Making the C-Suite More Human


I grew up in Bell Labs and AT&T, blessed with incredible bosses and mentors. Because of their recognition and support, my career, influence and impact took off rapidly.  So, when I was asked to be on a special project (the kind that are special and not parking lots for people you want to fire but don’t have the guts to) in the Office of the President, I was very honored and flattered.  Then reality hit.

For 18 months in top echelons, more of my time was spent doing PowerPoint decks in formats prescribed by multi-million dollar consultants who knew nothing about this new business, the Internet, building the team, architecture, network and services.  Granted, this was a new space and educating the executives was required, even though having grown up with the “Internet” it was familiar and intuitive to my colleagues and me. But, I wanted to ‘do’ – to get started, to put some experiments together, learn, apply and iterate – the Bell Labs (Lean Startup) way, not the corporate way. Eventually, we got approval and were off to create our new business!  And that’s when reality hit.

It wasn’t an issue of gender; it was an issue of humanness.

As I was getting ready to go and make this new service real, I was asked to stay in the president’s office. Most people would grab the opportunity. I wanted out and I wanted out fast.  When I thanked them and said no, they seemed shocked! I said no because there were no role models. Which they immediately interpreted as no women, and that was why I should stay. But they missed the point – a key point for women as they reach the top – I didn’t want to be like them! None of them were people I wanted as a friend or family member. It wasn’t an issue of gender; it was an issue of humanness. And that’s when reality hit again.

I chose not to be promoted and hang out in the C-suite. I wasn’t willing to make the compromises necessary – not to my family, my friends, my principles and personal goals.  Now, you can say that I should have because that’s how we make change and you have a good point.  But one thing none of us get more of, is time.  To me, my ‘work’ life is a time-impact trade-off, for the short, medium and long term, where impact is defined by how I am making the world better, tangibly and intangibly. At the time, I could have a far greater impact by creating this new service than by doing PowerPoint’s and playing golf (ok, that’s simplistic but you get the point).  I opted out; I leaned out, and I’m so very glad I did.

impact is defined by how I am making the world better, tangibly and intangibly

If corporations don’t start allowing people to be themselves, men and women, to recognize the need for multi-dimensional human beings, then they will not be able to sustain success.  Innovation and growth come from seeing, hearing, creating new and different perspectives – which means people with diverse backgrounds, ages, experiences, languages, ideas, and yes, genders.  This is how we really understand customers’ needs, from their perspective, not our own, so we can create solutions for them, in their world, with their constraints and opportunities.  To succeed in the 21st Century means a company must create money, meaning, profit and purpose.

This starts by making the C-suite a more human place for women – who may want to be moms, wives, friends, daughters, sisters.  If we are able to do that, then we may actually be able to do that for men too – who may want to be dads, husbands, friends, sons and brothers.  Until then, I believe we will continue to see the increasing demise those companies that can’t embrace the change – because they simply won’t be able to innovate and provide real solutions.  We will see the rise of more nimble, agile, human-friendly enterprises that can.  Is that good? I don’t know. It all boils down to priorities.

Deborah Mills-Scofield is a partner at Glengary LLC, an early stage venture capital firm in Cleveland, OH, and an innovation and strategy consultant. Her patent from AT&T Bell Labs was one of the highest-revenue generating patents ever for AT&T & Lucent.

  • Deb, what an awesome perspective – bravo! This whole idea that if we don’t give our whole selves to our corporation, we aren’t “true believers” or pulling our own weight or… or whatever it is, this workaholic ethic isn’t healthy for people, and that means that many people of talent, like you, opt out. Maybe in a bygone era there was enough talent willing to work around the clock like this, or maybe back then there was little enough competition that companies could get by utilizing just the portion of the talent pool willing to sacrifice all for the demands of the office. Fortunately for human happiness, more and more top-caliber people are following your lead and saying, “Thanks guys, but… no thanks!”

    What is bad for the old school companies may not be bad for the individual. Startups, smaller firms, and more enlightened enterprises may just end up soaking up the talent fleeing the dinosaur firms, hastening their demise.

    You can’t compete if you can’t attract and retain top talent: female OR male. It’s time we Switch our way of thinking and Shift into gear!

  • William Powell

    Is there a dance emoticon? This is brilliant! I love to have a partner beating this drum. Love the post Deb and can’t agree more with the message! Thanks for your contribution to this series.

  • I don’t want to be like them either!! I only just want to be me. Thanks for making a great point that really hit home for me. My goals for my career are pretty simple, at least to me, I want to do good work, be a valued contributor and feel good about myself while doing it. I refuse to compromise what I believe in – my values, or my integrity. Have these goals always propelled me forward? No, not always. I’ve had to make tough decisions that allowed me to keep my “humanness” intact, sometimes at the cost of moving up. This is a great series about an important topic. Thanks for keeping the conversation going.

  • Kudos Deb (1 former bell head to another!).

  • Andi Roberts PCC CPF

    This really resonates with me. no matter the gender, it is the humanness that counts! The few senior leaders I have worked for that I have followed AND respected have had this, but they have been too few.

  • Lisa Shelley

    Fabulous Deb! You are exactly the role model that I want for my 3 daughters!

    The only means to sustain an innovation mind-set is through the continual in-flux of different ideas and perspectives. I don’t care how diverse the c-suite becomes in terms of gender, race or favorite color… a business will never achieve the diversity of perspectives and ideas it needs if those executives are all living the same 1-dimensional life. The connections, ideas and opportunities aren’t going to surface in the c-suite bathtub, they’re out there in the ocean of humanness called life!

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