, and governments, that we can make a huge impact here. And I have to say one of the most encouraging things I see is the caliber and talent of our young people who are interested in working in the nonprofit world. I had a chance to talk to some of the students today who are very much focused on being part of the nonprofit world and, if you will, joining the fight, whether it’s in Washington or Pakistan or Appalachia. So I’m a big believer that if you want to change the world there’s a lot of opportunities out there, and empowering and educating women, and saving children in the process, is one of the best of those opportunities to serve.
So this is a time that you could say that we certainly have no shortage of problems and issues to address, and we see it, I think, across the country right now. It’s certainly fair to say that right now our country has a heap of problems and there’s plenty of blame to go around, but it’s not a very productive use of our time. I think we all have to hope that as we come out of these midterm elections, that this wave of change actually brings a positive outcome. That our political leaders roll up their sleeves and start to deal with the issues, actually start to negotiate and dialog and put solutions on the table, and that we don’t default into a political standoff that wastes the next two years, precious time that are desperately needed to serve the people. We need a clear picture of where we are heading. The priorities we need to address, and the sacrifices we need to ask of our people, sounds a lot like a corporate turnaround. But we need a lot less political spin, a lot more clarity and honesty. I actually think a great example came forth with the work of the deficit commission that came out, which I think is a great foundation for making some constructive progress going forward. So I often talk about it and say we need to live in the “and world.” And what I mean by that is that we certainly need to address growth. We need to invest upstream, whether it’s in research or education. We certainly have to address job opportunities for the future, but we also need to focus on reducing the deficit. We need to be a lot more responsive to business, but not at the expense of ignoring the underserved, which is a huge problem in this country. We do need to focus on domestic issues, but not be naïve enough to think that we can pull back on our global responsibilities.
So in other words, we need a lot more logic, a lot less political spin, a lot less polarized views. We need our political leaders to actually act in the interest of the country, and the planet, and recognize that individual legacies will always take care of themselves. That humility always trumps hubris. So that kind of leads me back to the theme here that says whether it’s a corporation, or a nonprofit, or whether it’s our political leaders that if you do all those things, followership does come. It’s earned. And I think our people are certainly in need. Our issues require it, and I have to say that I’m really encouraged because I think many of you out there, our next generation of leaders, come well prepared to make a contribution with great leadership in developing followership. So thank you all for being with me tonight and such a warm welcome here. It’s just been a terrific afternoon and evening and this would be a great time to open it up and take questions and hear what’s on your minds. Thank you so much.