The Future of Work Transcript: Women in Leadership—Overcoming Barriers

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Michelle Branner: Being a willing learner is a differentiation factor. Some people want to come in, put their head down, do their work. And then there's other people that say, hey, I want to know more. And those people are the tap on the shoulder. This person is interested. This person's a willing learner. I can mentor this person to do the next job.


Jill Finlayson: Welcome to The Future Of Work Podcast, brought to you by UC Berkeley Extension and the EDGE in Tech Initiative at UC. My name is Jill Finlayson and I'm the director of the EDGE in Tech Initiative for expanding diversity and gender equity in tech. Our podcast is going to look at the future of work.

Even before COVID-19 pandemic hit, the way we worked and the skills we needed to succeed in our respective fields was shifting. There was increased reliance on data to inform business decisions. Automation and algorithms are changing how hiring is done and creating some new jobs and making others redundant. There's a growing need to incorporate sustainability into everyday processes and the bottom line.

And COVID-19 hit and shut down the world and accelerated all of these changes. Racism and inequalities came to dominate every conversation. Companies grappled with DEI initiatives and engaged with a remote workforce in ways never thought possible. The way we work today looks drastically different from just a few years ago. What trends, skills, initiatives, and equity will we face in the years to come? Each month we talk with industry leaders in their fields to discuss the changing evolution of the workforce and the skills needed to stay competitive.

To kick off this podcast series, we are excited to have a conversation with Michelle Hector Branner. Michelle is an expert in helping people build leadership skills, create effective teams, and expand their emotional intelligence. She started climbing the corporate ladder in finance and later large tech firms and has been a small business leader. Now Michelle is teaching full time about workforce development, leadership, and making power moves, something we'll explore more today. Welcome, Michelle. What else would you like folks to know about you?

Michelle Branner: Thank you for that warm welcome, Jill. I am excited to be here today and really excited to just talk about the journey of tech, women, diversity, exploration, success. I'm truly excited and honored to be here today and to chat with you.

Jill Finlayson: Fantastic. Yeah, when we think about the future of work, this whole idea of continuous learning is coming up and people are changing careers a lot more often. So I thought maybe we could start by talking about your own career path. And how do you stay relevant and how has this influenced how you see reskilling and upskilling in the future?

Michelle Branner: Awesome. Well, my own journey, I started off in finance and really having a degree in psychology and studying people and always having this fascination with money and building and accumulating wealth and supporting others on doing that as well. I spent 14 years doing that and said, I want to do something different. And in that wanting to do something different, everybody was going into tech. And so why not me? And so with that, I was this sales manager in finance. I have this big people development. Went into tech leading teams.

And so my mantra is building and leading high performing teams. And so with that, that's what I did in that industry. And staying relative and relevant, relative and relevant, is really about studying. I am a super, super student. And so what does tech look like now? What was the past, the present, and what do they want to do in the future of tech? And so really understanding what that looked like and then positioning myself accordingly in that industry.

One of the things that is really big when leading teams in tech is humility. So I'm coming from outside of the industry. I'm not the super techie person. I wouldn't consider myself that. And understanding that the people that I'm leading are the subject matter experts. And so really learning from them and understanding. And that built a lot of trust and rapport with teams that I had to build or that I inherited.

And so I would say staying relevant in the field is understanding the future, understanding where it is, and understanding the future, and asking questions, positioning yourself accordingly with people and processes. And so you're in the right place in the right time. And that really, really supported actually both of my careers. And so it's something that when I'm leading people, whether it be as an instructor or leading people, is saying how do you position yourself accordingly and being relevant? Having answers and not being shy to ask questions to get answers that you don't know.

Jill Finlayson: That's fascinating. And you mentioned careers. You've had more than one career. When people used to think about work, they would think, oh, I've chosen this career. This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. How has that changed?

Michelle Branner: Oh yes. It's a conversation that I had to have with my parents. I was raised by baby boomers. You got a really good job. You went to school. You went to college. You got a really good job. You stayed there for 30 years and retired. You had a good retirement. And then here I am. And so how has that changed?

It's again, understanding your skill set. Tom Raff says you live within your strengths. Also that old saying that do something that you love and it doesn't feel like work. And so trying new things within your strengths and getting in a place that it doesn't feel like work. And so the third career is teaching. It doesn't feel like work. I absolutely love it. Training, development, helping, people reach their highest potential, not mine, but achieving their highest potential is something that I thrive for and I really find gratifying. So teaching has really gotten me there. In all of my careers, I've always had a training role or coaching. And so now as an instructor, I train, I coach, I develop every single day.

Jill Finalsyon: That's an important thing. So as we look at the data, the data shows that, first of all, career paths are less clear, less transparent. You're changing companies. You're changing jobs. So just being able to visualize a career is more difficult. And then the data also shows that some of the rungs on the ladder are kind of broken. Women have difficulty getting that first promotion, which has consequences all the way down and in lifetime earning. So when you think about your experience just in finance, and we can get to the tech company in a minute, how did you advance in your role and how did you feel comfortable and sustain yourself in the role in places where maybe you weren't seen or respected in the way that you should have been?

Michelle Branner: Absolutely. Well, I'm driving this in here, but I'm doing research about-- I'm working on a doctorate. And with that, the topic is sustainability in executive roles. And when you're talking about climbing the corporate ladder, it's the networking positionality and being ready-- being great and what you do currently. So being great in your own job and then learning the next job. And with that, you might not necessarily know what it is, but it's having those transformative skills.
And so I'll take it back a little bit and talk about education. Doing trainings, taking courses. The Extension is amazing for offering certificates in leadership, offering classes on skill building, whether it be leadership, and I'm staying in the leadership forum because that's what I teach at Extension, but making power moves.

So how do you pivot? And I use the word pivot. But how do you power and influence? How do you make a difference in who you are in the position that you are? And so really having people understand that you can be a leader and whatever role you are in. And so that promotability happens because you are going above and beyond. So in your role, you can do your bare minimum. You can do a great job. But what extra task are you doing?

And with that, talking to your leader about that. Being transparent to your leader on I want to do more. Are there any special projects to do? So raising your hand to do more and asking maybe in a global setting, not I want to do this, but are there any special projects that I can do to enhance my skill set? Leaders absolutely love that. That will create positions for you. And that happened to me in finance quite often that positions were created for me.

And so I think about I worked at Citibank for seven years. I had six different job titles in seven years and ran a region for four years. So if you think about six different job titles within three to four years, they were special projects. And being tapped on the shoulder because I was like, I can do that. Or I'm interested in doing more. And being open and honest and transparent about what you'd like to do next will foster opportunity for you.

Jill Finlayson: So let's break that down a little bit. When you say power, what do you actually mean by power and what is exactly a power move?

Michelle Branner: [Laughs] That's fully loaded. But yes, power, making power moves is, one, having the tenacity and the courage to do something outside of your box. And I forget who in my research, one of my participants said be courageous enough to step outside of your comfort zone. So that's part of the power.

The other power is coaching the coach. And so I teach that in a separate course and teach it within some of the courses I teach at Extension. But coaching the coach. So you're speaking with your leader on, one, your strengths, two, what you'd like to do next, and three, a career path or trajectory on timeline on what this looks like. So you're actually working with your leader to set up your career path. And it might not be a leader.

Other power moves are skip level conversations. So above your boss's boss or your leader's leader. That's a power move. I coach students all the time to use their education to open doors for them. I'm working on a certificate in leadership. Last night, I learned. And so I really share with students, take these activities back to your team. Whether you are leading a team or you're a part of a team, take these activities back. That's a power move. It might be an emotional intelligence exercise. It might be a team building exercise. But taking that. Those are power moves. It's creating your differentiation factor and being bold about it.

Jill Finlayson: And how do you get that shoulder tap? What is the power move that makes you seen?

Michelle Branner: Being a willing learner is a differentiation factor. Some people want to come in, put their head down, do their work. And then there's other people that say, hey, I want to know more. And those people are the tap on the shoulder. This person is interesting. This person's a willing learner. I can mentor this person to do the next job.

Jill Finlayson: And how can you have more influence if, for example, you are a super junior employee or if you are more of an introvert? How can you have that upward influence that you're talking about?

Michelle Branner: The introverts, that's stepping outside of your comfort zone and not being overshadowed by the extroverts. And the introverts, the special projects are really their cup of tea. You can sit down, put your head down, knock out a special project out of the park. You don't have to do any speaking engagements. And you can get recognized.

The other thing I say to the introverts is to start to raise your hand to speak, to be present in the room. Not only bringing your chair to the table but having a presence. And that's not to speak all the time, because the extroverts do that. It's being strategic about the questions or what you bring up. How do you leave an impression?

Jill Finlayson: Absolutely. When companies, what is their role in this? You mentioned networking and how important networking is. But some people come in with disproportionate networks. What is the role of the company to help level the playing field?

Michelle Branner: I love that question. It's being honest about diversity, equity, and inclusion. So that's such a buzz phrase right now. And really owning that. And so having people in your company be the mentor. It is really awkward sometimes to have a panel of mentors that look nothing like the workforce that is the mentee. And so diversifying the mentors, which might mean that the company needs to invest in a mentor program, because everybody isn't born to be a mentor. And mentor is wide open. So what does that mean? What does that look like?

Also I have really enjoyed as being a mentor and a mentee being paired. So there's something in common. That from a company standpoint is amazing. And they have the power to do that. So you and your mentee, do they look alike? There's commonalities. There's a career paths. There's education. So it doesn't have to have a puzzle piece of connection. But really being intentional about connecting mentors and mentees.

I love companies that have mentor programs and when they do them well. One of the tech companies I work for was phenomenal in that where they sent people away-- the mentors away to be trained. They put the mentees through a structured program that had enough flexibility to make it your own. And it was really successful.

Jill Finlayson: Well, let's talk about tech companies, because tech companies do have a bad rap, somewhat deserved, because of the ratios and the participation in their employee workforce. What was your experience in the tech space? And what was good about it, what was hard about it?

Michelle Branner: I'll always talk about what went well. I should actually talk about the hard stuff first so we can end on a more positive note. What went well? I was brought into the industry by a woman and she was really excited. I was going to say I was an MBA at the time, but I have an MBA. And she was a newer MBA and was really excited. Her and I had these great connection points with me having so much more experience than her, but her having the leadership role.

That happens to me often. And so she was really intentional about diversifying mid-level managers. There were a lot of males. She was the leader. And so she brought me in and said, yes, here's my first piece of diversification. And I checked a lot of different boxes. I'm a woman. I'm a Black woman. I mean, she really, really was intentional. With that, I came in, inherited a new team.

And what she didn't do well was acclimate me to the new industry. What she did do well was position me so I got exposure. With that, I realized that I had some gaps where I was like, ooh, I'm coming from small business. I have this a long career in finance. Finance, really buttoned up. Techs, a lot more relaxed. I had to drop the suit jacket, put on the slacks. If I wore a jacket, it had to be a separate.

So really acclimating me to that. Lots and lots of structure in finance. And then you have tech that is kind of make it up as you go. We're going to wing it. And as I had no problem with that, I was like, where are the rules? Where are the structure? Because I'm coming from a really structured environment. And so I had to figure that out on my own where I wanted structure because that's what I was used to and they were like, no. In order to be successful, you have to think outside the box. I was like, that's all you had to say.

I have a box and it continues to get bigger and bigger and bigger. Once I realized that there was creativity that-- my own creativity that I could use to be successful and that it was OK, I jumped out of the gate and flew with major success. And it intimidated her where she was like, whoa, she's moving quickly. And so at some point, she kept her space for me. And I felt that in a lot of different realms when I worked in tech where I figured it out and I had great success.

So I ended up leaving that one because they didn't make my life favorable, no matter how well I performed. There was always something wrong. And I'm like, let the numbers speak for themselves. Left that company to go to another big tech company. And I'm 40. So I'm thinking, I got to land and stay here forever. I'm aging. I have to stay here forever. And I'm thinking this. More gray hair. I'm like, this is really my philosophy.

So I jump in. I do almost the exact same thing. I inherit a team. I'm high performing. I end up getting tapped on the shoulder to lead a mentor program six months into my career here. I get an opportunity a year later to have an interim position where I'm managing 150 people. So I had a small team of 15. Now it's 150. There's a territory. I'm doing great. I'm market manager of the year. And my boss is behind me building corruption. I'm like, whoa, here we go again. And there's nothing that can stop me.

Needless to say, I left again. I'm like, I just, if I'm not welcome here, I'm not going to be here. The coolest thing, I mean, now I'm on the road to 50 and opportunities are endless. So I must say that that age thing doesn't exist and I'm really happy it doesn't. But with that, I had these really phenomenal journeys with both companies and neither company celebrating the success. And that to me was a little heartbreaking, because I came in, I figured it out. I think outside of the box.

Because I'm from finance, it was always ethical and done completely right. Because of finance and because I have really strong core values. Let me not forget that or leave that out. But it was like, who does she think she is? And I foster education all the time, not because I'm a professor, not because I have lots of education, but because it works and because I studied to be better. It wasn't valued in tech.

Jill Finlayson: I think that's an important point, to celebrate small wins to acknowledge people's contributions is really key. But you also raised something that I think is really critical, which is this unwritten rules. There are all these things that aren't necessarily information asymmetries, which is available to some people but not to others. What has been kind of your experience or maybe your advice for code switching and addressing inequities? How do you make the best environment for yourself?

Michelle Branner: Wow, I had a conversation about code switching. I think code switching is totally necessary. And definitely from a standpoint of being Black, people are kind of shocked that you come out highly intelligent over the phone. I am mistaken not to be Black. [Laughs]

Which is I think hilarious. And that's happened throughout my career, I've had a phone interview. I come in in person. They're like, you don't look how you sound. Or I didn't expect you to look like that. I'm like, oh, that's interesting. And this is my primary voice. So my code switching tips into other symmetries when I need to as needed. And you meet people where they are. And so because I can meet at the highest power, that becomes intimidating. And also I coach individuals all the time, you have to be effective in your code switching and it has to be natural. And how do you do that, you practice. You practice. And for some people, it comes natural.

Growing up in Oakland, I lived in San Francisco, and I lived in Oakland in a more prominent area. I lived in the city in a not so prominent area. And so my code switching is natural because I've had life experience. With that being said, it's opened the doors for me. I get the speaking engagement, which is that special project, at the big meetings, because people enjoy for me to talk. [Laughs]

So code switching is necessary for success.

Jill Finlayson: So for those who aren't familiar with it, what is code switching and isn't that extra work? Isn't that emotional labor and a burden that we're placing on some folks?

Michelle Branner: Well, depending on how high you want to climb up the ladder. So is it necessary when you work in a back office and a cube and you have internal coworkers and they know you really well? No. No. So as you climb-- well, let me go back defining code switching.

My layman's term is code switching is meeting people where they are through verbal contexts. So that's my layman's term. I could pull out a definition. But with that, I think that's the best way to describe it.

So as you move up the ladder, you want to ensure that you can communicate at all levels. You can catch people. So in your proper tone, I'll call it, you can connect with the CEO to the folks in the cube. And that you want to reach as many people in a contextual standpoint and be able to connect with them. Now, when we're at the senior home, do I need to use language and articulate as much as I need to? Absolutely not. Absolutely not. So meeting people where they are at all standpoints.
Barack Obama does it great. Michelle Obama does it great. They're on the South Side of Chicago, they speak one way. I'm standing at the podium addressing America, I'm speaking another way. So meeting people where they are. It is a necessity in order to be a good salesperson, people connect, or building trust, you have to meet people where they are. And meeting people where they are is code switching. So that could be using proper language, big words, articulating fancy phrases, to not using so much. And people connection, it's necessary.

Jill Finlayson: Yeah. I'm sorry that that happens that people are surprised. They shouldn't be surprised. I always tell people assume up. If you don't know someone's role, assume they're the president. You're not going to hurt anybody's feeling if you do that. So I think that that's really key.

Well, kind of wrapping up here and thinking about the future of work, I'm thinking now what are the types of leaders that we need and what are the attributes of leaders that we need to make the future of work better, more inclusive, more effective? What are the key things that you see as needing to develop in all of our employees?

Michelle Branner: I would say a flexible leader, a courageous leader, a leader that doesn't need to be on the front at all times. I really, really, really love a leader that says, I want to put you out there. The courageous leader to think outside of the box. One of the things that I think that teams, companies with the pandemic, the flexible leaders, the courageous leaders are the leaders in the companies and the teams that have been most successful.

Allowing people to work from home, allowing people to work four tens, allowing people to get work done on their own time. And I must say that I believe that companies, people, processes have been more effective and more productive because of the flexibility, being courageous to try new things, try something different, allowing the team to articulate what is best. I love a leader that allows that autonomy, the democratic leader. How should we do this? We need more of those.

What happens in tech sometimes is the dictator and says do this or the pace setter. It's got to be done at this time. Go, go, go. And that's not always most effective with teams. And it's effective for short term. So really allowing for flexibility I think is so, so important. And just that think outside of the box. As leaders, it's not doing A, B, C. It could be F, A, B, C, and D. But how are we most effective on getting things done and being open to doing things differently? I think those are the best leaders in all facets.

Jill Finlayson: Yeah, I love everything you said there. And this idea that we need a different type of leader. This is an actual opportunity where we're rebooting how we do work and what are the rules? Which rules didn't work in the first place? How might we have different rules going forward? And really addressing ways to incorporate and bring everybody in so they can bring their true selves.

I know your next course coming up is Power And Influence In Organizations. And so this idea that power doesn't just reside at the top. This idea of the type of influence you can have and how we can all contribute to making better organizations. And I also took away your point about continuing education. I think you once said once a teacher, always a student. I think that's a great way of looking at this idea for the future of work.

Your skills become perishable, so your real skill is being able to learn new things, to be able to keep relevant, as you said. I know that there are amazing technology and information management certificates and boot camps. All of these things help you to get that shoulder tap that you were talking about, which I think is so key. So yeah, I'll just leave it with you if you have any final remarks that you think our audience should be thinking about as they look toward the future of their own job and the future of work.

Michelle Branner: I think about when you were speaking, Jill, I think about baby boomers in the beginning of the pandemic going to buy technology to communicate with family and friends and really being open to that and kind of being forced into it. But with that, getting a smartphone or tablet and hopping on technology and connecting with their children and grandchildren and having joy as we're stuck in the house. And so that was the first thing I thought about when I heard you say continue to learn, continue to grow.

My grandmother passed away at 93 and she said, when you stop learning, you die. And every single day she wanted to know more and she studied. And she was big on education and that's why all of us have so much education. But with that, just understanding that knowledge is power. And I'm being cliche. But I love that. I've lived in it.

I watched as a kid, what was it, Conjunction Junction and knowledge is power was part of that. I'm totally telling my age. But with that, it's just to continue to learn and grow. And learning and growing is not necessarily taking a class. That's what's amazing. Or getting a degree or even a certificate. It could be the one class. I love teaching, because I learn as much from students as I do hopefully that they learn from me. And so it is a reciprocation of learning every single day.

I have children. I learn from them. Growing up, it was like, do as I say, do not as I do. And with my children, they're like, we should do it this way. Let's try it. And so always having this mind to learn at every single moment in life allows for us to foster. And I think grow as individuals and a community, which I think is so important. And so always learning and growing in everything we do is so important.

And that transformation happens not only in our personal life but it happens to transfer to our professional life. So the skills that I teach in class, I'm like, yeah, you could try this at home. And so that growth not only helps you professionally but personally, which I think is always great.

Jill Finlayson: That huge benefit of just being curious and how that opens up all those doors. Thank you, Michelle. I really appreciate you joining the podcast on The Future Of Work and we look forward to having more conversations like this. Thank you for joining us.

Michelle Branner: Thank you so much. I appreciate you, Jill. It's been great.

Jill Finlayson: And with that, I hope you enjoyed this first in a long series of podcasts that we'll be sending your way every month. Please share with friends and colleagues who may be interested in taking this future of work journey with us. Thanks so much for listening, and I'll be back next month to talk about diversity in STEM with Dr. Monica Ranes-Goldberg. Signing off.