Slalom’s newest board member shares insights on building diverse leadership teams, the power of sponsorship, and the lessons she learned as the only woman in the room.

 

Deanna Oppenheimer is recognized globally as an influential leader in financial services. Having served in top positions at Barclays, Washington Mutual, Inc., and other organizations, she’s known for her ability to transform entrenched institutions into forward-thinking, customer-focused champions. Deanna currently chairs the board of Hargreaves Lansdown (London Stock Exchange), sits on the board of Thomson Reuters (Canadian and New York Stock Exchanges), and runs BoardReady.io, a non-profit she founded to accelerate the diversification of governing boards in the US.

She shared her perspectives with us as she joins the Slalom board.

What do organizations need to understand about the value of a diverse board?

This is a real passion of mine, and it’s a passion because the stats are solid and time-tested. Diverse boards make better decisions. They have better performance through challenging times. They have better returns on capital. They have more profits over time.

Through the pandemic, diverse boards performed better than non-diverse boards. When you have diversity of thought and you’re going into uncertain and unknown times, you make better decisions because you don’t get caught in groupthink. Diversity comes in a variety of shapes and forms, but what’s important is that you don’t surround yourself with people who are just like you.

How do you see Slalom, or any organization, best supporting current and future leaders—especially those from underrepresented groups?

As a woman from a small farm town in Idaho who became an international banker and then board member, what helped me rise up? I think the factors are the same today. One is a sponsor. Mentors are important as well—somebody giving you advice and counsel—but a sponsor is someone in a senior position who takes you under their wing and gives you opportunities that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to access on your own. They put you in roles and places that you wouldn’t normally be. I always say you have to take a chance and give a chance. So if you’re coming up, you’ve got to take a chance. Go for that job, that opportunity. Step out and try it. And if you’re successful in those areas, you’ve got to give someone a chance. You’ve got to bring somebody else along. That’s how you grow leaders. You grow them by giving.

Throughout your career you’ve often been the only woman in the room. How have you navigated that, and what have you learned?

I’ve been the only woman many, many times. The only young woman, the only pregnant woman.

First, you need to listen a lot to really hear and understand so you can be most valuable when you join in the conversation. When you add a few relevant, targeted points, people will ask for more. That’s my first piece of advice. The second is that humor—authentic humor—can make people feel comfortable. Third, ask someone to share something that is important to them in their personal lives—this can often help a group find shared experiences and appreciate each other. Recently, one board discussed grandchildren. Sometimes it’s been celebrating American football or, in my UK working groups, proper football!

Also, these are suggestions I’d give to anyone who is developing their personal leadership skills.

Have there been times when you’ve had to really come out strong, to “bring the thunder,” so to say?

Oh, yeah. Definitely.

How do you choose your moments?

Well, first off, you choose your moments. If you’re doing that all the time, it doesn’t work. If you have a thoughtful approach where you’re saying things that are insightful and relevant, and then you choose to really make a point, it lands on receptive ears. If you’re shouting from the beginning, it just doesn’t work. I also saw that when raising my kids! Be thoughtful and deliberate in how you land messaging and what the messaging is.

How has your understanding of diversity and equity evolved through your career? Have there been any big aha moments for you?

Well, there are two ways you can do it. You can do it inside out, or outside in. What’s happening now on corporate boards in the US and North America is they’re getting strongly encouraged by investors to diversify their boards. And that’s because of all of the reasons I talked about earlier. Diverse boards make better decisions, make more money, have more achievements, and have more sustainability. That’s an outside pressure coming in and causing people to look at diversity.

The best diversity efforts are when you have people inside asking things like, are we getting blindsided by things? What should we know more about, in our world or our business? What kinds of skills and people do we need to bring on to represent a diverse client base, a diverse world? But not all companies are led by insightful leaders. Sometimes you need a combination of the inside out and the outside coming in.

Is there anything unique or transformational that you’ve seen an organization doing recently to improve inclusion, diversity, or equity? Any kind of models or examples that are inspiring for you?

Yes. I think the focus on ethnicity is interesting. I was recently talking about this to a fellow board member of another organization. She’s a woman of color and spoke about how people say we’re going to get ethnic diversity like we got gender diversity, but we need to be careful. Because it’s different. We interact with other genders regularly and have relationships with them. There’s familiarity there. With ethnicity, a lot of times people would not have interacted with every ethnicity. So the same solutions that help you understand how you diversify gender might not work for ethnicity. You need to take a different lens on it. I thought that was really insightful.

An example of an organization doing great work is Hargreaves Lansdown, a company in the UK that’s headquartered in Bristol. Bristol has great universities and a big tech scene but also, some real poverty and underprivileged areas. The mayor of Bristol asked us to help address equity, so together we're building a Black apprentice program hoping to enable 10,000 youth to pursue business. It’s a big goal and very promising.

What would you say to a young person starting out in their career about the path to leadership?

You really can be anything you want to be. Don’t put limitations on yourself. I grew up in a town that had 1,700 people and no stoplights. There were 61 people in my graduating class, and very few of us went to university. So there really are opportunities to do what you set your sights on. To do that, though, you have to take responsibility and accountability. That means looking for opportunities where you can step in and make a difference. People often say, “That’s not my job,” or “I don’t have to do that,” or “I don’t want to do that.” And maybe you don’t. But some of the best opportunities I got were by stepping in and helping when it was not a part of my job.

Do you have a superpower?

I can sleep anywhere. I can sleep on an airplane which is really good because I do a lot of international travel. I can sleep on a tube going five stops and know to wake up at the stop that I need to go to. That means I don’t get a lot of jetlag, which is proven to be really good. I don’t know if that’s a superpower, but it really comes in handy when you have to operate among multiple times zones.