Monday, May 23, 2011

Leadership, Power and Women

Leadership, Power and Women

Becky A. McClain

November 21, 2009

I find it ironic that in a crowded room full of women who had been lured to a talk entitled “Stepping into Power: How to Get it and How to Use It”, the lone person dozing off at the event was the only man in attendance.

Sponsored by a professional women networking group called the Lower Connecticut Valley Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the public event last Wednesday held in Old Saybrook’s Acton Library featured Dr. Nancy Hutson, a 25 year career Pfizer executive who had retired in 2006.

Hutson’s talk was advertized to discuss the subject of POWER – getting it and how to use it in the context of her experience as a woman during her career climb from a bench scientist to Senior Vice President in the male-dominated pharmaceutical organization at Pfizer Inc.

I was intrigued, not only because of the topic of power and how it relates to working women, but also, because of the past history of Pfizer and their use of power.

You see, Pfizer has not displayed the best reputation for getting and using power. In fact, Pfizer’s reputation has become seriously tarnished this past decade both locally and internationally. Their role in the imminent domain take over of New London homes, and subsequently bugging out of New London after their 10 year tax incentive deal expired, their role in public health and safety violations accompanied with research building explosions causing serious injuries, their role in unethical clinical trials resulting in deaths of Nigerian children, and finally, their egregious behavior in criminal fraud against the government for promotion of off-labeled use of their drugs are some of Pfizer’s most recent notorious acts, costing the company billions of dollars in criminal fines and settlements.

So how was Hutson going to deliver her topic on the use of power in light of what some could allege was a grand collection of abuse of power from Pfizer during her tenure?

But Hutson was slick to avoid such topics, as any savvy executive would.

And in the end her talk was disappointingly empty. Not only in her uncanny assertion that Pfizer’s bad reputation resulted from healthcare reform, baby boomers and bad economy, but also for her bland subject matter relating to power, women and the her workplace experiences.

One would think that a woman who has climbed the corporate ladder of success at Pfizer from bench scientist to Senior Vice President in charge of 4500 Groton scientists would have SOME gripping stories to share, stories containing her trials and tribulations of being a woman within the highly charged political terrain of a male dominated pharmaceutical industry.

But Hutson’s worst experience shared with us was the time her supervisor performed email tasks while she was trying to have a discussion with him. Apparently her supervisor was not being completely “present” with her, making her feel discounted.

It was then when I turned to my side and noticed my husband beginning to nod off. And as I dug my elbow into his side to make him “be present”, I realized that Hutson did not even bother to tell us how she resolved the dilemma of having such a multi-tasking un-present supervisor.

Matter a fact, Hutson gave us very little insights about the true struggles women face in the workplace, like harassment, discrimination, glass ceilings, managing work and family, and unequal pay scales.

Instead she gave us an ordinary package of self-help steps to leadership, wrapped in jargon, ringing of mundane familiarity, …“Develop relationships”, “be present”, “manage your energy”, “practice leadership”, “have defined purpose, mission and goals”. Abracadabra. You’ve got power.

And of course, not a whisper of ethics. Hutson’s experience with ethics at Pfizer apparently had little connection in defining her steps in how to get power and use it.

Despite Hutson’s cookbook and carefully constructed talk, what was apparent, however, was at the conclusion of her presentation, you could not help but like Nancy Hutson.

And that’s because Hutson fits the part.

Nancy Hutson fits the part of our present day executives, people who look and act intelligent, self assured, but down to earth, and who have the ability to develop relationships because of their knack for the art of massaging communication. They are the type of person you seemingly could trust with any personal issue, a person that one would love to share a cup of coffee and perhaps become friends.

But in reality, many corporate execs who have “stepped into power” have often watched unethical practices unfold in their businesses. And while “practicing leadership”, standing composed and smiling, carefully managing their energy and their speech, they do nothing, as well as, say nothing about these unethical practices.

You see, good executives deliver for their corporations, reporting to the bottom line. And that is exactly what Hutson told us on Wednesday. One of her opening statements was that her career role shifted from bench science to politics and the bottom line. Hutson went on to say that those who deliver for corporations are rewarded by power, title and money.

Hutson surely delivered at this talk at the AAUW meeting. She was intelligent, articulate and friendly. She gave a well structured talk, avoiding Pfizer’s history of ethical troubles.

But a discussion about leadership and power, without involving ethics, sells cheap. It holds no real substance for the majority of professional women of Connecticut who want to succeed while making the world a better place. And ironically, it put the only man attending such a discussion, right to sleep.

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