This International Women’s Day I’d like to look back to some of the most important lessons of my career – learned from amazing women – which all focus on the theme of breaking compromises.

Substance versus Style

Sandy Moose was first in many things. She was the first female consultant at BCG, where she arrived after an economics PhD at Harvard. (Women were not admitted to Harvard Business School at the time – in the 1960s.) She was the first woman on BCG’s Executive Committee and the first female head of our New York office, where I joined after my MBA.

I gained so many life lessons from Sandy, including an early one – when I was a young, over-zealous consultant in BCG’s New York office. I voraciously took on all the client assignments I could get – plus I volunteered myself for many other roles, including running our recruiting program, participating in training, mentoring, and more. As much stamina as I had, I was starting to split at the seams.

So Sandy – literally with a red pen in hand – set about clearing my calendar. She cut my 60-minute internal meetings down to 30, turned some one-on-ones into group meetings, and added date time with my husband, aerobics time for me (think leggings and leotards back in the 90s), and voilà! Suddenly there was more time to get better at my job, enjoy my personal life, and sleep. No compromises.

Sandy always reinforced the importance of delivering substance – the highest-quality work – above everything else. Most of us live and thrive with our clients – but unless we can get into a solid rhythm of delivering insight, impact, and trust, all the other extras I was doing for my clients just didn’t matter.

Despite her insistence on substance, Sandy was very deliberate in her feedback about our individual styles. In a business in which we only have people to market, how we come across, how we make first and second impressions, and how we communicate are as important as the work we deliver. I can remember rehearsing a board presentation with Sandy sitting at the opposite end of a large conference room, and she’d say, “I can’t hear you!” – until she could.

She also had the most gorgeous wardrobe of all the women I knew then. At the time, I was afraid to step off the escalator on the floor of Saks where she did her shopping. Appearance was part of the impression we made. So I learned to shop the sales and attempted to copy her looks to ensure I had a professional and put-together style while delivering substance. No compromises!

Speaking versus Listening

One of the single most important lessons I ever learned was from PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, an incredible business leader and a BCG alumni. When I was a young partner and Indra was CFO, PepsiCo was a new client for me. I was working with a great male partner, who had years more experience than I did in the category. I automatically felt that I was, as a result, second-in-command when we were co-managing an assignment.

Indra pulled me aside one day, pointing out that I always followed my colleague when I spoke up – and that I didn’t speak up much at all in big group meetings. She also observed that I tended to be the one picking up cues from the group – inviting those to speak if they looked as if they needed to be pulled in.

I knew this about myself already; it was my issue as a first-year HBS student, as well. I was a good listener, but I was often completely afraid to raise my hand. So I expected Indra’s advice to be – as I had heard before – “Miki, just speak up more. You have a lot to offer!”

But that’s not what she said. Instead, she said “Miki, did you notice that when you speak up – which you don’t do a lot – it’s clear that people are listening? They pick up their pens and write down what you say. Keep that in mind, and don’t always wait to jump in after your colleague has spoken.”

Her advice was direct and flattering at the same time – and so helpful. She noticed my inclination to listen and remain aware of the needs of others in the room – extremely important skills. And instead of the usual feedback (“Be more confident”), hers was actionable. My confidence grew because I realised that she and others cared about what I had to say.

No compromises. Speaking and listening – both are crucial leadership skills. And if you are stronger in one or the other, you have to give that weaker muscle a workout until it catches up.

Being Direct versus Being Diplomatic

I have lived the vast majority of my life in the US and Japan – often polar opposites culturally. I’ve had to learn different approaches in each country.

For example, Americans say no. When I was 21-years-old and starting at BCG in Tokyo, a Japanese client said, “I will think about that in a favourable light.” Later, my project leader rained on my parade and told me that such a phrase meant an absolute NO in Japanese business.

After 20 years in BCG New York, I moved back to BCG Tokyo, ten years ago now, and two amazing Japanese women taught me to be direct, even in Japan. Sakie Fukushima and Yukako Uchinaga were two of the first women to serve on a large corporate board (Sony) in Japan. They gave me great Nike-style advice to “just do it” – to maintain my direct Americanised style and shake things up in Japan.

But where this didn’t work was when I asked for feedback from people who were junior to me. I was doing some major press interviews in Japan, accompanied by my marketing team. I knew I was doing an ok job – but not great. Every time I’d ask team members for feedback, they’d just say, “That was good – thank you!”

In this case, my wonderful assistant Suna Hwang gave me some invaluable advice. She told me that I shouldn’t be asking the others what I did wrong. I was too senior, and they wouldn’t necessarily feel it was ok to be so blunt. Instead, I should ask what I might do differently next time. Bingo! After the next interview, I asked for two things that worked and two things to do differently next time. The feedback flowed fluidly.

The gist of their feedback? Be more BCG. In other words, be direct and diplomatic. And in the end, it was a reminder to me to spell out the truth and solicit the truth, always. No compromises!

 

This article is excerpted from a speech given on November 1, 2017, at the BCG Women’s Leadership Summit in New York featuring TED@BCG.

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