lauraliswoodBy Melissa J. Anderson

“Try to speak out – have a voice,” advised Laura Liswood. “Claim your accomplishments, and ask for and know what you want.”

Liswood, now Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders and a Senior Advisor at Goldman Sachs, has built her career around improving diversity and bringing women leaders into light.

Making powerful women more visible, she explained, will help change presumptions around what a leader should look like.

A Career in Leadership

After graduating with a BA from California State University, San Diego, Liswood went on to attend law school at the University of California, Davis. But, shortly after graduating, she realized she wanted a different career path, and enrolled at Harvard Business School to earn her MBA. She explained, “I liked the more active role business takes, where you can put together projects and programs. Law felt a bit more reactive to me.”

Liswood has continued this dynamic, active approach throughout her career. After completing business school, Liswood began working for Boston Consulting Group, and soon moved to position as a line manager for TWA. “Line management roles are very important for women,” she commented.

After working in the airline industry for a number of years, Liswood returned to consulting while working on her first book, Serving Them Right. In 1992, she became the director of the Women’s Leadership Project. She explained, “Then I went around and met all of the female presidents and prime ministers,” an experience which contributed to her second book, Women World Leaders.

A tireless advocate for women and diversity, Liswood didn’t stop there. Next she went on to co-found The White House Project, and was then named Managing Director, Global Leadership and Diversity for Goldman Sachs. Liswood now serves as a Senior Advisor to Goldman, and recently published her third book, The Loudest Duck, a guide to achieving corporate leadership diversity.

She is also the Secretary General of the Council of World Woman Leaders. Located at the Aspen Institute, the Council consists of almost all of the current and former female heads of state, and was founded by Iceland’s President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the first woman ever to have served as a democratically elected head of state.

Diversity: Bringing Unconscious Beliefs to Light

“The fact that more women are now taking leadership positions is extraordinarily meaningful to me,” Liswood said. In fact, she cites this as the work she is most proud of. “Helping to make women as leaders more visible and more known is important to me,” she said. “Women have the capacity to be leaders,” she explained. They just aren’t always seen that way.

Currently, Liswood is continuing her work in the area of diversity and inclusion. “I’m figuring out how to really make a difference in accomplishing the things we say we want in diversity.”

She continued, “We have these unconscious beliefs about what people are. I’m trying to bring to light an awareness of an uneven playing field.”

There is also the issue of the leadership pipeline, she said. While there are plenty of women graduating from college and entering the workforce, they still aren’t making it to leadership levels in large numbers. “We unconsciously assume what others’ capacities are,” she explained. “We need to change our idea of who we assume to be competent and incompetent.”

Liswood steers clear of the term “bias,” though. “It doesn’t do any good to use the term bias. People are not going to react positively to that.” In fact, she said, “People are more likely to have a bias for someone rather than against them,” referring to research showing that people tend to gravitate toward (and promote) people similar to themselves.

Advice for Female Leaders

“Women compose their lives,” Liswood said, referring to the book Composing a Life by anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson.

She advised women entering the workforce to keep in mind that their career is going to span their lifetime – to think about what they want to achieve and how they can get there. She explained, “Get a sense of what you want your own legacy to be. Think about your destiny.”

Women who are advancing in their careers should remember that they can continue to climb the ladder. She said, “See yourself as the CEO of a company whether you want to be one or not.” She continued, “Feel entitled to lead. Know what you want your legacy to be.”

She also emphasized the importance of sponsorship.

In Her Personal Time

Outside work, Liswood focuses on learning about a different kind of leadership. “After 9/11 I wanted to train to be a first responder,” she explained. Having joined the reserve police force, she recently achieved the rank of Police Sargent in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.

She continued, “I have learned an extraordinary amount from the people who have that courage. They are willing to put themselves out there – to deal with all different kinds of people.”