Empowering Women for the Future of Work



Hi everyone, I'm Joe Cahill. I'm the Chief Customer Officer for the Project Management Institute. PMI is the professional society for project professionals and changemakers. 

Today's podcast focuses on one changemaker who is committed to improving society through empowering women and building projects and organizations based on climates of collaboration. Listen to her story, and understand how she is improving organizations and managing change for the future of work.


Hello everyone and welcome to PMI Center Stage with today's guest, Susan Coleman. I'm Ed Hoffman, PMI Strategic Advisor, sitting in for Joe Cahill. 

The world of work is undergoing dramatic changes that have impact on women, men, organizations and societies. Perhaps no change has been as dramatic as the rise of women in the workplace. Our modern work is as much about the social changes impacting work as the digital and technological ones. 

I've known and worked with Susan Coleman for the past 20 years. Susan describes herself as a social-preneur, negotiation guru, coach, organization consultant who has been making good trouble for over 30 years. She has extensive global experience working with United Nations worldwide, NASA, American Express and others, and has worked with women and men from almost every country on Earth. 

Susan's mission is to build a more collaborative and peaceful world by empowering women. She is the host of the Peacebuilding Podcast, and she is the proud mom of a daughter and son, from whom she learns daily about gender intelligence and becoming more fully human. 

Susan, thank you so much for joining us today and welcome to PMI Center Stage.


Yeah, thank you, Ed. It's great to be here. Really, it's great.


So I've known you and we've worked together for a long time. For our audience, I wonder if you can share a little bit about your background and how you arrived at this point in your working career.


Well let's see, I mean I could go way back, or I could just say that the short answer, I think, is that I was working as a litigation associate, doing that. And it was so funny, being with my fellow associates, you know, we would sit around and kind of go, “Boy, we really wouldn't sue anybody.” 

So I was looking for different ways, and I went to the Kennedy School at Harvard and got connected to the program on negotiation, which really created this groundswell around the world with the book Getting to Yes, in more what they would call the “interest based”, I think that's the language they use about negotiation strategies. 

And so I came back, I finished that program, came back to New York and connected… I remember saying actually to the folks at MIT and Harvard, I said I wanted to intercultural negotiation. And at the time they said well, there really isn't such thing. And I said well, I don't know, I kind of think there is. 

And I connected to this woman in New York City, Ellen Raider, who became my business partner for the next long stretch. And she had been doing inter-cultural negotiation around the world with American Express, with Schering-Plough, mostly in corporate settings for a long time. And so I started working with her. 

Fast forward, we started working with the United Nations. We pitched to them to do collaborative negotiation skills in their system and started delivering that worldwide. And then did the same at Columbia University. I felt more constrained by the training function, and started doing much more organizational interventions and got a lot of training in Gestalt from the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. 
Fast forward again, that all took me to do something called the Peacebuilding Podcast: From Conflict to Common Ground. You know, our world of tech allows us to just do these things from our home office. 

Because I had been working with groups, and as someone who had been working with large groups, it really struck me how much, if you create the right processes, if you create the right container, people can deal with very complex situations, a lot of polarity, and actually self organize to create very good solutions, which I did. 

So that made me want to interview people all over the world in the best processes they were using to build common ground. And that led me to then, in part of my own transformation and connected to culture, really thinking about women, you know, really looking at the planet with soft eyes as we say in the Gestalt world. 

Scanning the planet and thinking what stands out to me most on this planet? Well, obviously climate change, boom, smacks you in the eye. This struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. And then the relentless gender imbalance which still exists on the planet. 

But anyway, those things really struck me, and then I began to think, and many believe this, that the largest shift we could create on this planet in terms of creating a more sustainable and peaceful planet, is to really get gender right. To really create a different kind of world where we really have - I don't know what the UN calls it these days - generation equality. 

And I think the younger generations are really pushing us in that direction too. What does it really mean to be human? Not necessarily getting caught up in the constraints of whether you are defined male or female.


You've had a tremendous journey. We've known each other for probably about 20 years, and I always thought what you did was both just impressive, when I watched you work, but also unusual. I'm wondering if it makes sense to start with this notion of “what is patriarchy” and what does the notion of a post-patriarchal society look like and why is that beneficial. So what do we mean by patriarchy at work, Susan?


Maybe I'll just talk about it in general. I think my understanding is that is that the social structure which is often referred to as patriarchy has been around for something like somewhere from 6,000 years, 10,000 years depending on which anthropologists you're talking to. But it's a small, small, small percentage of the time that humans have been on earth. 

The vast majority of time that we have been on Earth, we have been way more in partnership with each other, men and women, than in any kind of adversarial or coercive type of relationship. And I know that's something… there also is no evidence, really, of warfare. Of course, we were hunter-gatherers, so it was different, there was a lot more room to move around. 

But I think that often comes as a shock to a lot of people, that they just think that war was inevitable. It was just the way things were done with humans, but that really is not the case. From everything I read from a lot of different reputable anthropologists is not the case.


Well, it's also the importance, and there's been tons of research, right, on the importance of just having diverse perspectives to give you different solutions. 

Can you tell us, what is it that needs to be known about women and negotiations and power? How do you try to address that, how do you try to improve that when you work with people, and why is that so important?


I don’t want to get into too many stereotypes, I am talking generalizations, but in general, I will say, I think women subtly or not subtly defer, deflect, contort, accommodate. And not all women do this, and certainly some men do this. But while, again, there are plenty of women that are plenty assertive, there are plenty of women that are still accommodating and deflecting and deferring and not understanding… 

I guess one of the biggest messages that I want to keep imparting to women is just how powerful we are, how much capacity we have, because we are going into systems, we are hitting culture walls. I think that organizational cultures were… we are imposters. Organizations were designed, as I said, for men, as they should be. Men had to go out and slay the dragon and bring home the bacon. 

Humanity really started with the XX chromosome, and morphed. The XY chromosome came later, as a way of bringing more diversity into the gene pool, but it brought obviously much-needed genetic diversity. But I think the stories, the narratives like Adam and Eve... Some of those stories are really just, they're misleading. 

And going back to our beginnings, I think, some of the narratives really can be so empowering to women when we realize just how sacred, divine, and at the beginning of everything we were, and how critical we are.


One of the things that I'm always an admirer of yours, is you work globally, and you go to places that, you know, maybe the rest of us wouldn't sometimes be even comfortable with. How did you get interested in working on international issues? Was it where they reached out to you, and it became an issue? And what do you see as the most important issues when working with global, international teams?


Well, I think I've always been interested in diversity. Ellen, my former business partner who's been retired for years, we got really known for intercultural negotiation. I lived in Colombia, and I've traveled all over Latin America. 

My guy friend the other day was saying, you know, the three places that you've been to recently - Central African Republic, Afghanistan, South Sudan - you seem to pick, you’ve picked the most... Yeah and it's true, I was like picking THE war zones to go into. 

I don't know if I'm answering your question, but what strikes me is, I've gone into places that are designed… they have military structures as their design which both works for them, and doesn't. 

It makes me think about this one woman I interviewed, she is going in to disarm armed combatants. She's going into the most dangerous parts of the bush, and I have an interview with her on my website. 

You know, she says, it wouldn't work if I was a man, because the soldiers, and they are all men in the circumstances she was telling me about. If it was if it was a guy, they would feel more combative with him, but it's me, and I'm asking them to lay down their weapons. It doesn't always work, but they're much more open to listening to what my requests are.


That's very powerful. I don't mean to stop you but it resonates on a few things. I have a good friend in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and she's working early childhood type issues, in terms of health care for children, pregnancy, crime, all these factors. And when you think about how do you start there, she said you really have to start with the women in the community, because they've traditionally had to focus on the raising the children, and if they have buy-in, if they have belief in what you're talking about, then the change will go someplace. 

If you’re too, I'd say linear and hierarchical, and I guess patriarchal, then it doesn't resonate with really the core of society. So that's kind of what I'm getting out of some of the things we've been talking about.


I think one of the things… Terry Real is somebody, he's a family therapist, but he's been somebody that I found really, really wonderful to learn from. But he says basically we revere the feminine, but we disparage it in fact. In theory we revere the feminine, but we disparage it in fact. 

We're sort of caught up, in this country particularly we're having a rough time because we're so enamored with lots of money and domination. I mean, that's the only story but it's a big story, you know, because it's really creating huge income disparities and undermining democracy and influences what happens with us in the workplace, and influences things like… So for women, things like childcare, which is so fundamental to our ability… 

If we're trying to create workplaces… I believe, Ed, really, really believe that if we can create workplaces that work for women, they are going to work best for everybody. I think men are going to have a much better time in them as well, although I don't know if that's immediately apparent to everybody all the time.


If you look at history… I remember, again, I started my career working at NASA in the 80s and the 90s, and you started seeing things, as women got into the workplace, about you have to consider childcare, you have to you have to consider about different benefits for employees, you have to think about voice, giving voice, and it wasn't just for women it was for everyone. So I think you're absolutely right, that's a key aspect of it. 

And again, I teach at Columbia University a course on navigating the future of work, and my one of my colleagues is Jordan Sims. He's always saying the future is female, and he doesn't mean obviously it's just female, but he means that the emphasis on the communications, conversation, diversity, having voice. The focus on people and relationships is more and more important, and you can't go away from that anymore.


It’s going to be really interesting I think, I don’t know what you think about this, but watching the pandemic, and the influence… Of course, it's been really hard on women, around the planet it's been hard on women, because women are still doing most of the childcare. 

Then this friend of mine, a woman who works for a publishing company. Now people are going back, this is the New York area, people are going back to work. The women are not coming back into the office, they want to be able to stay home, and the men do want to go back to the office because they want to get away from the kids she says. 

You know, on the one hand, I think the pandemic has really been, it's really pushed us backward for a lot of a lot of women's organizations… And then you also wonder is it going to have made flexible hours, working from home, much more normative so that that will really help women out? 

I know for myself I would never have been able to do… I had two young children - I don't anymore, they're grown - but I would never have been able to do what I did if it hadn't been for the Mac computer and the Internet, never. 


I think you're right. One of the questions I get asked is, so “What's the future look like?” And my answer is always, “It's up to us.” It's up to people, it's not a passive thing. 

Obviously things happen, but I think one of the things that's an opportunity, but it's also a threat is that organizations, societies, individuals, and teams that focus on the ability to more effectively collaborate and to tap into the broad expertise of a diverse team is going to be more successful. 

And those that don't do it fall further behind and so that danger of winners getting better is one of the things to watch for. How do you how do you make sure there's more balance across the system? But I think that's the advantage, is a focus on collaborative leadership, consensual networking, communications, all these kinds of factors. The organizations that get it right are doing better and better.


I have two quotes that I use in my podcasts, and maybe I'll add a third. One is Peter Drucker, the management consultant. “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

And then another one, which is a different kind of vibe, it’s Buckminster Fuller, is “Don’t fight against the existing reality. Create a new reality that makes the existing reality obsolete.”

And then I might add to that the Audrey Lorde quote, which is, “You can't dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.”
Sometimes I wonder about this for these large institutions. I've worked for a lot of large institutions, and it's a struggle for a lot of them because… A lot of women are creating their own organizations these days. I see a lot of younger women just saying nope, I’m going to do my own thing. I'm not going to go into any existing structure, because… it's kind of like the Bucky Fuller thing. The best way is to create something new.

And I don't know what you think about that for large systems, because it does seem like a lot of our…. I mean I kind of think you have to have both. You have to have change coming from inside these large systems and change coming from outside. It's no point in saying it's only one way.

But it is hard, you know what I mean, it's hard for a lot of these large systems. Like the UN, it's such a great organization and it's so it's so caught up in the way it was formed.


It’s difficult. One of the challenges, one of the things as the director of the NASA Academy CTO, one of the things I worried about as the senior executive on that level was us getting comfortable and complacent. 

NASA, I always felt, was an amazing place after a failure. There was discussion, there was argument, there was incentive to change, to look at fine tuning what worked. And if you go out four or five years of mission success, then for natural reasons, all of a sudden, we don't have to talk as much. We don't need money for training. We don't need money for risk approaches. There's a drive to lower costs. 

And I think the complacency says hey we're successful, don't change anything. And in a world of the volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, that I think is a death knell. Things are changing so fast, you can't be complacent.


I’m just going to say one thing, but I'm really deep naturalist. One of the things I've been doing is getting rid of the invasive species on the land that I am blessed to be a steward of. And I notice how these invasives, they come in and they're kind of metaphoric. 

They take over the ecosystem, and they take the light, they take the air, they take the water. And so as I've been getting rid of them, what's been happening is, all these native species have been coming up, and with great diversity, and really great beauty. And I think, wow, what a metaphor for what I think we can create on the planet, what we can create in our organizations. You know, this deep diversity that really allows for a lot of complexity, a lot of creativity, and a lot of a lot of beauty.


We have a little bit more time and I want to give you a chance to talk, if you will, about dreams and future possibilities. You're always engaging and optimistic. What makes you optimistic about the future?


I just heard - and I don't know if I could paraphrase her, it was such a good talk - this woman, Elizabeth Lesser, who created an organization called the Omega Institute. I was listening to her, she just gave a talk on smart hope. I’m not going to be able to paraphrase her.

I will say for myself, in recent years, and maybe because I am a pretty deep naturalist, it's been discouraging. I think many of us that are really paying attention to the signs of the natural world are getting pretty scared by what's happening. 

But I've decided to be hopeful because I also am a, first and foremost, a fierce mother of these two beautiful children and they absolutely need hope. My son, he's a wilderness guide, he does mountaineering and takes people up in very high places. And, you know, the guides are, so he's lucky to be going to beautiful places, but the guides are… He says they're all showing, exchanging photos of how much this glacier has retreated, how much that glacier has retreated. 

But what gives me hope, I think, is that, obviously, the climate reports have spoken and it looks like we've created some undoable things. But I do think that it's creating an awareness, a level of global consciousness. We’ve seen such big shifts happening around racial reckonings, around things like MeToo happening. 

I don't know, I think we'd have a lot more fun as human beings if we just kind of get over some of our previous paradigms of who's on top and who's on the bottom and really allow for much more of a global community with global conversation and communication and creativity and teaming.

But I think women have no idea how powerful our leadership can be and how much, when we really, really stand for our tendency to be more - I do believe women are inclined to be more collaborative. But really understand the power of that and learn it and are able to model it and play collaborative hardball if we need to, but with firmness, with fairness, and with a desire to really create good outcomes. All of that adds up to a very different kind of team or culture or country or world.


One of the things that I've experienced, I've always felt one of the most important things of learning, of growth, of respect for humanity, is traveling. And my guess is, the fact that you engage with so many wonderful people in good situations and distressing situations, that I would think you can't help but be optimistic that when people come together and when more voices are heard, that it leads into a direction of positive outcomes.


It's one of the things I feel the saddest about right now is that, I don't know how about traveling right now. It's been hard. I haven't done much of it in the last 18 months and I miss it. 

One of the things that I have really learned about working with people all over the world, is that I think we are way more alike than we are different. We have the same categories of needs, we have the same categories of feelings.

And then I think what really sometimes divides us is when we get very adversarial and when we get into more what I would call toxic competition. If you create a climate of collaboration, you are much less likely to see that identity group polarization. 

And if you create a climate that is low trust, that is hostile, that is adversarial, then those kind of intercultural differences become much more apparent and much more of what it seems to be the issue. And I think the real issue is the culture that you created.


I love that as a way to close down. It really summarizes, I think, your work but also what we've been talking about, the climate of collaboration. If you get that, you can accomplish anything. And if you don't have that, it's hard really to go in a successful direction for any kind of team or project. 

And for those who want to follow up with you, what's the best way to reach you?


I think basically my website, SusanColeman.global.


This has been delightful for me, so I thank you, Susan, for taking the time and sharing some of your thoughts for our Center Stage audience. Thank you to the people listening and promoting these conversations. So I’m now saying let's go out and create a climate of collaboration. Thank you, Susan.


Hi, this is Joe Cahill again to wrap up the podcast. Susan Coleman emphasized several points that I consider very important. 
First, the growth and influence of women in the workplace is an essential factor in the future of work that offers opportunities for a workplace that is collaborative, conversational, and leveraging the collective intelligence of society.

Second, building a society that encourages a diversity of voices, ideas, and possibilities is essential for work that is productive, innovative, and engaging for all people. 

Third, we can be optimistic about the future of work, since we can control our own destiny and work together on projects that become the building block of a new and improved society. 

I hope that you enjoyed this Center Stage podcast, and that you will continue exploring the future work with us. Thank you.