As chief diversity officer for the global French communications behemoth Publicis Groupe, Sandra Sims-Williams, based in Boston, is responsible for developing and maintaining inclusion initiatives, tools, and measurements. She also understands that the effectiveness of these tools depends on how well professionals in an organization relate to and understand each other. “Relationships are the cornerstone of how you propel yourself through,” she says.
But with more than 20 years in an industry structured around relationships, Sims-Williams learned an important lesson several years ago when she was passed over for a promotion she was sure she deserved. “I got blindsided,” she says. “I’ve always had good relationships in the organization, but when I was overlooked for the promotion I realized that senior leadership either misread me or were not comfortable with me.”
Sims-Williams learned that successful business relationships require open, honest, consistent communication, and that sometimes how you are viewed in an organization may be the topic of an uncomfortable but necessary discussion—particularly in diverse environments where perceived stereotypes can easily hamper discussion. Building strong relationships in the workplace is at the heart of her work as CDO and with VivaWoman, Publicis Groupe’s global initiative that supports women in their professional and personal growth. Here Sims-Williams shares her insights.
Not getting the promotion you felt you deserved provided an important lesson in your professional development. What did you learn?
It was a major aha moment because I had put in a lot of time and thought people knew me well enough, but it wasn’t the right people. I didn’t realize the importance of having relationships above [where I was] and above the promotion. I watched the woman [who got the job] work it— she showed them that she was a strong candidate. I learned that you must build relationships, because senior level executives must know who you are. It’s about knowing people, trusting people, and letting them know that you’ve got their back. My human resources background has taught me this: When it comes time for reviews and career planning, when people know you, they’re going to speak for you when you’re not in the room.
Your story is similar to that of many others. For professionals who feel stuck, what are they doing wrong?
Through VivaWoman, as we are training and developing women, particularly women of color, for leadership, we hear the story, “I’m doing my job and I’m doing it well. I don’t understand why they don’t get me, or why they don’t think I’m ready for the next level.” Because I’ve been in the room with management, I now know what that conversation sounds like: “So-and-so is doing a good job. We like what she’s doing.” And that’s the end of the conversation. Managers are not talking about her trajectory, her next move. “She’s good, keep her over there.” That’s what they’re saying.
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