Shonda Rhimes roundtable: What it really means to be a leader

“I look at everybody as if they have an opportunity to teach me something. Because they do,” says Shondaland founder, television visionary, and super boss Shonda Rhimes. As part of Shondaland and Microsoft’s partnership, we’re bringing inspiring women together for a series of roundtable discussions — a place where women of varied backgrounds can talk freely about business, staying passionate about what they do, and the challenges they face in their everyday lives.

In “The Language of Leadership,” the first of a two-part roundtable discussion (you can view the video here), Shonda hosts Valerie Jarrett, Mieko Kusano, and Chloe Arnold for a no-holds-barred conversation about being a great leader, creating positive corporate culture, and what it really means to challenge the status quo.

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“You’ve got to listen and let people know that you’re actually curious about what they have to say,” says Valerie Jarrett, who knows a thing or two about listening. As a longtime senior advisor to President Obama and his director of the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, Jarrett spent years navigating competing viewpoints and assisting in making the tough decisions that would benefit the most people. (And, of course, she worked for one of the greatest listeners to ever occupy the Oval Office.)

Listening is an attentive, inclusive leadership skill that’s crucial to fostering employee participation and investment in work — especially when your employees are women. It’s well-documented that in mixed groups, women speak far less than men, and are often interrupted or have their ideas repeated by men, who then get the credit. Female leaders can counter this by hiring more women, but as it stands, women comprise only 25 percent of executive- and senior-level officials and managers, and count for just six percent of CEOs (despite making up nearly half of the workforce in the U.S.).

“You’ve got to listen.”

As one of the few women leaders in tech-related industries, Mieko Kusano, senior director of Experience Strategy at Sonos, often sees the tangible benefits of having more women at the table, especially when it comes to sharing and supporting each other’s ideas.

“Other women pick up the thread,” Kusano says. “If you make a point and somebody else in the room says a followup point, rather than an interruption, you have a better forum to amplify your voice.”

It’s not just women who should be included — for office cultures to work most efficiently, they should be made up of as many diverse voices as possible. Not only is diversity good for morale, but it can also benefit a business’s bottom line. Studies have shown that ethnically and racially diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to have higher financial returns than those that are not. Because diversity isn’t just about checking boxes — a workplace thrives when its teams bring a wide range of experiences to their decision-making and goals.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Jarrett. “You don’t just want the smartest people, you want the best team — complementing skill sets, complementing life experiences, complementary perspectives. We found that sitting in a room with people who had very different perspectives and life experiences enhanced the decision making process.”

Once a leader builds the best team, a secondary challenge is earning that team’s trust. Effective leaders who listen to their employees, admit their own mistakes, and demonstrate their capability on a daily basis are more likely to be able to create a workplace that every employee, no matter their background, wants to invest in.

“Trust is such an important value — especially creatively.”

For Chloe Arnold, cofounder of the female tap dance band Syncopated Ladies, there would be no creative output without the investment and trust from each member of her team. The success of every dancer and the group as a whole is quite physically interconnected — if one dancer misses a step, whole formations might be thrown off. Cultivating belief in one another, and her as the group’s leader, is integral to the creative possibilities of the whole enterprise.

“Trust is a really important value,” Arnold says. “Especially creatively. If a dancer doesn’t feel like you trust them, then they’re gonna make decisions based around what they think you want. And that’s not innovative, and it’s not genuine or authentic.”

Whether you’re building a team of moving bodies onstage or around a conference room table, success — and its lifeblood, good leadership — comes back to listening and learning. More than company financial gains or industry accolades, the truest sign of successful leadership is building a workplace where employees feel safe to voice their most pie-in-the-sky notions, to challenge tradition, and to know that they’re inherently valued for their skills, ideas, and individualities.

“One of the real great strengths of leadership is learning how to listen,” says Jarrett. “And learn. And then give people the sense of empowerment that their opinion actually matters to you.”

This article first appeared on Shondaland.