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Making a difference

The pandemic has created greater empathy and understanding among business leaders to tackle society’s big challenges, Robin L. Washington says in the latest edition of the CJBS Perspectives interview series on leadership.

A busy father works at home on his laptop, while his son plays on his phone beside him on the sofa and two dogs look at the camera.

The global pandemic has created greater empathy and understanding among business leaders for tackling some of society’s biggest challenges, says Robin L. Washington, former Executive Vice President and CFO of Gilead Sciences and a current board member of Salesforce, Honeywell International and Alphabet, in an interview series on leadership at Cambridge Judge Business School.

People traditionally had strict walls separating their work and home lives, but seeing the meshing of these worlds through computer screens (including children and pets in the background) has created a “level of vulnerability” and illustrated how much everyone has in common, Ms Washington said in a video interview with Professor Dame Sandra Dawson, a Fellow, Advisory Board member and former Director of Cambridge Judge.

“I believe in the 80/20 rule: we have so much overlap and so much commonality, and a lot of times we focus on our differences rather than commonality. And as you get on the other side of this (pandemic), leaders and skillsets of leaders around empathy and understanding are going to make a huge difference: they’re going to make a huge difference when it comes to diversity and inclusion, they’re going to make a huge difference in ensuring that innovative ideas meet the needs of everyone.

“I think the more we can reflect on all that we’ve gone through in terms of resiliency, and not forget but hold ourselves accountable to our role in reducing disparities at all levels within an organisation and the community, the better companies we’re going to have and the better communities we’re going to have… I think everyone walks into 2021 with a different level of empathy and understanding. I’m optimistic that we’ll use this as the building blocks to be better and we will hold ourselves accountable as leaders, as students, as corporations and as individuals to make a difference.”

The interview was the first in the second series of CJBS Perspectives: Leadership in Unprecedented Times, a series of talks with prominent business leaders and other public figures organised by the Alumni & External Engagement and Executive Education teams at Cambridge Judge. 

Ms Washington said that leadership is often a matter of learning “how to influence without authority”, including “your being able to influence and galvanise people and set vision and strategy that gets people to think about things differently, which is a critical skill to have.”

She said it was important for her personal development to have shifted industries, from Silicon Valley tech companies to Gilead, a science company specialising in biotech. “It was a very different investment model than tech investment was. I had to learn to talk about the science to our investors in a different way because I wasn’t a scientist.  But it was one of those stretch moments for me that really improved my skill set, developed me, and really pushed me. I have a saying of: ‘Get comfortable being uncomfortable.’”

Ms Washington said she is a “big believer that diversity is a business imperative”, because “if you’re going to continue to serve communities which are changing and including a lot greater percentage of underrepresented minorities I think it’s key that you build a culture (including) leaders at various levels and board members that reflect that.” “I’m not a believer in this zero-sum game. I think if a company truly embraces diversity they’re going to grow, they’re going to do better, and that means more opportunity for everybody,” she said. “As we start to peel back the onion it’s like getting at the underlayers of inclusiveness, and that’s what we need to focus on in society: how can we create an environment, a space, where people feel comfortable, because when people feel comfortable they thrive.”

Watch the video interview between Robin L. Washington and Professor Dame Sandra Dawson