Q: Thinking about your leadership journey, what do you feel has been the greatest influence on you?
Michelle: I couldn't think of anyone who had a greater influence on me than my father and my mother. My father was my first boss, and I learned more from him than I could ever repay, including working hard and persisting until the job was finished. I worked on our family ranch in Northern California and my father basically expected us kids to do what he called “a man's job.” We began doing work on the ranch around the age of four. We were all expected to execute at a high level and contribute to the bottom line of the family enterprise, whether it was building fences, irrigating, working cattle or killing rattlesnakes. It instilled confidence and the ability to handle anything that came at me, whether I was at a private law firm or serving as chief risk officer.
My mother also set very high standards for us. It didn't matter whether it was school work or making dinner or pulling weeds, she wanted us to live up to our potential and had no patience for sloppy work. Both she and my father were also very focused on our ability to speak and write clearly and making us comfortable with public speaking, skills that could ensure we had a foundation and opportunities to succeed.
When I think about this experience from a corporate perspective, it was really about getting the most out of the resources available, valuing everyone’s contributions, and not assuming that anyone had limits on what they could accomplish. In our case, it was not assuming that a child was incapable of doing good work. In a business, it might be not assuming that an employee would reject an advancement opportunity just because it involved travel or irregular hours.
Q: What are you most proud of in your work advancing women leaders?
Michelle: I feel that in order to get the best performance from your team, certainly in today's work world, embracing an inclusive mindset and valuing diversity of thought and experience are key. I strive to treat everyone equally and to be supportive of who they are. I understand that people have different needs, whether it’s in how we communicate or in how they balance their work and other obligations. It's really important that an employee can “bring their full self to work” – to be a mom, a wife, a father, a friend. One thing I think is important is that we not decide for someone else what he or she may or may not want to do based on their personal circumstance. I’ve been in discussions about assignments where a name has been raised and someone has said, “Oh, she won’t want to take that role – she’s got two kids at home,” or, “he’s single – he won’t have a problem relocating.” The truth is that we don’t know what people want to do unless we ask them, and we certainly don’t want to needlessly limit their career growth opportunities. So I have tried to foster an atmosphere where we don’t make decisions on behalf of others, and we give equal access to opportunities to those who are qualified regardless of what we perceive their personal situation to be.
Another way I try to be empowering is by giving everybody an opportunity to speak, and when they do contribute, giving full credit for their ideas. I have always felt that I have a place at the table, probably because my father always made us feel like mini-adults. Our opinions were valued and we were expected to speak up. I'm sure that probably annoyed some people at times. But I think that when you lead by example and demonstrate to others that you belong here, it gives other people the freedom to feel they can contribute as well.
And then the final important thing is sponsorship. I greatly benefitted from this and I try to help as much as I can to sponsor others. And I always extend my network to anybody who can benefit from it.
Q: What advice could you offer to others who want to move the needle in advancing women in the workplace?
Michelle: I think my best piece of advice would be to diagnose where your firm is currently. Determine what your firm needs to be engaged in this way. Your firm may already have programs in place. As a leader you should be involved and be visible with that. Or your firm may not be doing much to support a culture of diversity and inclusion, in which case you may want to start at the grassroots level – and then get very engaged in that and build on it. It's very important to be visible and to bring others along.
At LPL, we started with grassroots efforts. We launched employee resource groups that gave our employees a way to express what was meaningful to them and to make a difference with respect to diversity in the workplace. We also started at the top. We looked to the board and to the management committee to champion the mission.
I think you'll know you have succeeded when you are hearing your messages reflected back to you – what I call the buzz from the bottom and the murmur from the middle.