Leadership Lessons and Insights from Management Guru Dr. Indigo
Dr. Indigo of 4D Performance is a management consulting guru who works with companies and employees to empower their performances and overall market competitiveness. With over two decades of expertise in the field, she’s consulted with clients from the Pentagon to former army veterans, engaging and resonating with individuals at every stage of their career.
A charismatic speaker and leader who is known for her candour and transparency, Dr. Indigo is also the author of three career management books, based on her philosophy of playing by the “unwritten rules” in every workplace. Her latest title, Playing by the Unwritten Rules: Here is What I Think: This Is What I Know, will be available soon, as well as an upcoming show, “A Dialogue with Dr. Indigo” that will share more on her beliefs and journey from being a former US Marine Corps to earning her PhD, and relocating her business to Asia.
We speak with her and hear her frank thoughts on women’s leadership in Asia, diversity and inclusion as well as her greatest risks and passions.
HNW: What makes/defines a good leader?
Dr. Indigo: There are lofty definitions and a variety of explanations, but quite simply, good leadership is when others are willing to follow you. I also believe that the foundation of good leadership is based on the characteristics of authentic leadership, for sustainability.
Why is it important to see women and individuals of all race and backgrounds being represented in leadership positions?
Data shows that a diverse workforce and diverse leadership leads to increased profits. The presence of diversity enriches an organisation in culture, thought, cognition, leadership and communication styles, so on and so forth. This list is far from exhaustive, which is what diversity is all about—variances which can be leveraged.
Diversity deepens an organisation’s bench strength, because no single group, in ethnicity, gender, race, age and more, can be all things to all people, in any setting. You need people who can play to different strengths for different vantage points.
While there are strong and capable women leaders, why do you think that the progress and percentage of women in leadership still remain so little, in general?
There are many reasons for the success of women, as well as obstacles that prevent them from moving beyond the glass ceiling. I have a philosophy about ‘playing the game by the unwritten rules’. All over the world and in all organisations, there are rules captured in the employee manual to help an employee keep a job. Those rules women hold in high regard, but there are also unwritten rules that exist.
These rules unfortunately mirror those in sports, and there are many sports analogies lingering in the workplace, which is why success is often referred to as ‘playing the game’. And taking matters a step further, there are things leaders expect that women should know, holding her to the same expectations that men have for one another. Sometimes these rules can be biased or preferential, but at a minimum they must be understood, so we have the option of whether we will or will not adhere to it. It’s all about choices, and well, women don’t play the game well and very often don’t understand and/or are unwilling to play by the unwritten rules.
Women are consistently “underprepared” for taking on C-suite roles, because of their tendency to come from non-PNL background fields (PR, HR, marketing etc.) and lack of experience in line management roles. What are ways women can work to correct this, both at the start and mid-career?
I’m not going to say that such is completely accurate. There are many paths to the C-Suite—a financial background just cuts a clearer path. An easy way is to volunteer for the tough stuff and take courses on finance to understand it. Sometimes, we have to do what we don’t want to do, i.e. finance, sales, operations, etc. to get to what we want.
But the real issue is that women often hope that others will tap them on the shoulder for career progression, or hope that her boss sees her potential and bestows upon her opportunities and positions. But hope is not a strategy. Women must become strategic in how they manage their career, and acquire skills needed for leadership or future opportunities.
Is government intervention the most effective means of getting more women into C-Suite roles across Asia? How critical is regulatory support in aiding this cause?
I don’t believe in quotas per se, but some places and people simply don’t get it and need incentives to create opportunities for women. When policies dictate that you must have one of those, two of these and three of them… that is called “counting heads”. Asia must move beyond “counting heads” to making heads count.
So, if there are going to be regulations, they must be coupled with initiatives that provide women the knowledge, skills and abilities to be a success in these new roles or positions. Anything less will be setting her up for failure, leading to potential backlash and resistance.
How else can companies and society best work to increase the percentage of women in C-suite roles across companies in Asia?
I believe there is a three-prong reason for the disparity, which requires a three-prong solution. There must be societal changes, policy or regulation, and individual changes.
When I came to Asia I would open all my presentations here by saying that I believe Asia is primed to be the next financial powerhouse and global superpower. But there are some things that it must start doing, some things that should be continued, and some things that must be stopped, period. That applies to increasing the percentage of women in C-suite.
Asia needs to start seeing women as capable and essential to its success, which will be realised through more women being in C-suite roles. Mentoring and coaching programmes should continue to be offered, but they need to be offered by people who have been where these women are going, not by people who are of their equal or less. There must be a cadre of women and men who are willing and able to invest in women who desire to take up leadership reins.
And on an individual level, women must stop using certain cultural traditions as a crutch or rather excuse. Yes, humility and modesty are virtuous, but if a woman is unwilling to speak of her success and abilities, she may get overlooked by those who are willing to raise their hand.
The game is changing which means the rules have shifted. Being in the C-suite means glocal—global and local—competition and expectations that need a multi-tier solution.
Does equality necessarily mean fairness? What is your reply to those questioning having a gendered/minority perspective in hiring or policy-making?
Equality and fairness are not synonymous. Aristotle said that the worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal. Equality shouldn’t be our end game, but rather, inclusion based on diversity. To use the analogy of a track race, we can place everyone equally at the starting line, but if one group has no track shoes and its competition was given hundreds of years to prepare for this race, then it is not a fair race. Everyone is at the same mark, but it is not a fair race.
For something to work, there must be equality coupled with fairness. That means making sure women and minorities have “track shoes”, i.e. tools, proper training, a coach/mentor, etc. And inclusion means making sure they are placed in the race. We must also consider that any shift in power will be met with resistance, because some will feel that such is not fair to them. So then there has to be ‘unlearning’ and re-education on differences and inclusion, which is a process that cannot be achieved through a panel discussion or 1-day workshop.
There must be a programme on inclusivity that starts with the children, permeates society through mass media images, and is adopted as a culture within organisations. And that’s just a start! We have to change the hearts and minds of all.
What difference does better inclusion make?
Diversity already exists when there are two people in a room. The problem is inclusion. How does that impact the wage gap? If you have a bias whether conscious or unconscious, you may not believe that women should hold certain jobs, or that a woman will decide to stay home with a child versus continue with her career and so on. These are preconceived notions and thus, biases. Inclusion training will help people to identify areas of concern and give tools to address it. Then we can talk about giving women opportunities to develop new skills and abilities by assuming a variety of roles in the workplace. This can be accomplished through job sharing, rotations and different initiatives that I’ve implemented in US organisations. But, it cannot truly happen if biases exist in the hearts and minds of the power that be.
Gender, race, socio-economic backgrounds are some of the many factors affecting and determining existing wage gaps. What HR practices can be adopted by companies to ensure wider equity?
I’m going to go back to the woman’s role in this, as well. Women have to start negotiating for more when offered a position. If a company thinks it can offer a woman far less than her counterpart and accept it, then shame on us for not pushing back and negotiating. We have to take some accountability for our situation.
I have offended some women when I negotiate with them over my rates, because they are accustomed to expecting women to take less. We need to step up our game and support one another, and that requires fair compensation. If we don’t believe we should earn more, we will not minimise the wage gap. This is where courage comes in. Women have to have courage to speak the truth about her worth, and ask for what is fair and reasonable.
Do women lack courage in showcasing themselves?
Research shows that women will not put their hand up for certain jobs or opportunities that will lead to leadership because they may lack the confidence and/or courage. They may have confidence in their abilities but not the courage to show it. The same courage we show for our children when we believe they have been wronged, or for our aging parents who are mistreated, or a friend who needs to hear the truth, etc.—we need to apply to our career.
As someone who transcends potential barriers in gender and race, what are your thoughts and advice on challenging the status quo?
Funnily enough, I have on my online dating profile that I’m a contrarian. I challenge the status quo by not accepting most things as general truths.
Once, I was sitting in the waiting area of my client, which was the US Pentagon. Looking around the roped-off area, nearly everyone waiting for their escort were older white men. I laughed to myself thinking how they were probably there to sell weapons or similar, while I was there to sell help. I thought about that because in my role of helping organisations attract, develop and retain talent, I’ve often find myself in places where I do not look like those around me. It’s not about challenging the status quo but rather exceeding their expectations while being true to myself and understanding my purpose. In short, it’s not about them: it’s really about me, what I think of myself and bring to the table.
They don’t have to like my race, gender, age, or whatever, but they have to acknowledge my presence and what I have to offer. That is where your success is derived and how you supposedly challenge the status quo. Stop challenging and start just being.
Have you personally ever felt pressure to alter your behaviour/appearance as a woman or minority, in order to be perceived as a more credible candidate, professionally? What do you understand of such an experience?
Oh, yes. And I find that I still have to alter both my behavior and appearance today, because it is all part of the game.
When I was younger I wore nothing but Brooks Brothers suits because I was often at the table with men who dressed conservatively. I had been sexually harassed far too often, so I learnt to play down my sex appeal. Most recently, a potential client called me about a sales presentation that I was preparing to deliver. Before the call ended, I was asked if I had worked within a male-dominated organisation, as this was a shipping company experiencing significant issues out at sea. So I shared that I had served in the US Marine Corps, and as I was dressing to go to the meeting, I had a choice between wearing a pink or a purple shirt. I went with the purple one even though I wanted to wear the pink shirt—I hadn’t yet worn it and it was fresh and looked cute—because there are still stereotypes around gender and the colour pink, which is associated with softness and femininity.
The room that I would face could be filled with men who had unconscious biases that might prevent them from being able to see me, simply because of what I wore. I know I would be the same person regardless of what I wore, but why choose to risk a contract over that when I could easily wear something more neutral? Is this fair? No. But is it reality? Yes. We make choices. When I opted to secure certain contracts, I opted to abide by certain unwritten rules. Again, it’s a game that many women are either unaware of, or unwilling to play. But companies hire you for what you can do, and fire you for who you are.
I am not the same person at work, as who I am at home or at the rooftop bar. A company pays me to be what they need from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and I get to be what I want to be on my time. Is it really fair? No—but it is reality. Every organisation has a culture. It would be nice if we could be whoever we wanted to be, dress however we wanted to dress, and act however we wished, but I’m not sure an organisation could sustain accommodating every employee’s individual identity, and I’m not sure it should have to. And as a business owner, I’ve been on both sides of the coin.
In the course of your career, do you recall moments when you most felt the negative impacts of a gender divide? How did you navigate the situation, if so?
I’m 54 years old now, and all these are events which happened over 30 years ago, but still impact my career today. I was very young when I joined and worked in the US Marine Corps. Back then, there were men who still hated the idea of having women in the military. I experienced sexual harassment, which was traumatic, and there were things done and said to sabotage, embarrass and humiliate me. I heard men say things that made me wonder how they ate or kissed their moms with the same mouth. But those experiences toughened me up and made me stronger. In fact, they made me so hard that I had to work to soften myself, when I became a leader myself.
But, what helped me to navigate those situations then, is that I watched and listened to understand those men. What I learnt later allowed me to gain access to places women were not ordinarily invited into, because I earned their trust and respect by ‘speaking their language’. I was recently in a cigar speakeasy with a group of very affluent men. One of them began speaking candidly, before pausing to look over at me. My colleague assured him by saying, “She’s good”, and then I spoke in their language, which put everyone at ease. I’m often seen as one of the guys, and that is playing the game.
What is the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?
Getting a divorce about four years ago. I was married for 23 years and during that time, I was always afraid that I couldn’t take care of myself. But then I came to realise that my wasband (was my husband), worked as my company’s CFO. I had 50 employees in Georgia and another 50 in Washington D.C. I earned a great salary and different members of my family worked for me. So if I could pay everyone on my payroll, then why did I think that I couldn’t take care of myself? Fear! I was fearful that the young woman who had struggled and married a provider would fail. But, I didn’t see that the tables had turned, and that I had become the provider.
Then I feared being alone and not being loved. But, I realised that I was alone even when my wasband was around, and that I certainly didn’t feel loved. Knowing all these, I decided to give up a ‘cell-mate’ and hopefully find a soulmate instead. I asked for a divorce. It was risky because of the laws on communal property: I had to pay him ½ million US dollars, child support, and give him the house with all the furniture, and more. But, I survived. I started over and I’m okay. It gets better with time. That was a risky move and I lost a lot initially, but like stocks—the higher the risk, the greater the pay-off. And I believe that what drops has to eventually go back up.
What are you most passionate about?
My passion is investing in others, particularly women, through transformation coaching and speaking. My purpose is to help them discover their passion and to create a safe space for healing and growth. Many of us have gone through a lot, and each of us has a story. I listen to those stories and help bring clarity to what has happened, and what needs to happen for them to find their true north. I provide transformational coaching that allows women to recalibrate, reposition and rejuvenate through a holistic approach of career, family and self. And I feel that I was called at this very moment in time, to this very special place that is Asia, to do just this. It’s been a rewarding, incredible feeling and journey.
What is your personal motto in life underlying all your actions?
To listen to my inner voice, for it is God whispering to the soul. Many years ago, I heard God speak to me, and those words became my tagline. It was a message that led me to winning the award for having one of America’s Top 500 Fastest Growing Businesses (by Inc. Magazine), twice. I’ve learned to be still and listen for that voice which all of us have in us, for guidance, counseling and comfort.
Think about when you are lost and hear a voice inside that tells you to turn left. If you turn right, you go further off track, which is when you think to yourself that maybe you should have turned left instead. That’s when you hear the voice again, saying, I told you so. That voice is always with us and speaks to us. It has our highest and greatest good in mind, but we often don’t listen.
Women need to rely on that voice in the boardroom, in meetings, on projects at work. We’ve become so reliant on facts and figures instead of our intuition, or the gentle voice that will provide us with the right answers. If you are sitting in a meeting talking yourself out of wanting to share a thought, and that voice tells you to say something—then do it. Before someone else does and thwarts your presence.
What is your best piece of career advice to any woman?
Learn and play the game by the “unwritten rules”. One of the many aspects that I theorise on is the concept of resilience, because unfortunately, discrimination is something that is still practiced and condoned on the glocal stage.
People simply keep hoping the cavalry will show up. We have to realise that we are the cavalry in many cases. We’ve got to show up for ourselves—we are being called to truly fight for ourselves when it comes to issues of equality, justice, rights and more, in life and in the workplace. This requires resilience (“RQ”, or resilience quotient), which means being able to fight the good fight and bounce back from disappointments and failures. Resilience doesn’t mean you will not fail. In fact, it means that you will certainly fail, and it is what you do in those instances which will reveal whether or not you are resilient. Then I couple that with forgiveness and letting go, concepts that I emphasise in my upcoming book, Playing by the Unwritten Rules: Here is What I Think, This is What I Know.