Article: 'Women can't have it all, you have to make choices'


'Women can't have it all, you have to make choices'

Julie J. Gebauer, Managing Director, Talent and Rewards at Towers Watson talks about her personal journey and a lot more
'Women can't have it all, you have to make choices'

I don’t believe the notion that women can have it all at all times. I made sacrifices, I made choices. I think the important thing for organisations is that they give women the chance to reengage if they want to


I believe flexibility at work does enhance employee experience. However, you need to manage it effectively to make it a win-win for all


You joined Towers Perrin in 1986. Tell us about your journey since you started. How did you grow in the organisation?

I’m lucky to have worked with Towers Perrin, an organisation that gave me incredible opportunity to explore. I began my career as a pension actuary. I was very interested in the US pension laws and how that impacted employment of individuals. Later, I was given an opportunity by Towers Watson to start practicing in different areas like benefits and total rewards and then got involved in broader HR consulting. So I moved from just being a pension consultant to total rewards consulting and then to various other roles in New York and East US. While I was handling the east division of the US, the CEO of Towers Perrin asked me to form a new business which he called workforce effectiveness. That was in 2005 or 2006.

While the concept of workforce effectiveness was new in those times, we did realise the power of people in terms of driving business. Also there were deep areas of expertise around programmatic things such as compensations & benefits, employee engagement etc but there was nothing that could connect all of them together. We as a company had also faced the talent deficit and believed that the talent competition was going to continue and all of these factors put together led to the thought of an offering that will help an organisation comprehensively address how they are going to get the right people at the right places doing the right things at the right cost. We need an integrated offering and we called it workforce effectiveness.

You were handling different geographies at that point in time. How was the acceptance of this new offering across geographies?

It was accepted more readily outside the US because the HR function in America had advanced significantly and had silo areas of expertise. It wasn’t until one got to the CHRO that you could see the function as one. We saw greater acceptance in some of the emerging markets.

You were also a part of the board; tell us about your experience as a woman leader and how many women were there on the board?

We had a board that was rotating every three years. The number of women on the board varied: There were three women in one year and another year there were only two women out of 12. There weren’t any challenges as far as I can recall, if they were there I tended to overlook them. Our organisation has always encouraged people who wanted to try new things. If they volunteer and perform well, they are going to get these opportunities as there is flexibility and choices.

At a personal level, I had support at home because my husband had more flexibility in his job. At one point, he decided to retire from his profession and work from home so I had all the support at home and I could focus on my career and that is a choice I made.

I don’t believe the notion that women can have it all at all times. I made sacrifices, I made choices. Once my younger son said, “Mommy you should try this retirement thing, it’s really good” and I replied “I don’t think I can.”

And there are women who make a different choice. They decide that they want to slow down their career path, may be temporarily, may be permanently to rear a family. I think the important thing for organisations is that they give women the chance to reengage if they want to.

If I wanted to take a break for a few years and then wanted to reengage, I am confident that Towers Perrin would have given me the opportunity to do that. In fact we have policies and procedures that allow us to do that. We had partners who were part-time, we had management consultants who work four days a week so that they could spend more time with their families. That said, consulting attracts a lot of people who are MBAs, have math degrees, actuarial science and majority of people in these discipline are men, so the ratio does get skewed right in the beginning.

You were part of an organisational merger and an integration process. What are the cultural challenges that the organisation faced post the merger and how did you overcome those challenges?

We were intense competitors in the market and we had to come to terms with the fact that we were no longer competing but working towards the same goal. And I think one of the first things that we did was to put the clients first. We kept clients singularly in our focus and that guided us through. Secondly, our two CEOs spent a lot of time getting to know one another and understanding the organisations. I believe they would not have proceeded if they didn’t think that the cultures could match.

If I look across the spectrum of HR consultancies, Towers Perrin and Watson Wyatt really did have very similar values. Not only the words on the walls, but the way had they played out in the hallways. And most importantly the clients couldn’t tell. They had to ask where one came from. Besides the similarities, we had strengths that complimented each other. Since 2005, I had longed for a talent management software as part of Towers Perrin and Watson Wyatt had it. It was the same for geographic presence and portfolio of services, while Watson Wyatt had a strong Asia Pacific presence, Towers Perrin was present across Canada. Towers Perrin had a great presence in health benefits consulting in the US, whereas Watson Wyatt commanded a robust compensation database. I believe that these synergies have had a significant positive impact on our performance.

Being a company that is an expert on mergers and acquisitions how was the integration experience while doing it for you?

You apply what you tell clients to yourself. Communication and change management was our first priority. We maintained transparency about the decisions that were going to be made, how and when they will be made, who will be put off things and so on. The first step was to integrate all aspects of the business that focused on the clients and in stage two we went through the integration of our technology and HR systems. And all through this, we did have to make a few tough decisions and for that we defined the criteria, removed all biases and did it quickly. It was a smooth process and now we are through it.

I have always told my clients to be realistic because there was never such a thing as a merger of equals. And I sit here today saying, I was wrong. Because Towers Watson has come as close as you could possibly be as a merger of equals.

What are the strengths and weaknesses in India from a business perspective?

The entrepreneurial spirit, demographic opportunity and sophistication in HR executives are some of the significant strengths of India. HR executives in India are more focused on metrics and not just soft skills and they are able to establish a clear connection between people and business.

Do you see India different in the way people are managed and motivated?

The global engagement drivers are leadership, career advancement opportunities, ability to manage stress, balance work life, image of the organisation and relationship with the supervisor. I suspect they are similar in India. The difference is in the attraction drivers that get people to come to the organisations and stay with them.

In Towers Watson, we define engagement as the connection between an employee and the organisation at three levels –emotional, rational and motivational. All three of them are equally important to be engaged. We have seen a strong level of connection between these three and business results.

How do you connect sustainable engagement with challenges that organisations are facing with flexi work etc?

Our data suggests that employees greatly value flexibility and I believe flexibility at work does enhance employee experience however you need to manage it effectively to make it a win-win for all. If one has a workforce operating completely out of sight and doesn’t have a strong performance management system, it may be hard to figure out if people are working in the right way. You need to have managers who can manage effectively and there needs to be a system in place to handle virtual work arrangements and flexibility. There are also some jobs for which you can’t have the flexibility. For example, you can’t be a surgeon from home. Some organisations at present are reducing flexibility for reasons that don’t have to do anything with employee engagement but with systems, management and business.

In India and other emerging economies people get pushed to the managerial levels very fast. Do you think managerial skills can be learned on fast track?

I think that with the right training and support it can be done but I also think that experience is incredibly important for people in managerial roles. Not all the rules are in books and not all the effective ways of managing are going to come out of a training course.

Organisations that create a safety net and allow people to learn through their mistakes can create a track where people can move swiftly towards strong management and having a strong mentor certainly helps. One of the things that many organisations around the world have had issues is in the way they choose and promote managers. Most organisations promote their top performer as a manager without much training.

To nurture a young manager, there is a great need to define the role, create performance metrics so that they focus on team production and not just individual production. An individual who has moved to a managerial role without any training or experience will tend to gravitate towards individual goals and that means that the group management will get neglected. The leverage of the managerial job is getting that equation right and for that training and mentoring is incredibly important. The relationship that an employee has with the manager does influence engagement so organisations need to get this equation right.

When you are not working, what do you spend your time doing? What are you passionate about besides work?

I love reading books about philosophy and fiction. I like watching my sons play rugby and the drums. I love bicycling and skiing. Besides these, I love travelling and I look forward to coming back to the places that I have been on an official visit with my family.

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Topics: C-Suite, Leadership, #MergersAndAcquisitions, #PersonalJourney

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