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Leadership lessons from founding and leading my company’s largest Employee Resource Group (ERG)

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

As of April 2023, I am officially passing on the torch for one of my most transformative leadership experiences yet in my career. It led me to reflect a lot on the journey and I want to share my most important lessons from this experience.

The beginning of it all…

Five years ago, I was struggling in a second trainee assignment at my company. I had moved continents, and my new role was in a new product division with a new scope of work. I needed help to navigate these challenges and reached out for support from other women. Women have been a huge part of my development journey. From the deep supportive relationships I have with my girlfriends, all the way to powerful women who opened doors for me, I have always found comfort, felt seen and heard in the presence of other women. Looking around my company, I did not find an established space for women to come together and support each other, so I decided to create it and that was the birth of Philips Women Lead (PWL). Five years down the line, it is now the biggest ERG we have, with over 4,000 members, 29 chapters and run by more than 180 women volunteers. Building this organization has taught me a lot about myself, about leadership and about driving a vision.

Here are my top lessons:

Reframing “negative” feedback

I leveraged my marketing skillset to build PWL. Starting with putting on paper a vision and value proposition based on my past personal experiences with such groups, I then spent a lot of time doing “market research”, trying to understand what my target group of women would want from a group like this. There were very strong feelings about the idea, both positive and “negative” and sometimes the “negative” feedback caught me off guard. I had wrongly assumed that every woman would want this and some of those conversations shook me up. There were many moments I wanted to quit, but I kept going out of sheer stubbornness and the support of a few who understood the idea. More importantly, I started to learn to treat “negative” feedback differently. I learnt over time to not take this feedback personally, discern what was important in it and leverage it to make the idea stronger. In practice this meant treating “negative feedback” with empathy and understand where people are coming from, especially with how sensitive and personal the topic of feminism that the idea of PWL is rooted in. Each time the idea was challenged, I went back to the drawing board, reevaluated my assumptions, leveraged the support I had already garnered and came back stronger in my next conversation.

“Negative” feedback is a part of life in general, and it is how you treat this feedback, that determines your fate. This experience was my earliest lesson in seeing feedback as constructive and it showed me the importance of self-awareness when unpacking it. Also,

your idea is not going to be for everyone, and that is ok.

Balancing ownership and sharing your vision

One of the biggest muscles I grew and exercised was negotiating the balance of owning my vision and letting other people build on it. First off as a founder, I am/was attached to my “baby” and secondly as a black woman, I felt I had to protect my legacy. Often marginalized groups do not get credit for the work they put in. Over time I learnt to let go of control over my vision and grew in my ability to empower others to own it and execute it in their own way, while keeping an eye on the bigger picture. Again, the nature of this topic, feminism had a lot to do with how I learnt this lesson. In a global and diverse company like ours, it was important to recognize the diverse cultural contexts people were coming from on this topic and to let them interpret the idea in their own way. Of all our programs and activities, this is best reflected in the ambassador networks. As of 2022, the network now has 29 chapters and counting around the world. Success has been achieved by letting them localize the idea to their own needs, while keeping them connected to the bigger vision of women supporting each other. With time, I grew more comfortable with others carrying on my vision and implementing it in their own way. I also credit my amazing personal network who kept me honest at the moments I struggled the most and helped me see when I was taking something too personally. I now know that for the idea to succeed, it had to become bigger than me. The biggest thing you can do for your legacy is to SHARE IT and eventually PASS IT ON. At the end of my tenure, I realize that my “baby” grew up, is now a teenager and, in this case, I am the one leaving the house, happily.

Cultivating safe spaces and practicing empathetic leadership

Being at the helm of Philips Women Lead also helped me to cultivate empathetic leadership skills. Empathetic leadership is a style of leadership that focuses on identifying with others and understanding their point of view. Empathetic leaders take a genuine interest in the people around them – what makes them tick, what inspires them and the way they feel. Running a core leadership team of up to 10 women from diverse backgrounds over the last five years, I had multiple opportunities to learn and practice this principle.

We are all showing up in the workplace with layers of identities and complexities from our lives and I learnt to give space to these complexities and find ways in which I could still inspire my team to execute and succeed with them. What may look like “poor” performance is most likely representing much deeper challenges people are going through. I learnt to look under the surface and work together to address the root causes at these moments. Over the years, I have dealt with loss, grief, depression, difficult home circumstances, challenging parenting situations and many other life issues with my teammates. Many times, we found solutions that kept the people still engaged with the network within their capacity at the time, while we still delivered on our goals. I learnt that spending time getting personal with your team is not mutually exclusive with productivity, instead when you humanize your work environment, people show up as their best selves and are more productive even. Additionally safe spaces keep people loyal which in the long term only benefits your organization. Ultimately everyone just wants to be seen and heard.

As a leader, I tried to cultivate an environment where everyone felt seen and heard and knew that they had my ear and confidence, if they needed it. I had many success stories and many times I felt I could have done better. It is a continuous learning journey for me. It is also a fine balance to still be strong and decisive in these moments, but just like one of my all-time favorite female leaders Jacinda Ardern said, it is possible to be both compassionate and strong.

I have grown in many ways from the experience of founding and leading PWL and I am grateful for this journey. I learnt a lot about myself, about people and most of all about what equity means.

The 2023 IWD theme of #embraceequity resonated with me so much because the existence of groups like PWL are a great example of it. Equity and equality are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Equality is the utopia we all want to reach and equity is the way to get there. Equity is recognizing that we are not all starting at the same place as far as access to opportunities for fulfillment goes and that other groups need a leg up more than others. Creating a space for women is part of the drive for equity because it gives women much-needed resources which are focused on their specific challenges to advance in their careers. Seeing the impact of PWL on women over the years and how differently they step out into the rest of the world affirmed this idea for me. Do I want a world in which we do not need such a space, yes? But unfortunately, that is not now.

What am I most proud of about this work?

Amongst all of the PWL accomplishments, I am most proud of the community we have built. It has been a special privilege watch women all over the world embrace PWL and the concept of having agency and being in the driver's seat of their own career. PWL brought me and many others out there a lot of comfort, safety and inspiration amongst other women and its impact will go beyond our time at Philips I know whatever happens we will always have each other and I am passing on the torch knowing this fire will never die.

What's next for me?

I am looking forward to becoming a semi-regular employee at Philips with no big responsibilities beyond my work, while remaining in an advisory capacity for the PWL team in the short term. I will also be pouring myself into my mentees and continue sharing my entrepreneurship, career and leadership lessons in speaking engagements. Most importantly, I will be focusing more on growing in my commercial leadership journey in health technology and leveraging all these lessons from my experience as a leader in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion space. I do have a personal entrepreneurial endeavor cooking, but that is a conversation for another time.

For now, it is my heartfelt thank you and goodbye to everyone who has made this journey possible.


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