Remarks at Citibank Women Leaders Event

Ambassador Bell answers questions in the Question and Answer session. (photo courtesy of Citibank)
Ambassador Bell answers questions in the Question and Answer session.

Thank you very much, Aftab.  Good morning, everyone, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you.  When I heard about this event, I jumped at the chance to talk to a group very important to me both personally and professionally – namely all the women leaders here today.

It’s an honor to be here among you.  Happy Women’s History Month, everyone.

I am interested in sharing some thoughts with you about my own experience as a woman executive and a woman public servant.  My experience may not be a typical one, but then, I realized, as I was preparing these remarks – women’s experiences in the workplace are usually far from typical.  Women in the workplace really don’t do typical.

We do not do typical.  We are the ones who, because of the multiple demands on us, often have to find our own way.  And that’s a great thing:  we women regularly reinvent the typical.  That fact is really why I am so inspired by women’s leadership – not just because it helps women, but because it helps everyone, to redefine and to honor what we really mean by “productivity“ — by “progress,”  by “success,” by “family, “ and by “work-life balance.”  We have all that in our hands.

I have four children, and I have a career, and I have a rich personal life full of friends.   My path has not been a straight line, and not always what I expected, but here’s the paradox for us all – it’s the obstacles along the way, or what looked at first like obstacles, that actually made my story possible.  In business and in leadership circles, we often think of a career path as linear, like a conveyor belt moving us along.  I’m pretty sure that the conveyor belt doesn’t help anyone.  If we are hard-working, creative, and smart, it is the “detours” that make our success.

You may know that I studied international relations, and it was always my intention to pursue a career in public service.  After I married, my husband and I moved to Hollywood, and I began working as an executive producer in television.  That was not according to my initial plan, but I loved it, and our company did well.  Along the way, my four children were born.  It’s my children who can take the credit for some of the best changes I made in my career.

After Charlotte, my third child, came along, the soap opera business was in the middle of a rough period, and every studio was looking for ways to cut costs.  We were no different.  We made the business decision to consolidate shooting days at the studio – spending more hours per day shooting, but fewer days overall, to save money and marshal our resources.   And here is the unexpected result of that business decision – it allowed employees, both women and men, the opportunity to job-share, and to have flex time, in ways they hadn’t had before.  You can imagine how popular this became for women with families.  I know, because I was one of them.  I changed my own position to be a job-shared one.  My family got more of me, as a result, and the studio still got my best work – but just on terms that were truly family friendly, so I did both things better.

We are all here today not just as women who are in the workplace, but here, today, as a group of women leaders who have the ability to shape our workplace.  Our task has to be to find the creative, non-typical solutions – to let employees to find the right balance between work and family life in a way that also makes solid sense for the business.  It’s possible.  My example is one of many.

Here’s another example of how I found my path in unexpected ways, and in ways that weren’t according to plan.  When Oliver, my youngest, was born, I made the decision to take leave from my work at the studio.  It wasn’t just because of Oliver – it was because of me, and my sense of balance between work and family.  To be honest, I didn’t know exactly what I would do while I was on leave – I only knew I wanted a change for my family and for myself.  It was during those months that opportunities came my way that inspired me, and transformed my plans – once again, by reinventing what is typical.  I became involved in the Natural Resources Defense Council, a group that advocates for environmental protection measures.  Through them, I began working in political advocacy, and one day a not so long ago, I had a meeting with a freshman Senator from Illinois, who was trying to learn more about environmental issues in the midst of his very industrialized district.  That new Senator was Barack Obama, in the early days of his service in Congress.   I told my colleagues when we walked out of that meeting:  – “One day, that man is going to be President.”   You know the rest of that story.  The point is that my productive relationship with the President wasn’t according to plan – if I had not taken time off from my career as a producer, I would not have been in the right place to meet  him, to support him, to campaign for him, and to serve with him.  And as a result of this relationship, I am honored to serve as President Obama’s personal representative here in Hungary.  As U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, I have come full circle, back to my original focus on international relations and politics.

I am also proud that my path is not typical.  My path wasn’t linear, but throughout all the changes in my career, I took advantage of the unexpected opportunities that came from these “non-typical” choices and experiences.   It gives me courage – and as Michelle Obama says, courage can be contagious.

Something that made all this possible for me is something I want to touch on briefly this morning – something that’s critical to all of us here.  Whatever our job, our position, our family situation, it’s our network of support that makes it possible, and we owe that network a big debt.  This is Women’s History Month, and for me, it is a moment to acknowledge what women do for women every day, and how much we are tied together.

You may know of the American journalist Cokie Roberts in Washington, DC – she has covered the political scene there for several decades for National Public Radio, and she recently gave an interview.  A couple of things in her interview caught my eye.  One, she admitted that those pioneering years — when she was filing her stories while raising young kids — were the toughest she ever faced.   She said when she thinks about it today, she still gets a knot in her stomach, remembering the daily challenges of family and career.  Two, Cokie was very honest about how the men in her office treated her and her colleagues in those days – one man even called the office space the women shared “the fallopian jungle.”   Three, Cokie got where she was because she had the help of other women.  She says, “There’s no way I could have got through those years without my female friends. We had — and have — each other’s backs.  We are really proud of the fact that we go to bat (and sometimes almost use a bat) for some of the other women at [our office].”

I loved her comments, because I recognize all these experiences.  Raising kids and working is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced.  And contending with critical voices is always with us; we have all been in the situation where we are the only woman in the room.  Finally, though, it’s the third point that I really love.  Women leaders need to cherish their networks of support, and treat them well.  You cannot succeed without your support system, and without allowing other people to help you.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “I’m a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.”

As leaders and managers, these points get us farther, faster, with our employees, and in our organizations.  We’re all aware of double standards applied only to women – there are probably not many male ambassadors in American history who have been asked whether they have nannies, or asked how can they possibly have a high-powered career with four children?  But in addition to our awareness and mindfulness of this double standard, we can take it another step.  We can see the tremendous gifts within our organizations and our people.  We can also recognize, if we consider what I’ve mentioned this morning about what is “typical” for women, where women’s vast resources are.  They’re there.  All we need to do is tap them.

My conclusion this morning is, where I am today happened because of the unexpected, the surprising, and the unplanned, and because I was able to recognize and to take advantage of those opportunities when they came.  This is what makes success, and what drives all of us to create value, and to create opportunity.   Thank you for your time this morning, and I salute the women leaders here today, who work every day to bring about the successes of their organizations, their people, their families, and themselves.  Congratulations to all of you on the important work you do.  Thank you.