"I want all women and girls to believe that anything is possible," says Michelle Gadsden-Williams. And with her as a role model, that's certainly easy to believe. The managing director of inclusion and diversity at Accenture and author of the new book, Climb: Taking Every Step with Conviction, Courage, and Calculated Risk to Achieve a Thriving Career and a Successful Life, acknowledges the unique journey she has taken as a woman of color and the obstacles she has faced along the way, including a lupus diagnosis. Despite everything she's accomplished already, Michelle is always looking forward to the next task. Now, she's hoping to achieve "diversity 2.0," a time when diversity is so embedded in our DNA that it happens organically rather than by design.
Fairygodboss of the Week: Michelle Gadsden-Williams
Managing Director, Inclusion and Diversity, Accenture
New York, NY
Tell us a little about your career. How did you get to where you are now?
I have spent more than 25 years in corporate America. I’ve worked in four industries in the US and abroad. I started my career in marketing and over time transitioned to strategic planning and diversity management. I have had a wonderful corporate career filled with unique experiences that have shaped me as a leader. At this phase of my professional life, I get great satisfaction from helping the next generation of female leaders realize their potential and ambitions. In sum, I want all women (and girls) to believe that anything is possible!
What is an accomplishment that you are proud of?
It has always been my intention to write a book about my climb up the corporate ladder, and so the thing I’m currently most proud of is my new book, Climb: Taking Every Step with Conviction, Courage, and Calculated Risk to Achieve a Thriving Career and a Successful Life, which publishes on May 1! I wanted to create a (play)book to provide women—and the men who support them—with the awareness and tools to better understand the unique journey women, and women of color, face in their careers.
Few of us have had an easy elevator ride to the top floor of our careers. Many of us have had to take the stairs—and it can be a steep climb. In Climb, I’ve used myself as the protagonist and share real-life examples of how I navigated today’s complex workplace. How you respond to that complexity is a strong indication of the kind of leader that you are. We all have aspirations to be successful in whatever field we work in. How we achieve success varies depending on the individual, our ecosystems that support us, and the choices that we make.
What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?
My diagnosis with lupus. I was at the pinnacle of my career at the time and I was working in the pharmaceutical industry. I was the Global Chief Diversity Officer, my husband had just retired, we were packing up our home and moving to Switzerland. It was the job and opportunity of a lifetime and we were certainly looking forward to it. Then, in July of 2006 I was faced with the diagnosis that I have lupus. It really turned my world upside down. My health was paramount; it had to be first and foremost. Commuting to Switzerland almost every week from New Jersey just wasn’t healthy. I had to make some very tough choices in terms of my career. I wrestled with the decision to tell my employer: if I told them, would they think I was fragile? If I didn’t tell them, would my symptoms manifest themselves in a way that people would notice?
I had to do some self-reflection in terms of what was most important to me. I had put my career first and foremost up until that point, but now I had to take a step back and I decided that if I didn’t have my health, I couldn’t have a career. I decided to tell the CEO, my boss at the time, and he was nothing but supportive. My next challenge was to rethink and reengineer how I managed my professional life and put myself first and foremost, and my career second. I have had a clean bill of health since then.
Who is YOUR Fairygodboss? and Why?
I am proud to call Ann Fudge my Fairygodboss. Ann is the former Chairman and CEO of Young & Rubicam and is a trailblazer; she’s one of the first African American women to run a S&P 500 company. She has always provided me with sound career counsel. One thing I love about Ann is that she always tells me the good, bad and everything else in between. She has consistently been there for me whenever I needed her, and even when I didn’t. She genuinely cares about the well-being of those around her and helps me to be my best self.
What do you do when you're not working?
I enjoy reading, writing, spending time with my family, watching a good movie, or binge watching on Netflix.
If you could have dinner with one famous person—dead or alive—who would it be?
Maya Angelou. I sat on the board of the See Forever Foundation/Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools in DC for a few years. During that time, I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Angelou on a number of occasions. She was the epitome of grace and unflappable wisdom. She knew how to command a room and leave an indelible mark on every single person in that room once she left. She made you stand taller and walk with confidence if you were lacking in that area. I have NEVER met another human being like her. She was truly one of a kind.
What is your karaoke song?
"Respect" by Aretha Franklin.
What is your favorite movie?
The Color Purple.
What book would you bring with you on a desert island?
What is your shopping vice? What would you buy if you won the lottery?
I enjoy European luxury cars. If money were no object, I would buy a Bentley GT Convertible.
What is the #1 career tip you'd like to share with other women who want to have successful careers like you?
Don’t allow yourself to be paralyzed by fear. Take calculated risks to get what you want.
Why do you love where you work?
Our people are the heart of our business, and our ambition is to be the most inclusive and diverse company in the world. I’m proud that we have strong senior women at the top of our organization, including Ellyn Shook, our Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer, and Julie Sweet, our North America CEO. We’ve made important strides toward our goals, and while we're pleased with our progress, we're not satisfied. One of those goals is to get to 50 percent women and 50 percent men in our workforce by 2025. We're working hard with our leadership to drive innovative tactics and strategies, and I am confident we're on our way. The big 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, and how we build the teams that work with our clients.
Fairygodboss is all about women helping other women—so each week, we celebrate a woman who made a difference in another woman’s career. Is there a woman who has made a difference in your career? Celebrate her and thank her by nominating her here.