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Accenture's Michelle Gadsden-Williams: Be the Architect of Your Career Journey

Gadsden-Williams offers important advice for all women in navigating their careers.


Michelle Gadsden-Williams leads Accenture's (No. 14 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list) inclusion and diversity initiatives in North America.

Responsible for further strengthening and accelerating the company's efforts to foster an inclusive culture, she talked with DiversityInc about her career and offered valuable advice.

All Paths Led to Diversity and Inclusion

"Diversity and inclusion is important to me. I am a woman. I am a person of color," Gadsden-Williams explained.

"Both of my parents were born and raised in South Carolina during Jim Crow and segregation, and it was always a topic that was discussed in our household – and not just diversity necessarily, it was more about inclusion – how are you going to immerse yourself in a society that may not accept you for who you are? So, naturally, it's work that I gravitated toward."

Gadsden-Williams joined Accenture in June, bringing more than 25 years of experience as an advocate for equality within corporate America and as a thought leader on diversity and inclusion. In 2006, Gadsden-Williams moved to Basel, Switzerland, to become the chief diversity officer at Novartis. In 2010, she then became the global head of diversity and inclusion at Credit Suisse.

"I started my career in marketing, then I transitioned into strategic planning, organizational development and finally diversity," she said.

It was "happenstance" or maybe even destiny that brought Gadsden-Williams and her focus on diversity and inclusion together.

"I was given an assignment by the VP of HR for a company I worked for at the time to create a diversity strategy, and I just fell in love with the work," she said. "It represented change and innovation — all the wonderful things that we know this work is — and the effect that it can have on people in an organization.

"I've been doing this close to three decades across four industries, in the United States and around the world. I'm a lifer."

'Would You be My Mentor?'

Gadsden-Williams started early. Her first mentor was her father — an executive at a major organization. When entering the professional world, she decided to be proactive in selecting a mentor — an individual who, according to her, gives advice on "how to orchestrate your career properly."

"Throughout my career, I've always sought the counsel of individuals who had what I call 'intellectual horsepower.' People who were really doing innovative things in a company," Gadsden-Williams explained. "I naturally gravitate towards those people.

"I would build a relationship with them. I'd say, 'I like what you're doing, who you are as a person and what you represent. Would you be my mentor?'

"Not one person said, 'No.'"

Gadsden-Williams emphasized that her mentors and sponsors — your advocate or champion in the room when important career decisions are made — didn't always look like her or come from similar backgrounds. "They have mostly been white men."

She adds, "I feel very fortunate to have been able to cultivate and maintain relationships with a variety of individuals, some of whom are now CEOs and chairmen of major corporations in the Fortune 500. They have been incredibly helpful to me in terms of shaping the professional individual that I am, and in helping me to strategize and be the architect of my career journey."

Gadsden-Williams said her mentors and sponsors still provide her with counsel and advice, most recently with the decision to join Accenture.

"I reached out to my mentors to ask, 'Am I making the right move, the right decision? I'm now an entrepreneur. I'm doing well. Does it make sense for me to re-enter corporate America?'"

In addition to her role as a corporate executive, she is also the co-founder and former chief executive officer of Ceiling Breakers, a consulting organization focused on women's empowerment and diversity initiatives.

Gadsden-Williams said she, her mentors and sponsors all agreed that Accenture was her next move.

"It made sense to them and it made sense to me."

How to Get Ahead? Be Clear About Your Goals

Gadsden-Williams offers important advice for all women in navigating their careers.

"In my years of working in corporate America, I've come across many women, of all backgrounds, who are unsure of what they really want to do," she said. "You must be crystal clear, articulate and transparent about your goals, from the start of your career and as you progress.

"You have to take time to answer the question: 'What is it, exactly, that you want?' And work to create a timeline of how and when you plan to get there."

Gadsden-Williams said mentors and sponsors are key as well.

"Create a board of directors for yourself," she said.

"You need individuals who are going to hold up the mirror and tell you the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between, but also give you sage advice on the kinds of things you need to do to get to your next step."

Serving on Nonprofit Boards

Gadsden-Williams suggests to women, "There are a lot of benefits to joining a board whether it's a corporate board or nonprofit board. You'll expand your competencies and capabilities that will shape you into a leader.

"I only see upside."

Throughout her career, Gadsden-Williams has served on several nonprofit boards, including Black Girls Rock — a non-profit youth empowerment and mentoring organization established to promote the arts for young women of color, while building self-esteem and self-worth.

"I chose specifically to engage with organizations whose missions are very much in alignment with my core values," she said. "I have a passion for women's issues, education and healthcare."

Gadsden-Williams also serves on the board of the late Dr. Maya Angelou's charter school in Washington, D.C., which has impacted her deeply.

"As part of being a board member, I had the opportunity to interact, face-to-face, with Dr. Angelou," she said. "That was one of the most profound and privileged opportunities I've had in my entire life."

Gadsden-Williams said that being in Angelou's presence "forced you to be your best self – to bring your genuine, authentic self to the table."

"It was an honor and a pleasure for me to sit on the board of her school," she added. "But it was even more of an honor just to have a conversation with her."

In 2010, Dr. Angelou awarded Gadsden-Williams with the coveted Maya Way Award for Diversity Leadership.

Looking Ahead at Accenture

"We are doing a lot of the right kinds of things," Gadsden-Williams said. "And we have committed women leading the charge – Ellyn Shook, our Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer, and Julie Sweet, our North America CEO. We have new goals in front of us. But while we're pleased with our progress, we're not satisfied."

Gadsden-Williams discussed gender parity.

"We're doing a lot of wonderful things at Accenture to accelerate gender parity," she said. "We have a goal of 50 percent women and 50 percent men in our workforce by 2025, so we're working hard with our leadership to drive innovative tactics and strategies to achieve our goal. I think we're on our way."

But overall, Gadsden-Williams is envisioning a time when diversity and inclusion is just a part of the way companies do business every day.

"The question is: how do we get to 'diversity 2.0?' When diversity becomes so embedded in our DNA, it's no longer talked about, it just organically happens. When there's a direct link to diversity in how we service our business and clients, in how we recruit suppliers we work with, how we build the teams that work with our clients."

Gadsden-Williams referenced Accenture's "#InclusionStartsWithI" video as an important step forward. Meant to spark discussion about belonging and bias, the video is prompting an ongoing movement at the company and beyond.

"I take the video with me wherever I go," she said, including specific conferences.

"In my years of doing this work, I've never seen anything like it before. It's real, true diversity in action. It's something that I think we'll be watching for a long time."

Anthony B. Coleman: Veterans Should Discover Their Passion and Allow it to Lead to a Profession

Coleman, talks with DiversityInc about his journey transitioning from life in the U.S. Navy to working for Kaiser Permanente as an Assistant Hospital Administrator.

Anthony B. Coleman, DHA, is the Assistant Hospital Administrator (Operations Support) for Kaiser Permanente, Fontana and Ontario Medical Centers.

He was born at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. At 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy serving aboard the USS Pioneer (MCM 9) and USS Ardent (MCM 12). After completing a full sea tour he was transferred to shore duty, and earned a Bachelor's degree in Workforce, Education and Development, as well as a Master of Health Administration. He later earned a commissioned as a Naval Officer serving in various roles overseas and afloat, including Chief Financial Officer at U.S. Naval Hospital Beaufort SC, Human Resources Director at U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka, Japan and Medical Operations Officer onboard the USS Harry S Truman (CVN 75) nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

Anthony retired in 2016 with 20 years of honorable service and holds a Doctor of Health Administration Degree and currently serves as the Assistant Administrator (Operations Support) for Kaiser Permanente Fontana and Ontario Medical Centers.

DI: What was the initial transition like going from the armed services to a civilian career?

My initial thoughts on transition brought unnecessary anxiety. However, when I learned that my preceptor was a retired Air Force Colonel, it helped put me at ease about the transition. On my first day at Kaiser Permanente, the staff and physicians welcomed me and ensured that I had the support I needed to make a successful transition.

DI: What are some skills or habits you developed while serving in the military that have helped you in your current role?

Two things stick out in my mind as important.

The first is transitioning mindset from duty to desire. I joined the navy at 17, and during the first 3-5 years of my military career I didn't realize I was part of something bigger than myself so I competed tasks out of obligation (duty). After completing my first full sea tour, I realized how my efforts contributed to the overall mission of the U.S. Navy and the duties I carried out started to come from a desire to do so. This realization helped shape my leadership style and how I groomed young sailors early on in their enlistments. I wanted them to realize their very important part in the overall U.S. Navy mission and motivate them to bring their "A" game every day.

This has helped in my current role overseeing nine non-clinical departments (Housekeeping, Food and Nutrition, Engineering, Construction, Parking, Safety, Property Management, Telecommunications, Security and Supply Chain Management) where the majority of the employees I oversee are entry-level and can feel disconnected to health care because they are not physicians or nurses. However, I stress to them as often as possible that whether their job is to nourish the patient, clean and disinfect a patient room, make sure life-saving equipment is in working order, or any other of the hundreds of non-clinical functions they perform day in and day out, they too are vital to a patient's health and healing.

The second is attention to detail. Most times, my staff are the first and/or last interaction our members have with Kaiser Permanente. It is crucial for them to pay attention to every detail about the patient they encounter because each and every detail about the patient, large or small can help us do a better job in serving them. Sometimes, it may be as simple as a smile or word of encouragement that could make all the difference in the patient experience.

DI: What career advice can you offer to veterans or current military folks who are looking to pivot, and what types of jobs should they be looking for?

Stay current in world health affairs, as well as the political climate in the US. Now more than ever, politics are shaping our approach to health care and vice versa. Veterans and current military members should make sure they have an idea of where civilian health care is, as well as where it's going in the future, so they can demonstrate their value to potential health care employers.

Devote time to discovering their passion and allow it to lead them to a profession. So often, when military members plan to transition to civilian life, they tend to focus on their ability to continue providing for their families beyond military service. This can cause us to accept positions for the sake of securing post military employment, or accept positions that are not aligned with our core beliefs, or passion.

DI: Did you always have an idea of the type of career you wanted to pursue after the military?

Yes. As a matter of fact, I began planning my exit from the military in 2005 when I discovered my passion for eliminating health disparities however, because I was a single father of a 5 year old girl, my mom convinced me to complete a full career first.

In 2004, the Navy sent me to graduate school to learn how to be a health administrator. During the summer of 2005, I interned at Wallace Thomson Hospital in rural Union County, South Carolina. While there I met a kitchen worker who impressed me with her skill in preparing meals for all of the sick patients at the hospital, specific to their individual needs. Her name was Pee Wee and even though she never finished high school, and worked a second job to make ends meet she somehow found a way to show compassion for each patient while contributing to the healing environment.

After the rotation was complete, I went back to finish graduate school and learned that Pee Wee died of a stroke. She was 52. Her death really affected me and a began to look at how a person in America could die so young of a preventable health issue. That's when I learned about health disparities and discovered my passion for eliminating them. I understand that I may not be able to complete this task in my lifetime however, I am completely comfortable with making it my life's work at Kaiser Permanente.

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