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Vital Voices: Ask Stupid Questions

I had breakfast recently with one of my icons of marketing, Geraldine Laybourne. 'Gerry' as she's known to friends is the creative force behind Nickelodeon and Oxygen Media. Lately she's turned her marketing talent towards mentoring women through Global Women's Mentoring Walks in partnership with Vital Voices.

In the two years I've spent researching and conducting interviews for The Athena Doctrine, the lack of mentoring available to women has emerged as a constant theme. Gerry puts a finer point on the challenge, taking it beyond an issue for women, to an issue for corporations at large. "Women – or more specifically feminine thinking — is a huge unlocked strategic advantage," she told me. "Without senior women in positions of influence, corporate boardrooms can become tone deaf." She went on to describe the 'oxygen deprivation' that occurs when there's too much XY. In her experiences being (often) the only senior woman among men, many problems resulted from 'group think'. There was, for instance the period when nearly every young male executive at Viacom started smoking cigars because the brass did. And there was the historic fight at Disney over whether anyone truly wanted a Hunchback of Notre Dame plush toy. (Turns out Geraldine was right and mounds of affirming market research was not).

The larger point Ms. Laybourne raises is not of 20/20 hindsight but of the importance of diverse thinking that productively challenges conventional wisdom. When the leadership is all men (or the environment is overwhelmingly masculine), collegiality prevents getting at the real issues that are holding a company back. There becomes a cacophony of 'yes people' and the c-suite loses touch with reality. Gerry's solution to this is to ask stupid questions. Not by design, but Gerry has found herself in the role of the 'chief agitator'. Her goal is not to stir up trouble, but to spur an open, honest debate about the issues in order to affect meaningful change.

This is the hidden risk in the ridiculously paltry numbers of women in leadership positions and on boards in corporate America. We end up a lot of sailors, but no pirates. And until women get into the club, (and I don't mean Augusta) -- corporations will suffer. Women make or influence nearly 80% of all purchasing decisions, but they have inverse representative voice in strategic decisions on products and services. The lack of women at the top also results in fewer mentors for aspiring young women, making it an imperative for senior men to step up and mentor and for corporations to support this wholeheartedly.

And a world with more diversity would also free many men from the masculine paradigms of corporate protocol. There are exceptional men who have feminine traits and talents that lay fallow because of traditional structures. If there's one thing I've learned from my research, is a wave of change is coming. This is a new world, a social, transparent and interdependent one. And in order to stay competitive, corporations desperately need more women as well as men who can think like them.

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