Michelle Peluso is a CMO, CEO, Founder, board member, and mother of two. On August 21, Michelle stood in front of Stern’s more than 400 incoming MBA students and implored the future business leaders to exhibit empathy and to appreciate the benefits of diversity in the workplace. LAUNCH welcomed the incoming full-time MBA class to Stern, got them comfortable working on challenging problems in small groups—a skill set they will continue to hone over their time at Stern—and provided a five-day teaser of their full MBA experience.
During the first day of orientation, Peluso shared a handful of experiences that highlighted what leadership means to her and how her leadership style has evolved throughout her career. From her time as a White House Fellow, to founding her own business and leading it through an acquisition, to managing her team through the tragedy of 9/11, and to learning the importance of staying customer-centric in the face of adversity, Peluso has been a model of inclusive leadership. To demonstrate her meaning of leadership, Peluso shared a past discussion with the former Secretary of Labor from the Clinton Administration, Alexis Herman. Herman told Peluso that a great cabinet secretary must not only keep the lid on many pots of the boiling water, but must also proactively set a course of action that will get the team moving toward an end goal, while making sure that daily tasks get done. Most importantly, great leaders align their time and the time of those around them with their vision for the future.
Peluso explained that great leaders bring their authentic self to work and encourage others to do the same. For her, this means staying grounded and keeping her priorities in order, especially in her role as a mother. SWIB co-President Maddie Scheler, who introduced Peluso as the keynote speaker, was especially impressed with her message, saying that “Michelle is the epitome of grit and grace. She makes clear that motherhood is her number one priority, while gracefully balancing work, leadership and self-care.” Another leadership priority for Peluso is promoting diversity and inclusion. Speaking specifically about the inclusion of women in the workplace, she stressed that it is up to each and every future business leader (regardless of gender) to execute on that priority.
After her speech, Peluso sat down with Scheler and the Oppy to discuss the importance of fostering diversity and creating an inclusive environment in the workspace.
Maddie Scheler (MS): You spoke to the incoming MBAs about the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion in the workforce, but also about the challenges they will face attempting to execute on those practices. At Stern, we talk a lot about the importance for leaders to create inclusive workplaces. Can you share some ways you’ve approached fostering an inclusive culture?
Michelle Peluso (MP): Every organization needs to understand and use their data to quickly identify where their challenges are, be it recruiting and retaining women, promoting women, etc. Understanding where your organization should focus its energy and effort is super critical, as once you’ve identified that there are well-practiced policies to address those challenges and overcome the challenges your business is facing.
MS: How difficult it is for some to address some of those challenges in the moment?
MP: Part of the journey is recognizing that everyone can do and say the wrong thing, but it is important that they recognize their mistake and adjust. It is a tough topic to discuss and come to grips with, but encouraging people to be active listeners and strive for continuous improvement is important. If the timing is not appropriate to have a conversation in a certain instance, there are other ways to encourage inclusive thought. A few years ago The Washington Post ran a story about women in the Obama administration who would consciously echo each other’s thoughts and give credit where credit was due to strengthen their voices in order to graciously and thoughtfully address having their ideas co-opted.
MS: At Stern, we try to put the onus for inclusivity on everyone through strong allyship. What advice do you have to help men, in this instance, be great allies for women?
MP: I think transparency in data is important—some men accomplish allyship with diverse teams and leadership groups. Celebrating those who are great allies is important to give people something to aspire to. What they’ve done and how they’ve done it, what they’ve struggled with and highlighting the successes as well as stumbling blocks to humanize them and the diversity initiatives they’ve championed. Show that if you do care and do want to make a difference, you’ll have fits and starts but it is easier to do with the technology and information we have at hand.
MS: Stern Women and Business and the Stern Partners club recently joined together to host a Power Couple Speaker Series to do essentially that—highlight those partners who are great allies. Can you talk about how you and your husband support one another’s careers and aspirations?
MP: My husband is a lawyer and we’ve worked together over the last 25 years to balance our personal and professional lives. We’re both in it together and we both make sure each other knows that. He grounds me and keeps me honest. On another note, we actually brought that concept to IBM after one of our Stern alumni sat in on the panel and told us about it! It went over very well, and we are planning on having another similar panel this year with the team.
After their discussion, Maddie summarized what many in the audience felt by saying, “Michelle is a role model who represents the idea that we can be both successful and a champion for others. In that vein, Michelle stressed that the pressure for equality in the workplace should not only be on women and minorities but on men—and ALL allies—so that together we can move the needle on the change we want to see.” As we LAUNCH into the 2018–2019 year, let all Stern students take Peluso’s message forward and make Stern and our future workplace more inclusive environments.