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Women Can Distinguish Themselves In Almost Any Corporate Culture

Women can succeed in any culture. But, like men, they can truly thrive in an organization that values facts and feelings.

Women currently hold just 10%-15% of the senior leadership positions in corporate America, despite the fact that they now represent 58% of all college graduates and hold 50% of middle-management positions in the United States.   

Bentley’s Center for Women and Business ( envisions a world where women no longer make up such a small fraction of corporate leadership and where developing and promoting female leaders becomes a best practice across the corporate landscape.

To that end, the center recently brought together a distinguished 
and diverse group of business leaders to study how men in positions of organizational power and influence can help advance women to create a more balanced business model for future success. This past week we have shared multiple perspectives that have come out of this discussion.

Women can succeed in any culture. But I believe they can truly thrive and excel in an organization that values relationships, transparency, authenticity and acceptance.

The key is that women must have confidence that they can bring their whole selves, and their best selves, to work; and they shouldn’t worry how they present themselves to different audiences in the workplace.

Yes, there are norms that must be embraced in every company. And not all the norms are palatable. This is the “how-it-works-here” piece. This is the “price-of-entry” piece. But, if women can understand and navigate through this, they can do a lot of things that distinguish themselves in almost any culture.

In fact, I believe that many women may not be fully aware of the impact they can have on an organization’s culture. If there isn’t a lot of transparency and authenticity, for example, then women can bring these important virtues and values to the company.

Women should never forget that corporations were originally created by men, and inherent in that are inherited values, traditional values, that women can change and improve on.

I’m saying that women don’t have to conform to succeed in the workplace.

But I realize that my job, and the culture at Starbucks, is very unique. And I’m fortunate. That said, maybe my story can be instructive for women who find themselves in different situations. I appreciate that I work in an extraordinary place that accepts and embraces people for who they are.

First of all, I love my work. I have to solve difficult problems quickly. But I’m here to facilitate issues and help and serve others, which is deeply satisfying, and a joy, to me.

Each day, I only aspire to do my very best; I compete against myself; and I put my whole heart into things. At Starbucks, I know the most important part of my job is simply to do the right thing.

I felt that, and learned that, the first day on the job. My first boss – a woman (the then – general counsel of Starbucks) gave me a sense of confidence in my own judgment and decision-making. She told me to listen, use my knowledge and experience, ask people for guidance, pay attention to the corporate culture, and act reasonably and compassionately. If I did that, she said she’d stand behind me.

So, rather than seeking permission to make each decision, I learned to act on my experience, instincts and judgment.  And I realized the importance of passing on that sense of trust and support to others, the importance of leading and getting out of the way.

It helps that my company is entrepreneurial and values a diversity of opinions. It welcomes innovative or non-traditional or non-corporate thinking. Creativity and diversity of thought are appreciated.

I work in a dynamic relationship-based organization, too. And I think this plays to a woman’s strengths, because we may have an advantage when it comes to connecting, nurturing, distilling and multi-tasking.

These are not just “soft skills.” At Starbucks, people value these characteristics as essential, because they help us achieve our objectives.

Our culture is also based on curiosity, on noticing things, on reading emotional cues, on sensing what’s behind what people are saying. Here, too, I think women have an advantage, because we’re generally pretty intuitive.

But we need to go beyond this. Women may be “first-class noticers”; but, once they notice, they need to act, to put themselves and their observations forward.

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Part of this noticing is facts, while the other part is feelings.

Feelings are good; they belong in corporate cultures, and women – as well as men – should not shy away from them because they add business value.

At Starbucks, we talk often about leading through the lens of humanity in a way that will make our partners (employees) feel proud – by balancing profit-making with the social conscience of our company. We believe that when people feel proud, they will be inspired to do great work, and that will ultimately help us sell more coffee.

So, I’ll conclude where I started.

Women can succeed in any culture. But, like men, they can truly thrive in an organization that values facts and feelings.

Lucy Lee Helm has been a partner (employee) at Starbucks for more than 13 years. Her May 2012 appointment as executive vice president, general counsel and secretary came after serving as interim general counsel. In her role, she leads the global Law & Corporate Affairs department, including 190 legal and compliance partners (employees) in 14 offices around the world. She also serves as a member of Starbucks senior leadership team and supports the company’s Board
of Directors. In addition to her work
at Starbucks, she is a member of
the board of directors of the global humanitarian agency MercyCorps.
She is also a board member of the Washington YMCA Youth & Government Program, where she served as chair for six years; and of Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit disability law center in Berkeley, CA. She serves as the co-chair for the 2013-14 Campaign for Equal Justice and is an active volunteer with Parkview Services, a Seattle-based non-profit organization providing housing and other services
to persons with disabilities. Prior to joining Starbucks, she was a principal at Riddell Williams P.S. in Seattle, where she was a trial lawyer specializing in commercial, insurance coverage and environmental litigation. She received her BA in political science, with highest honors, from the University of Louisville and is a cum laude graduate of the Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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