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Booz Allen’s Betty Thompson: Why Unflinching Courage is Critical

Betty Thompson is Booz Allen's chief personnel officer and a member of the firm’s Leadership Team. She joined the firm in 2008, bringing more than 20 years of experience directing human capital strategy and human resource functions for large corporations. As the head of Booz Allen’s people services, Thompson ensures that the organization has the best-in-class talent to solve the evolving needs of their clients. She is also instrumental in a creating a world-class employment experience for all of Booz Allen’s staff. Prior to joining the firm, she served as vice president of human resources for Fannie Mae and held several human resource leadership roles with IBM. She holds a master’s in human resources and personnel management from American University in Washington, DC.

Thompson will be a featured speaker at the i4cp 2018 Conference: Next Practices Now (March 26 - 29, 2018).

What are the one or two messages that you want our conference attendees to come away from your session with?

There are a couple of things. One would be that there really is a requirement to have unflinching courage as an HR professional.

This means a willingness to take a stand and take the risk of being wrong—having some conviction around what you think it's going to take in order for the organization to move forward and having people on the team who can do the same. It can't be up to just one person.

Sometimes the business needs to have somebody who's outside of the fray and not responsible for the P&L of that particular business to really drive them and give them the confidence to make the kinds of moves they need to make in order to keep up with the pace of change.

The pace of change is so extraordinary that if you're not able to be agile and you're not willing to have the courage to step forward into uncharted territory, I think you're doomed to either mediocrity or failure.

So as an HR professional, the importance of being willing to take a stand and take the risk of pushing what you think is going to be helpful to the business as it relates to the talent strategies that must be in place for an organization is key.

That would be one takeaway—the important role that HR professionals play in the change in the organization and the organization's ability to be agile—because there's inertia that sets in, particularly with successful organizations that think they can keep doing what they're doing and don't want to change—the "don't fix it if it's not broken" mindset.  The problem is that with the pace of change, it will be become broken or at least less effective than in the past.

I think this topic is especially timely with everything that's going on culturally, politically, and in the business world. With that in mind, can we talk a little bit about your organization's Vision 2020 growth strategy in the context of how you talk about courage to your 24,000 employees worldwide? How do you make sure that message really permeates your culture—is storytelling part of it?

Yes. We have embraced the notion of storytelling in different ways—whether it's through our CEO doing a video about the things that he's thinking about in terms of forward-looking for the organization, or at our monthly partner meeting—people get up and tell stories about a challenge they had, or an innovation they created or a mindset they were able to shift. We've been on this journey for a few years now and it started with our willingness to make some hard calls, which was certainly around unflinching courage, to create the ability to invest in our future.

We created a new organization with funds that otherwise would have been available to other parts of the business, so it meant sacrifices all around to invest in our Strategic Innovation Group and in an innovation agenda.

Talk about uncharted territory—there was no playbook. We had to create the future ourselves. We had to ask what it is that we believe is going to be required—what will our clients need--when our industry (the government industry) came out of a downturn. Since everything goes in cycles, we wanted to be poised for growth while others were still hunkering down and trying to survive.

Another area where we talk about unflinching courage is related to a wellness program, PowerUp, we created a few years ago that has dimensions around physical, financial, and emotional well-being. There was quite a debate for a while about having conversations about emotional wellness.

People really struggled with that in terms of getting out of their comfort zones. Again, around storytelling, we had some very senior people who were willing to share their stories about their struggles with emotional wellness. There are stories that people have shared about what they've had to deal with in terms of maybe a family member, but they have also shared stories about their own personal struggles with emotional wellness and the steps that they have taken. They were incredible and impactful stories that really opened up the dialogue.

I've had people come talk to me after some of these storytelling sessions to let me know that they had struggles and that they needed help with them. And they too want to be someone who can talk about this, once they are on the other side of it, and would be willing to do that. The conversations that we had made it possible for them to have the courage to step forward and ask for help.

Unflinching courage is one of our five official values. When we first rolled this out we talked about using unflinching courage as almost like a penalty flag—we've created the opportunity and a language for people to be able to “throw down a flag” when they need to.

For instance, a junior person who maybe wasn't certain about the way things were going, but also uncertain about how to speak up or ask a question—they could use that language. And you will hear people in our organization say "Okay, I'm going to use some unflinching courage here and ask a question that I otherwise wouldn't have." This enables people to speak truth to power. That is a way that we talk about all of our values. We use it as a new language in the firm to have these conversations that were harder to have without having that language.

Your organization has recently refreshed its core values—in addition to unflinching courage, what are the other four?

Passionate Service, which is around acting with empathy, embracing the mission of the client, making meaningful connections, and building community.

Champion's Heart, which is about bringing joy to the pursuit, and learning from failure and competing with passion.

Ferocious Integrity, which is about doing the right thing and holding yourself and others to a high standard, and then there's Collective Ingenuity, which is about being resourceful and creative, harnessing the power of diversity, collectiveness—being devoted to the team and being able to achieve more through the team.

Those sound very EQ—emotional intelligence-driven.

Exactly. And I will tell you that there were a few people who kind of cringed at the emotional part of the wording, but that was very deliberate on our part. It really resonates with 98 percent of the people and it just feels different. I talk to candidates about these all the time and they tell me that the way we talk about our values just lands differently than what they hear from other organizations.

Are you doing any measurement against your core values?

We are beginning to take measurements. We just completed our first employee experience survey [since the values launch] and it was to get a baseline of where we are with the experience our staff are having living our purpose and values, and we're just getting those results back, but the intention is to provide managers with an anonymous report that will allow them to figure out the areas they need to focus on. We will be using that going forward to not only see the progress we are making and where we need to be focused, but also enabling individuals to be able to do that.

Do you anticipate an uptick in retention, for example?

We actually have seen an uptick in retention in the last eighteen months. I won't tie it absolutely to the launch of our purpose and values, but we have seen our attrition go down and retention go up based in part, I believe, on the optimism that it creates to have our purpose and values clearly articulated and to demonstrate that we're holding people accountable for them. And the courage that we demonstrated in the investments that we made during the downturn—people are seeing those really paying off and the firm has returned to growth.

We already touched a little bit on the topic of the pace of change, which we know is something we're all grappling with as leaders, but what other critical challenges are business leaders facing?  

The pace of change is definitely one of them. But I think the biggest challenge is really the talent—attracting, retaining, and motivating the talent we have in our organizations. It's something that we focus on every day.  I think all organizations are challenged with having the talent they need to execute their business.

What's the one characteristic you believe a leader absolutely must have in order to be successful?

Not to be redundant, but I think it is unflinching courage. Because as a leader you have to be willing to take a stand. You must be willing to do what's right in the face of conflicting matters. You have to be willing to take a risk to get out in front of things and to really stand for something.

Did you face headwinds in your career trajectory because perhaps you were the only woman in the room literally and figuratively?

Yes, I did. I've been at this a long time, so, yes, I definitely had headwinds because of my gender. Actually, when I joined Booz Allen, I was often the only woman in the room. We didn't have any women on our board at the time. And prior to that at other organizations, there were always headwinds. Some of that was being heard, which I know resonates with a lot of women. You're in a meeting and you make a comment or offer a suggestion and you notice you're being talked over. And then the man sitting next to you says the exact same thing and gets the attention and response you didn't get.

I was very fortunate in that when I joined Booz Allen, the CEO, Ralph Schrader, was very conscious of being more inclusive, and needing more women's voices at the table, and he called people out on it. He'd say, "Wait a minute, time-out, I think Betty just said that." That set people back on their heels, in a good way.

The other thing is that when you're a woman, assumptions are made. I have four kids. They're all grown now, but as I was coming up through organizations, some people made assumptions about my level of commitment and willingness to go above and beyond. They didn't always verbalize those assumptions or let me know what they were thinking, but when you have children and you're a woman, people may assume things.

So those were some of the headwinds I faced on top of balancing all of those wonderful things too.

What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to senior leadership?

I know women are often reluctant to appear too ambitious. I encourage women to not be embarrassed or afraid of their own ambition. If they are not their own best advocate, no one else is going to be. And so, they need to own it and let people know what they want, what they're willing to do. But it shouldn't be something that women are reluctant to come forward with—whatever it is that they need from their organization.

What about calling out the “mansplaining”—you were fortunate that you had a leader who recognized it and was willing to call it what it was. But do you think it's wise for women to call it out themselves?

I think it depends on the setting. You could be seen as strong or you could be seen as whining because you didn't get heard.

I do think that it's important for us to look for advocates. I had a conversation with one of my male colleagues after the meeting [in which the CEO called out the mansplaining] about this. There are plenty of men who are women's advocates. So I sought out my colleague after the meeting to ask him to help me. The CEO wasn't going to be in every meeting. But my colleague was in a lot of the meetings I was in, and I asked him if he would help if he saw it happening. And he did.

You've got to ask for what you need. And part of that is finding men who can be supporters or sponsors who you can be really candid with in terms of what your experiences are and how they can help you. And I think when you get there, you have an obligation to support other women.

Looking back, who in your professional life really made all the difference or changed the course of things for you in some way?

There were quite a few in my career, but there's one that I always look back on—this was a long time ago, when I had my first child. He was sick, and I had him in daycare. I just felt like I was either not performing at work or not being a good mom and I was really torn. My husband and I decided that I was going to have to stop working. I just couldn't see any other alternative.

So, I went in and resigned and to my shock, my manager—who was a man—said "No, we're not going to let you do that. This is just a point in time for you. You need to take a step back, take some time, find the right daycare situation for your son, and let us help you with that.”

I was shocked. He didn't have to do that. It's not like I had some rare skills. But he was empathetic. So, I took some time off—paid time off—he said I could take as long as I needed, but I was able to resolve my situation in five days. I found the right childcare and got everything squared away.

And I stayed there at that job for a very long time after that thanks to him just saying "That's not the only answer."

Another time I was at a point my career when I had four kids, but I really felt like I was not going to progress the way I wanted to if I didn't go back to school and get my masters. A lot of people were really opposed to it and said things like "You can't do that -- you've got four kids and a career." But my aunt was very supportive. She said "Don't be silly. You can do this." And she not only was very supportive, but she also paid someone to come in and clean my house every week, which was incredibly helpful!

I've had other leaders who have given me the confidence that I needed when I didn't always have it. There were leaders who have pushed me and pulled me and given me stretch assignments that propelled me.

It makes me wonder how different your career may have been if that manager had said "Okay, Betty, I'll accept your resignation. Good luck and have a nice life."

I probably never would have re-entered the workforce.

What professional accomplishment are you the proudest of?

I am very proud of the work that I've done here at Booz Allen in driving diversity. Everyone here was very open to it, but we really weren't doing anything about it, so, it wasn't really changing.

A colleague of mine and I, nine years ago, stood up what we called a Woman's Agenda. There were no women on the leadership team, no women on our board. Today we have more women than men on our leadership team, we have three women on our board, we are very diverse in terms of ethnicity and backgrounds as well, and that didn't just happen. That was a real effort, very deliberate in terms of how we decided to drive that.

We have women now leading big portions of our business—three of our four major groups are led by women. I am very proud of the diversity of this firm and the efforts that we made and the very deliberate actions that we took to make that happen.

And I'm very proud of the emotional wellness initiative that I talked with you about earlier. I had to push my own team on that—they didn't want to be involved in those conversations at first. But I'm very proud that the firm was willing to step over that line and really engage in meaningful conversations around emotional wellness.

Suicide in this country is a real problem and particularly so for our veterans. That's one of the populations we serve, as about a third of our workforce is veterans. So that's an important topic—the notion of emotional wellness and being an organization that cares about the whole person. It means being willing to do the same thing for somebody who seems to be struggling with something emotionally as you would if they fell down and you're trying to pick them up because they have a physical ailment.

I’m also proud of the Ferocious Integrity we demonstrated a few years ago when we learned quite publicly that we didn’t handle something with the required rigor.  We stood up a disciplinary action committee that I chaired for a number of years in order to drive better decisions around related issues in the workplace.  This allowed us to be more consistent and thoughtful, but it was not easy because everybody likes to make their own decisions on these issues.

Last question: Describe yourself in one adjective.


Lorrie Lykins
Lorrie is i4cp's Vice President of Research. A thought leader, speaker, and researcher on the topic of gender equity, Lorrie has decades of experience in human capital research. Lorrie’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other renowned publications.