Female CEO on Business Culture: ‘Life’s Too Short for a Bunch of …’

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Six Networking Mistakes Job Seekers Often Make

Last week, I wrote about Michelle Joseph, founder and CEO of the Chicago-based recruitment firm PeopleFoundry, and about the consulting model she has developed to recruit tech talent. But there’s more to Joseph’s story—she also had a lot to share on other topics, notably female leadership and business culture.

On the female leadership front, Joseph said challenges certainly come with being a female business owner, but there are some advantages, as well. “I do feel I can relate to both female and male executives, because I’ve had exposure to both,” she said. “I don’t know if people gravitate toward us more because I’m female” than they otherwise would.

Joseph characterized the advantages of being female this way:

When we started, we had one male and four females [working at PeopleFoundry], and it was great to have females that followed other females, because they believed in female leadership. And then once we truly started proving ourselves in the marketplace, we’re completely even now—actually, I think we have one more male than we have females. To be honest, I get exposed to some things because I am female, and I’m under the age of 40, and businesses are primarily run by males of a particular age. I got into the Economic Club of Chicago—I like to think that it’s only because of skill set, but I’m sure that my gender and my age had something to do with it. And I think a lot of people are focusing more on female leadership, because it’s a very small percentage, compared to male business leaders. So from that standpoint, it’s definitely an advantage.

The biggest disadvantage, she said, is that old boys’ clubs are alive and well:

Being a strong, independent female can sometimes be viewed differently than if you’re a male who takes action and commands a presence. That’s usually the view held by men, I feel, not so much by women. But I don’t feel there’s much of a disadvantage, at this point. We’re growing, we’re doing well, and I seem to be able to relate to both male and female business owners, who are primarily who I sell to.

Joseph is also a strong believer in the importance of company culture. So I asked her how she would describe the culture at PeopleFoundry, and how it was created. She said their culture is one of complete and full transparency:

It’s fun and exciting, yet scary and risky at the same time. Our culture was created because of the risk that we took building a business, from basically nothing, without any investment, to what it is today—we have 15 employees, and we’re doing well. The transparency piece is something we embedded from Day One, with respect to the back-and-forth communication with candidates and clients—meaning that in recruitment in general, people try to cover certain things up, or make excuses. I’d rather just call a client and say, “The reason this is not happening is because you’re not offering this, or because there’s a person in the process who is making candidates feel X way.” The same with candidates—if he had a bad interview, I’d rather be able to go back to a candidate and say, “You should not have pulled out your phone and answered emails in the middle of an interview.” It’s just full transparency, and that’s something we believe in down to our core. I think our candidates and clients appreciate the honesty. Life’s too short for a bunch of B.S.

Separately from our discussion, Joseph has come up with some advice for organizations to help them create and sustain a strong work environment. She encapsulates the advice this way:

Finding your culture. Establishing an enthralling and inspiring culture is not something you can implement in one fell swoop. It will not happen through a couple of meetings, and it certainly cannot be forced. Understanding your company from the ground up is a great way to start. Putting yourself in the mix will give you a chance to assess not only your operations, but to get a true feel for who really runs your company. This level of inspection will give you an opportunity to flatten your lines of communication and slowly pull your company toward value-based centrality.

Selling yourself. Between all the fun-loving bosses in zany ties and crazy office parties, it is all too easy for employees to lose faith in their job’s ability to make them feel like part of something bigger. Your good intentions may feel like more of a mockery than anything else. People respect values. How do you communicate your values? You must find a way to integrate them into the very soul of your business. Espousing these values is a good start, but the currency of respect is demonstration, not words. Following up on these beliefs is the best way to communicate the importance of your creed.

Enjoying the benefits. The candidates you want, your rock-star picks, are looking beyond profit margins to satisfy their career itch. They need a little soul—something that they’re working toward that makes them feel good. That does not necessarily mean buying ping-pong tables and having beer on tap in the kitchen; a good culture will come naturally with strong core values. Your culture will be the lasting impression you will leave on a client or potential employee, and the reason someone will remember you.


A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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