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Joanne Lawrence: "Pursue excellence"

Welcome to the Financial Times live web chat with Joanne Lawrence who features in our Ten Questions Q&A.

Joanne Lawrence, global professor for corporate responsibility and social innovation at Hult International Business School, will answer your questions on Thursday, 7 June 2012, between 15.00-16.00 BST.

Post your questions to ask@ft.com and they will be answered on the day on this page.


What did you enjoy most about studying for an MBA at NYU Stern; what was the biggest challenge? And why did you choose to go to Stern?

Joanne: I chose to go to Stern because at the time I had a great, full time job at a Fortune 500 company and Stern offered the possibility of gaining a top-ranked MBA in the evenings. I had experimented with courses at a few other schools but found the NYU classes to be the most intellectually engaging.

As far as what I enjoyed, it was the professors, many of whom had real work experience and brought it into the classroom. This is why I love teaching at Hult; we all come to our roles having had a lot of work experience. Classes comes to life because we really know what it is like to actually implement the principles we are espousing. Just as I appreciated it back then, so do our students today.

I also enjoyed my fellow classmates, many of whom were also working just like I was. They were very serious, very smart and put a lot of effort into the programme. As I tell my students, all of whom come from around the world, it is about learning as much from each other as it is from the professors.

As far as the biggest challenge, especially because I did go part time, it was trying to balance work, school and home - which I must admit, I did not always do well!

What would you say is an inspiring example of social innovation?

Joanne: For me, true socially driven innovation is innovation that focuses on creating enduring, lasting change and improving the lives of the poor for the long-term.

Using that definition, social innovation is taking place at multiple levels: as services, products, a new way of distribution or a completely new business model. It is happening within corporations, as public-private partnerships and by individual entrepreneurs, driven by passion to make a difference.

As I think about the ones that have so far captured our imagination and whose concepts are now helping to shape further social innovations, I have to say micro-finance - a business model that has transformed the lives of millions and whose fundamental principles are now being applied to create lots of other innovations, such as in distribution systems, etc.

The other is about thinking about novel uses of existing products, such as the many uses for the mobile phone that manufacturers never dreamed of. Like micro-finance, the mobile phone is being integrated into all sorts of other innovations, from gaining access to commodity prices that empower poor farmers to providing vital health information to rural families, to paying for water.

I have no doubt our students will come up with some amazing innovations in the future!

What advice would you give to the next generation of global leaders? What should their main focus be?

Joanne: Today’s global problems need truly global problem-solvers: enlightened leaders and institutions who share a common vision and set of values and have the power, resources and most importantly, the will to achieve it.

Leaders need to focus on creating a more inclusive economy, one that respects all people and their abilities. The more you travel, the more you realise how much we all have the same dreams and hopes and that conflict and violence - which hurt all of us - often arise from frustrated, desperate people. We need to apply our resources and our skills to enable those who have been left out - the four billion poor (and growing!) - providing access to food, health, housing and education so that they can participate more fully in shaping their destinies. Business, with its enormous resources and ability to cross borders, has the power to transform societies.

My advice to tomorrow’s leaders would be to never stop learning and to hold onto a vision of what is possible. Be consistent and true to a set of values that transcend national borders and are fundamental to being human, values like respect, integrity, dignity and kindness. Keep an open mind and try to think holistically: we are all interconnected and interdependent. Empathise and seek to truly understand and engage others - especially those of different nationalities and cultures. Collaborate rather than compete with those who share the same vision. Above all, don’t lose your enthusiasm and idealism, it is what drives change.

True leadership is about purpose, trust, courage and perseverance. Be that ethical, purposeful leader who is capable of building trust and who has the courage and perseverance to pursue the possible.

Joanne, lately a lot of companies are said to be focusing more on bridging the gender gap in the C-suites. Why do you think female roles in upper management have been so scarce and do you think companies would be more successful with more females at the helm?

Therese Nathanaelson

Joanne: It is so great to have this question: I only recently came across an article I had drafted very early in my own career that was entitled: A Woman’s Place: In the Boardroom. What I noted then and still believe today is that women bring a set of skills and competencies – such as our ability to collaborate and to coach - as well as a different way of looking at things that compliment what we think of as traditional male characteristics. We ask different questions, the ‘why’ that often challenges more conventional ways of thinking. These qualities add enormous value to companies when problem-solving. So, yes, I do think companies that embrace this diversity at all levels have the potential to be more successful. They are getting a more complete picture and the very best ideas!

I am not sure the C-suite roles have been scarce: I have known many qualified women in my own career who were smart, capable and still were not offered senior positions when they came up. But we all tend to surround ourselves with people like us: today’s more conscious effort to seek out qualified women for C-suite roles can make an enormous difference in ensuring it happens.

I think the other piece of this is that women have to set their expectations higher: they need to be confident in their abilities and show that they are willing and able to take on C-suite challenges.

And while it may be true that the struggle between personal vs professional choices for women may have contributed to their lower aspirations in the past, it does seem to be changing. It seems that more and more couples see themselves as true partners, placing more importance on supporting each other in realising his or her potential and dreams than about defining roles by gender alone.

Seeing women in leadership roles has been slow and a long time coming. In fact, some countries have been better at accepting women in these roles than others. But more and more we are seeing exceptional women take over the helm and doing an incredible job. We now have so many role models: you can hear it reflected when asking young girls’ about their dreams - all things are possible!

I am very hopeful that as this generation comes into its own, we won’t be having this conversation - that we won’t be counting how many CEOs or heads of state are women, it will be the norm, not the exception.

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