What Fortune’s Most Power Women Have to Say On Culture

Last week, Fortune held a “Most Powerful Women” MPW summit with about 400 people in attendance. Going to a conference like this is such a privilege because you get a chance to hear leaders across industries and interests think aloud.

3 takes on how leaders create cultures of innovation that I found worthy of note:

Marissa Mayer… on how do you amplify what you want more of…

Eric Schmidt [exec chairman of Google] gave me some advice. He was like, look, it’s your job as leadership to be defense, not offense.  The team decides we’re running in this direction and it’s your job to clear the path, get things out of the way, get the obstacles out of the way, make it fast to make decisions, and let them run as far and fast as you possibly can.

And I think that when I came in people were looking to me to answer, “what’s our strategy now?” And I was like, “I don’t know, you tell me.” I know you’ve been here longer than I have.  And they were taken aback…like, “really, like we get to give our ideas?”  I literally had some employees say no one has ever asked us for our ideas before.  And it was really about opening up to that pent up energy [to contribute].

I’ve always thought of culture as DNA.  I don’t know a lot about genetics, but I understand some of it, and I think that what you really want are the genes that are positive to hyper-express themselves in culture. Take the elements of fun, things that are motivating and inspiring people, and amplify them. And take some of the negative genes that are getting in the way, and shut them off, or tone them down.

It’s not about injecting new mutant DNA, right. It’s not about changing the culture.  It’s about making the culture the best version of itself.”


Justice Elena Kagan, on the being deliberate and respectful of others.

We don’t use email at the Supreme Court. We don’t email each other. I obviously do to my clerks, but the justices themselves do not communicate by email.

So how do you communicate? asked Pattie Sellers of Fortune. Justice Elena Kagan at Fortune MPW 2013

Well, we either talk to each other, which is not a bad thing, she added. [Implying, of course, a great deal to the audience because much of DC was shutdown because Congress’ inability to talk with each other.] Or we write detail long memos to persuade each other. “The Court is an institution where…we’re not horse trading. We’re not bargaining. We’re reasoning.” And we’re trying to persuade one another. Often the best way to do that is by putting things down on paper in a kind of careful and deliberate way and saying this is what I think and, and giving people an opportunity to read a memo and to think about it and to reflect on it.

And so we do a lot of our communicating by these memos, which looks sort of 19th century. They are on very heavy ivory paper—it looks like it came out of the 1800s or something. But it seems to work pretty well. And when you think about it, how many emails have you sent that you wished you could take back? So, we’re careful and deliberative.

That may be one reason the court works so well. Even though the justices “disagree a lot” and can “express our disagreement in powerful and sharp terms”, they all like and respect each other, she said. That sort of good faith environment of knowing “how to disagree without being disagreeable” keeps the court functioning well as an institution.


From Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM  –  on a mindset trap that keeps you from adapting

R&D is not one thing. It is actually two [things]. Research itself is disruptive. It is when you explore the new, long-term ideas. Development is more ongoing. The goal then as CEO is to let those work apart and then together. Balancing between the two is key.

And it’s a misnomer to say R&D is done in isolation. I don’t think you do research all by yourself. In fact, that’s never going to result in what you need. You can work with clients to help you look around corners. You can be social within the enterprise that lets you tap into the ideas that your people come up with internally. You can work with universities to be exposed to what is being explored in its early formation. And of course, you can participate in conversations with the venture capital community who are great at spotting patterns.

Lastly, I don’t think of ourselves by any product we are creating, even Watson. If you define yourself by your product, you’ll miss key trends, and new business models.

BlogIcon_Right copyGoing to conferences is a chance to hear leaders think aloud. You get to be the student, to ask questions of the participants. This conference was especially inspiring to me, because I heard the backstage views on the government shutdown – a major world event. What conference could you go to in 2014 that would let you be the student? Name 3, pick 1. Go sign up, now. It’s a way of investing in learning.

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