Kimberly Grant on Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Never Hesitate To Ask for the Respect You Deserve

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Seasoned C-suite exec Kimberly Grant has worn many professional hats — president, global chief executive, CEO, and COO, to name a few. Has it been a carefree journey? Not always. Did she have to clear the hurdles so many women face in the corporate sector? She sure did. Now, she’s taking time from her busy schedule as an independent director at Performance Food Group to share years of hard-earned wisdom as a capable, proficient woman forging her way through the business space in a candid interview.

How We Can Have More Women in Prominent Leadership Roles  

I get asked this question a lot in my capacity as a public company director, chief executive, and an accomplished woman in business. Sometimes it is a directed casual question, but often it is a question asked in advance of my participation in company town halls, diversity panels, or industry forums. Like many diverse business leaders, my answers have evolved over time and have become more refined, more specific, but with a common thread of advice: Draw as much attention to microaggressions in the workplace and do everything in your power to eliminate them.

Never Hesitate To Ask for the Respect You Deserve  

I am part of Generation X and my professional career of leadership roles began in my mid/late 20s. I was a young, eager traveling executive responsible for many outlets of a restaurant chain in the southeastern United States. I had a lot to learn but was eager to work hard and do my job well. During my travels in the 1990s, it was not unusual for me to confront what I considered to be awkward moments in business when my peers, supervisors, or suppliers would endearingly refer to me as “honey,” “baby,” or “sweetie.”

As a woman who grew up in Pennsylvania, I do not think I was called these names after the age of 10, but if you lived in the South for any period, I’d often hear these words as a woman conducting business. I never thought for a second these words were intended to be disrespectful to me, but as a young woman, they certainly made small dents in my confidence. It was not until about a decade later I had the confidence to begin politely asking men (and women) to stop using these words – and to my surprise, it stopped immediately! This was an important lesson for me in drawing boundaries in business when I do not feel I am being treated with respect. Most times when you ask, people respect your wishes.

Avoid using polarizing words that can chip away at the armor of a woman’s self-confidence. 

The problem with microaggressions in the workplace — specifically for women — is that they chip away at their confidence bit by bit. Looking back now, it is easy to see how “honey, baby, sweetie” didn’t quite belong in the workplace and I did not have to tolerate it. Most professionals today shy away from blatantly offensive language, but I find it’s the nuanced microaggressions that make business more challenging for emerging women leaders to navigate. Sometimes, it is a passing comment that seems innocent enough; other times it’s more direct as part of a formal performance evaluation. It is hard to explain or even notice sometimes. But the deeper into my career I am, the more and more I notice these “little dents” happening and I try to not give these things a pass when I am a part of the conversation.

I believe strongly that driving awareness on a broader level is the key to having more women in leadership roles in any industry. Whether it is in the boardroom or in structured talent reviews, I try my best to lead by example and shine a spotlight on these little but important “dent” makers. Here are some of the polarizing words l am on the lookout for, followed by words I prefer to use to shift the narrative in organizations:

Emotional → Passionate
Difficult → High Standards
Sensitive → Caring
Aggressive → Deep Desire To Succeed
Bossy → Directs With Intention

Microaggressions can and do meaningfully alter the trajectory or even stunt an emerging woman leader’s professional progression. A woman or any professional associated with these sorts of polarizing labels will find it difficult to change perceptions and ultimately achieve their goals in any organization. I encourage women, when they run across these words, to politely but firmly ask for more clarity in the feedback and then repeat back using more respectful word choices. As a peer, when you hear a colleague use these words to describe a woman, it’s incumbent on you to not just let it pass. Bring attention to how this may make the person feel and encourage a different approach.

When compiling industry lists of accomplished leaders, keep the list diverse but don’t change the rules.  

I remember my first inclusion in an industry “list” of accomplished leaders. The list came out at the same time every year and was a reputable roundup of C-suite leaders in my industry who were considered to be the best of the best — certainly something I would be honored to be a part of one day. I was a CEO at the time and our small public relations department had early clues that I might be included when my headshot and bio were requested.

When I heard the news, I was cautiously optimistic but wanted to wait until it was real and in print. A few weeks later, the list was revealed — and at first, I was certainly proud to be included. But as I kept reading, this list of the top 50 industry leaders was different from the ones the years before. This list, for the first time ever, only included women and because of this had to go way deeper than the C-suite to find 50 “power players” to include. I was immediately deflated. I felt like I made this aspirational list I had always wanted to be on, but with an asterisk.

Somehow, a recognition that was supposed to feel incredible suddenly felt way less meaningful.

Later that year, I attended a prominent industry awards ceremony in Chicago and virtually every winner that year was also a woman. Again, for the first time ever, and strangely close in proximity to some high-profile industry transgressions against women. I cannot help but think that some of these industry women felt just like me — as though their recognitions was appreciated but came with an asterisk nonetheless.

Companies and organizations feel the pressure every day to recognize more women leaders, but it is important to always do it in a way that builds confidence and creates a sense of belonging. Women leaders want to be recognized as the best in their craft, not just the best in a list of socially similar professionals.

When asking what a woman does professionally, don’t place limitations upon her potential answer.  

In my early 30s I was the COO of a small-cap public company. I was often asked in professional networking sessions what I did for a living. I would always first answer that I worked in the restaurant industry and then the company I was with at the time. The next question was always entertaining to me: “Which location?” Over the years I found funny ways to answer this question but in the end I just started saying, “All 800 of them.” The next response was always priceless — “Wow, that’s a big job.” In my 30s I chalked this up to being a young executive and moved on.

Fast-forward to my 40s and 50s, during which I served as the CEO of a globally recognized restaurant group and the global head of restaurants and bars of a luxury hotel company, and the question was always the same “Which location?” “Wow, that’s a big job.” Sigh. Mind you, these interactions are at CEO invite-only conferences, investment banking conferences, executive education programs at elite schools, and what have you. The reality is women are often assumed to be way more junior in business than they are regardless of their age. So the next time you ask, be mindful — you may be talking to a female founder, a CEO, or a director of a public company.

Celebrate women leaders in your company every day, not just on March 8, International Women’s Day.   

The pursuit of a diverse and inclusive workforce at all levels of an organization is a marathon, not a sprint. But in this race, there really is no finish line — it is more of an evolved journey in business and life. Many of the organizations I am involved with have successfully fostered impact groups to create a deeper sense of community and allyship for often-marginalized social groups. I truly applaud these efforts and have full respect for the internal champions who are often running these programs off the side of their already busy desk.

But if there is an area to improve, I would recommend that organizations find ways to celebrate these various groups all the time, even at unexpected times, to truly ingrain diversity in leadership as a part of the fabric of their company culture. I was recently aware of a prominent company that, on March 6, was scrambling to find pictures of a current senior leader of the organization with women in the field to show his “support” for the women of the company. Sadly, this leader did not live this belief every day, so those pictures simply did not exist. There is nothing more demoralizing to a marginalized group inside of a company than seeing an Instagram or LinkedIn post about their social group, knowing full well the post is simply because that day was in the Outlook calendar as a holiday. Authenticity matters a lot — especially to the group you are ultimately trying to honor and celebrate.

Women can mentor and influence men, and men can mentor and influence women.   

If I look back on the important people who shaped who I am as a person and business leader, it is a diverse group of people. That said, the clear foundation in my early life was without a doubt having strong women role models. Both of my grandmothers worked outside of the home in the 1960s and raised daughters, and my mother ran our small farm in Pennsylvania while working a job and raising three kids. Like I said, strong women. In high school, I was fortunate to have three amazing women coaches for my three varsity sports: volleyball, basketball, and track. We were highly competitive — recognized at the state level in all three. As a result of the influence of the women in my family and the women in my sports family, I knew working hard was one of the secrets to success and never saw limits on what I could do in life.

In business however, my key influencers and mentors shifted. Without a doubt, the person who has influenced me the most personally and professionally as an adult was a man and the founder of Ruby Tuesday, Sandy Beall. The gratitude I have for his mentorship over the 21 years we worked directly together — and now, for his lifelong friendship — is indescribable. He taught me to work hard, to do what’s right, and to never stop learning. He also taught me that developing leaders need different types of mentors and role models along the way. Over those foundational years, Sandy introduced me to so many iconic industry leaders that I fondly consider a part of my career “kitchen cabinet.” They were men, women, younger, older, diverse, self-made, academics, management consultants, etc. all of whom I rely upon to this day. He never said to me, “You are a woman emerging leader so let me find other successful women to introduce you to.” It was always about the learning I needed and who was best suited to provide it.

That said, I always cringe a little inside when I meet someone new and they say, “You are an accomplished woman, I think my _______ (fill in the blank with a young woman) could really benefit from your mentorship.” I always follow their request up with what exactly they think this young woman needs developmentally because, quite frankly, I may or may not be the right person, but I am happy to help.

Another time I was speaking at an annual conference for a company and before I went on the stage, one of the male leaders said to me how he thought all of the women in the room were really going to get a lot out of what I was going to stay. I quickly shot back that my goal is to inspire the men equally as well! Potential mentors are all around us and not just women for women and men for men. If I didn’t have both strong male and female mentors along the way, I wouldn’t be who I am today and I think it is important to talk about the value in having diversity in mentorship as well as leadership.

“Good Morning, Lady and Gentlemen”

A few years ago, I was attending a financial conference at the Rosewood Hotel in London. I had just arrived on the red-eye and was admittedly exhausted. I dropped my bags at the desk and quickly registered and went looking for caffeine as quickly as possible. The conference theme was mergers and acquisitions and the approximately 100 participants were all CEOs looking to have a transaction in the next 12 to 24 months. The opening remarks were completed, and the first speaker started with addressing the group “Good morning, lady and gentlemen.” Obviously, this got my attention. In all my rush to join the room and find a seat, I failed to notice I was literally the only female participant in the room. Wow.

The situation is not always this unbalanced, but as we know, we have so much further to go. I do believe some of this can be attributed to the way the funnel is set up. There were not many women in that room because there are not many women or otherwise diverse CEOs in the universe. And there is an even smaller subset who are working toward a potential transaction. I often see job specifications for CEO roles and the criteria at times puzzles me. For example, I recently reviewed a CEO role post in my industry and the requirements required qualified candidates to be a current sitting CEO who has led an initial public offering. In my opinion, this is a fairly limited universe and directly adverse to the goal of having a more diverse room of sitting CEOs. The job spec makes it nearly a foregone conclusion that the selected candidate will be a white male over the age of 50. It is obvious qualified women CEO candidates need more opportunities to be in the room — and broadening the criteria would be a great start.

Make sure job requirements do not inadvertently discourage women or diverse leadership candidates.

Job descriptions and specifications are a critical part of every company’s recruitment of talent process. However, many times these tools work against building and retaining a diverse workforce. I worked with a company that was struggling to find qualified women for entry level jobs. Women weren’t applying at the same rate as men even though the qualifications were very basic. After a deep review of the job, the work group questioned one of the requirements, which was that the applicant had to be able to lift 50 pounds. As we were scrutinizing this requirement, one of the men in the room quipped “I’m not even sure I could lift 50 pounds.” To that we all agreed: The requirements needed to be modernized.

The same can be said about work hours. Leadership roles that require nights and weekends, for example, are less likely to attract candidates who may have family obligations, which can be a direct impact to emerging women leaders. Many hotel companies require future general manager candidates to spend time (years) working in food and beverage roles prior to becoming a qualified candidate for promotion. This requirement means working nights and weekends, which some candidates either cannot do or are not willing to do. However, the primary skill set needed as a general manager is general management, including sales and marketing, which is historically weekday work during the day.

Having more women leaders starts by having more women in the funnel at entry levels and along the development pathway. Companies need to constantly be looking for written and unwritten rules that discourage women from being candidates for pursuing roles in leadership.

Make young women in your life believe the path forward will be hard work, not necessarily difficult or impossible.

Sometimes I think young women are hardwired to think the path forward is going to be difficult. I was lucky in that the women in my early life would never have allowed that thought to come into my mind. But, over the past five years or so, I have volunteered to help entrepreneurship classes at Georgetown and Stanford universities. At the end of these interactions — and most of the time, interviews — the class will inevitably ask me a question that goes something like this from one of the women in the group: “Thank you for answering all of our questions today. I know this isn’t the topic but we were hoping to ask you about your experience as a woman in business. The women in this group know it’s going to be really hard for us after we graduate, and we were hoping you could give us some advice.” The first time this happened I was completely taken off guard.

As I sit in these rooms, there is always this slightly weird feeling because I did not finish my undergrad and graduate degrees until I was in my late 30s when I went back to school. I always wondered what my journey would have been like if I had been able to finish college like these young people are doing in their early 20s. I would have felt like the world was my oyster. But, time after time, that is not the sense I feel. These young women in particular are already gearing up for difficulty. They are already worried that in a few years they are going to have to make decisions about what to prioritize in their careers and life, and that especially in capital-raising careers it’s really difficult, if not impossible, to break through. If I’m honest, this really bothers me at a deep level. I know they are speaking their truth, what they believe, and I can only think that it’s been a part of their upbringing or their social networks. In my mind, any young adult who has the privilege of graduating from one of the best schools in the country, if not the world, has already won. The sky’s the limit — but unfortunately, we can be easily influenced to set boundaries on the art of the possible and this is a tragedy.

I have a 15-year-old son who is an excellent student, a competitive hockey player, but knows that life today is uber competitive, especially as he is getting ready for the college process. I asked him this morning what he thinks he has to do to get a leg up as he thinks about college and his answer was perfect. He said, “Mom, I just need to focus on what I can control, work really hard and find a way to stand out more.”

In my experience, it really is that simple.


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