I’ll Pitch, You Catch – Men Coaching Women in the Big 4

This has got to be the most idiotic interview I have read in a long time. Here’s a woman who has done some good things in her career, achieved a certain level of success and now is trying her damnedest to use that experience for good. Unfortunately, she went back to the warped environment which is the Big 4, instead of staying in industry.

I value meritocracies, places where your brains and actions determine your level of success. They exist, but they are rare. I recently heard an update on a former colleague from my old firm. Well, she was really not a colleague but a partner, although she was younger than I was and often said she should be working for me. It had taken her 19 years to make partner, due to more than a few periods out of the office to have babies, divorce, move, remarry and move again. When she made it, she went to work on a flexible schedule. She has recently been given a new leadership position. She is the last one I suspected would get a bigger role in their reorganization. But then again, I am thinking of who deserves it based on skills, abilities, business development success, level of seriousness about the responsibilities, coaching ability, interests besides managing internal politics and, finally, worthiness as a role model for anyone, especially for women not on the mommy-track.

When I read the interview below, I thought of her. She will also be good at this type of role. She will be good at repeating the cliches, stereotypes, and easy excuses for why, in traditional environments, men won’t work with and promote women more. She will never be good at mentoring women who have none of the constraints she has, women who frighten any less intelligent, less worldly, less ambitious, less resilient, less change-comfortable men. She won’t be good at understanding a woman who doesn’t have an urge to cry, doesn’t embarrass easily, doesn’t have a need for flexible time, doesn’t need to be told to dress professionally, doesn’t need to be asked to come along to meet a client, and surely doesn’t need for anything to be sugarcoated.

Coaching Men on Mentoring Women
Is Ernst & Young Partner’s Mission

“When Ernst & Young’s Billie Williamson began holding focus groups with male partners and accountants last year, she heard firsthand the difficulties they often have mentoring women. “Some men told us they weren’t confident about how to mentor or coach a woman,” says Ms. Williamson, a senior partner and now also Americas director of flexibility and gender equity strategy.

Ms. Williamson first joined the firm out of college in 1974 and has handled major corporate clients in technology, aerospace, defense and other industries. She is now leading an effort at Ernst to coach men on mentoring and advancing women up the ranks. Previously, Ms. Williamson was senior vice president, finance at Marriott International and she is currently a member of Ernst’s Americas executive board.

The Wall Street Journal Online: What is driving Ernst’s efforts to help men become better mentors to women, as well as minorities?

Billie Williamson: At Ernst 85% of senior leadership is still male. If we only rely on the women in senior leadership to mentor other women, we just won’t be mentoring enough women.

Ms. Williamson: It’s hard for a man to tell a woman, ‘you need to dress more professionally,’ but we’re telling men not to back away from something like that.

We’ve also done a lot of coaching on what to say when a woman announces that she is expecting a baby. If a male supervisor says ‘congratulations — but you need to know it’s going to be hard to manage your career and a baby,’ that’s discouraging. But if he says, ‘great, how can I help?’ that’s going to help retain a woman.

WSJ.com: Do men fear women will cry if they’re given critical feedback?
Ms. Williamson: Some are frightened about that. One young man in one of our coaching sessions said, ‘I’m worried to death about a woman crying.’ But an experienced male partner told him to relax. He said, ‘hand her a box of tissues, and just sit there very quietly. Crying passes very quickly.’

Ms. Williamson: We’re telling men not to make assumptions about whether a woman will or won’t take a particular job or transfer. I talked with one manager a few weeks ago who had a wonderful pipeline of women who were close to being qualified to become partners — but we couldn’t make them all partners in the same location. So I asked, ‘have you asked if anyone is willing to transfer?’ and there was dead silence. Then he said ‘no — because what if their husbands have jobs where they’re located now?’ I said, ‘Let’s let them make the decision.’

So this manager went to a particular woman – and she said she was willing to transfer and her husband could transfer with his job. The manager called me back, thanking me and saying ‘now I have a very happy senior manager who will be able to make partner and it’s a win-win for us.’

WSJ.com: Women tend to be more focused on doing a good job, then on building the relationships they need to get ahead. How can men help?

Ms. Williamson: Men need to take young women along to meetings with clients at a very early stage in their careers, to just observe and begin to learn.

WSJ.com: Are men in general more likely to do that with a young man than a woman?

WSJ.com: What are you doing to help men understand what women feel like at mostly male gatherings?

Ms. Williamson: About 15% of our partners today are women and so when we do our women’s leadership conference, we invite a similar ratio of men to attend so they can have the experience of walking into a room filled mostly with women. The idea is to give our men the experience we often have at meetings. Some men are very comfortable, but others say ‘gee, I see what you deal with every day, and I’m not sure whether I should join the discussion or what I should do.’ It’s a great chance for men to walk in our shoes—and it helps men become better coaches to women.

WSJ.com: Don’t some women need coaching on mentoring women?

Ms. Williamson: Absolutely. I think there are women who’ve battled their way up and they have a lot of arrows in their rear end. So once they’ve gotten to senior jobs, they’re fatigued and don’t want to make the extra effort to help other women or they think they figured it out, so younger women should do the same. But I think they’re by far the minority — and we’ve asked all our women to be engaged in mentoring young women and diverse people.

WSJ.com: Are you also advising men about how to get along better with female clients?

Some women like a bottom-line, blunt approach but I think that’s more the exception than the rule. Most women want to talk, they want to feel like they’ve been part of the process.

WSJ.com: How else can men work better with women clients?

Ms. Williamson: Don’t assume you can’t invite a woman client to a [sports] game. I directly ask, ‘Do you want to go to a game?’ and if a woman client says she prefers the symphony, I get symphony tickets.”

Well, I’m glad we cleared all that up…

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