Erica Pinsky



The Secretary of State


In June I had the opportunity to present at the annual SHRM conference in Chicago. One of the highlights of that experience was being in the audience for the opening keynote delivered by former US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton.


If you’re a regular reader/listener, you will know that the topic of Women, Position & Power is one that I have been increasingly focused on over the last couple of years. Our October post will feature Sue Paisch, former managing partner of Fasken DuMoullin, now CEO of Lifelabs.


Forbes magazine recently ranked Ms. Clinton 5th on their 100 most powerful women list. (see link at bottom of page) The magazine selects women who “go beyond the traditional taxonomy of the power elite (political and economic might). These change-agents are actually shifting our very idea of clout and authority and, in the process, transforming the world in fresh and exhilarating ways.”

At the outset of her keynote Ms. Clinton told her audience of HR professionals that “there is no more important asset than the people you work with.” She reinforced that concept in sharing five key leadership lessons illustrated with stories from her time as Secretary of State from 2009 to February 2013.



 “Good decisions are based on evidence and not ideology."

Ms. Clinton chose the issue of gender equality to illustrate this principle. Many countries, including the US, are jeopardizing both economic growth and productivity because of customs and/or practices that keep women from fully participating at work. Beyond being “just the right thing to do” educating women and girls has been shown empirically to be an economic driver. Using the US to emphasize the relevance of the issue, Ms. Clinton stated that GDP would increase by an estimated 9 % if all the barriers to women in the US were removed.


 “Leadership is a team sport.”

One’s success as a leader is measured by “how well you can get people to work together.” Ms. Clinton said that numerous individuals asked her how she could accept the position of Secretary of State working with President Barak Obama when they had been rivals for the leadership of the Democratic party. She stated that both she and President Obama were interested in “putting the common good ahead of our personal competition.” That shared interest allowed them to go from “a team of rivals to an unrivalled team.”



 “You can’t win if you don’t show up.”

Ms. Clinton quoted filmmaker and actor Woody Allen who once said “80% of life is showing up.” It was this concept that motivated her to visit 112 countries during her tenure as Secretary of State. One of these was the West African country of Togo. Her reason for going was to build relationship, something Ms. Clinton cited as critical for leaders. While she often faced challenges, she continued to “show up,” focusing on being welcoming, listening (another essential leadership skill) and gathering “clues” that would assist her in developing relationship in spite of the myriad of difference she encountered, in Togo and elsewhere. “ It is not always easy but you do have to show up.”



 “A whisper can be louder than a shout.”

Resolving concerns and conflicts often requires what Ms. Clinton referred to as “quiet diplomacy.” She shared a story of being in Saudi Arabia and learning about an 8 year old girl who was being forced to marry a 50 year old for monetary reasons. As was customary when Ms. Clinton was travelling, there was a lot of American press around who were quick to pick up the story. Rather than use the Press to pressure those in positions of power to take action, Ms. Clinton focused on finding a way to fix the situation and still allow public officials to “save face.” She chose to have a number of “quiet conversations” where her message was “please fix this and we won't say anything publicly.” The real success in such situations, stated Ms. Clinton, is to find a way to resolve the situation or conflict while working to enhance or build relationship. “Public humiliation is not the way.”


 “Follow and pay attention to the trend lines, not the headlines.”

Ms. Clinton talked about American values being the key to what makes the US the country that it is and stressed the importance of keeping those values top of mind, and using them to guide behaviour in daily life. At the same time it is important to remain open and respectful, rather than judgemental with those that might not share those values. She talked about the challenge of building relationship with the President of a country where violence against women was commonplace and widely accepted as reasonable. In one public conversation this individual told her that if a man comes home and his dinner is not on the table, then he has the right to beat his wife. Needless to say this is not a perspective that aligns with Ms. Clinton’s, or North American values. Ms. Clinton’s strategy to encourage a shift in those attitudes was to develop relationship with women’s groups and other officials in positions of power within the country. It was both gratifying and inspirational to hear her share how she was able to do so, and witnessed the passage of a bill that prohibited violence against women when a new administration was elected. It was “4 years of hard work to strengthen the relationship; getting them to see our point of view, and learning more about theirs.”


During the Q & A that followed her presentation, Ms. Clinton advised her mostly female audience not to shy away from opportunity but rather to “dare to compete”; to “Lean In” as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg calls it.


She also shared her perspective on dealing with criticism.

“If you’re doing your best, mistakes are going to happen.

 Take criticism seriously but not personally.

 You do need to listen. You might learn what you can do better.”

 That said, Ms. Clinton cautioned us not to

 “take it so personally that you can't get out of bed the next day.”


Not many leaders are leading a team of 70,000 people, as Ms. Clinton was when she was Secretary of State. One of the challenges she highlighted was managing a group with so much diversity within a context of an environment with a lot of established rules and procedures. Her perspective is that while it is important for a leader to respect the rules, it is also critical to channel people, set expectations, and figure out how to move things more quickly and at time, to challenge the status quo. That required relationship building, particularly with other senior leaders. One example she shared was how many of these leaders were resistant to involvement with social media because of concerns that the posts could not be vetted. Ms. Clinton persisted in her dialogue until she had agreement for the change. “It shook things up but it needed to be done.”


She also stressed the importance of getting to know your team, starting the conversation and building relationship to ensure you know what people need to be able to do their best at work. This includes a willingness to talk about, and create policies to promote work/life integration. “How can you find out what parents need? Flexibility is good for the bottom line. The evidence shows it.”


Her final leadership nugget focused on the importance of leaders being actively involved in managing career progression, and ensuring that the approach is one that is respectful to all involved. While seniority is a factor to be considered “sometimes you have to pull people who have the talent you’re looking for from the back, without being disrespectful to those that have put in the time.”


As I listened it became clear to me that Ms. Clinton is truly a values based leader. She ensures that her values guide her in the expression and manifestation of her formidable power, in how she uses her ‘clout and authority’.


While Ms. Clinton never mentioned the word respect, the leadership behaviours she described; listening, building relationship, focusing on the shared good, being curious and interested in the perspective of others, including those with whom we might have major cultural and philosophical differences, are all characteristics of respectful, values based leadership.


How many of Ms. Clinton’s leadership lessons are cultural norms within your leadership team?

I look forward to the day when her leadership style becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

What about you?


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"Erica Pinsky’s book, Road to Respect: Path to Profit approaches a range of difficult topics in an honest, direct and non-threatening manner. This book will stimulate readers to think about their own values and behaviours and to question those that are operating in their workplaces. Erica shares personal stories and best practices to clearly show why adopting respect as a core value is a requirement for any business interested in being designated as an Employer of Choice in our multi-cultural workplaces.  I highly recommend this book!"

Susan Rubin Mulder,

Principal - McKinsey & Company