We had the pleasure of interviewing Helle Frank Liautaud, a member of our network and interim Executive Director in charge of setting up of the NGO B Lab in France. Having been an entrepreneur and held leadership positions in companies such as VMware, Helle discusses the importance of bringing one’s “whole self” to work and of sponsoring women in the workplace. She also offers insights into how to drive innovation through a more inclusive and diverse work environment, which must be promoted by the leaders of the organization. Alongside getting to know how the WIL Europe Network has been for her, Helle talked about how necessary it is to set and articulate boundaries in order to have a balanced professional and personal life. Read the interview below to find out more!
What motivated you to move from Denmark to Paris for your undergraduate studies in law and to return at a later date for your professional career?
I was born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark, which is a wonderful country, but a small one! As a young person, I was attracted to the idea of opening my mindset, which motivated me to move to Paris. When I started out here as an attorney I was for many years focusing on getting my professional French correct, so when I went out with friends they would always tell me, “you speak like you are in a courtroom”. I recall the day I was able to read first Le Figaro and a few years later, Le Monde! When you learn a foreign language as an adult, you remember with every word the context in which you learnt it, so words have a special meaning for you.
When you learn a foreign language as an adult, you remember with every word the context in which you learnt it, so words have a special meaning for you.
You recently became the interim Executive Director in charge of creating B Lab France. Can you tell us more about how the organization is promoting business as a “force for good” and your role within this NGO?
B Lab, founded in 2006, is the international NGO that is behind the B Corp movement. It has been established to promote a better way of exercising capitalism, by shaping corporate governance and ensuring that all stakeholders are dealt with in a similar manner. The companies that join the B Corp movement volunteer to exercise their professional activities in a way that strives to benefit society and to design their governance to ensure that they put social and environmental concerns at the same level as the interest of their shareholders - also referred to as the “triple bottom line” (people, planet and profit). With today’s pressing challenges, companies can display their commitment by obtaining certification as a B Corp. When companies gain this certification, not only does it mean they are redefining their internal governance, it also entails that efforts are being made to integrate social and environmental progress into the heart of their business models.
There is already a great community of B Corps in France, so time is right to open a branch here. My mission is to give life to the French B Lab organization, which will carry the voice of the international movement in this country, while using all the great French B Corp certified companies as ambassadors of business as a “force for good”.
During your time at VMware, you engaged in dialogue around sustainability. How have you promoted the sustainable development goals (SDGs) through your work and what do you feel is the central challenge in achieving them?
The SDGs are extremely important! The objectives are encompassing to the global challenges we face today. They have generated a moral compass to encourage and inspire every individual and organization to take action. VMware, a global technology company, is already engaged in “tech for good” and can play a role to bring about the innovation that is needed to achieve the SDGs. In order to further promote corporate engagement in achievement of the SDGs, B Lab has entered into a partnership with the UN to develop an online platform, which will allow corporations to manage their impact through performance on the SDGs.
Whilst holding leadership positions in a large organization such as VMware, what have been the biggest leadership challenges you have faced as a woman?
The absence of role models and being a minority have been central challenges for me. There remains a pressing need for practices to be put in place to ensure top leadership positions aren’t tilted towards men. Amidst the perpetuating gender imbalance, we must not dismiss the fact that conversations surrounding gender equality have seeped into the public domain and as such, are now a constant point of discussion. These discussions have manifested into change, however not fast enough. Organizations are not putting enough pressure to address the “systemic web of challenges”, a term referred to by INSEAD to define the hurdles that women face in a workplace that has not been designed for them!
I was personally faced with a harsh reality as my career advanced: the higher I went, the more isolating the working environment became because of the lack of females present in higher positions. I did not really have anyone I could turn to for guidance or advice!
As a way to overcome this, I propose for more sponsorship programs to be implemented. You take away this deficit of being a minority because a safety net is formed in which your skills are properly acknowledged, and support is given when needed. An internal advocate is vital if we are to see an increased representation of female leaders. When it comes to mentoring, I don’t dismiss that this is a useful tool to help females advance in their professional careers. However, too much mentoring prevents independent growth, that is why I stand behind the belief that sponsoring women is more effective and efficient to close the gender gap.
Sponsoring women is more effective and efficient to close the gender gap.
How has being a member of the WIL Europe Network impacted your life and your career?
For women, networking often does not come as naturally as it does for men and most networking events have been typically male-dominated. WIL is a great initiative to create something for women by women, which redefines our idea of networking and makes it a desirable and even fun for women to connect with one another.
An important lesson I have learnt, is that the road to happiness requires the ability to set boundaries, as both professional and personal life can be all-consuming. I disagree with women who say that you cannot have it all. In my experience, it is possible, when you learn to define and articulate your own boundaries.
WIL is a great initiative to create something for women by women.
What has been your strategy in creating a more inclusive and diverse work setting, for example, through your work with the global “VMinclusion Council” at VMware?
Through my experiences, I learned that it starts at the top. Until you get the leadership of an organization convinced that diversity and inclusion is a matter of strategic importance, you can waste a great deal of time further down in the organization.
In addition, I believe in the organizational benefits of bringing your “whole self” to work. I encouraged people to participate in discussions with their “whole self”- with their ideas and values - as this initiated more fruitful and frank discussions. With Tech companies such as VMware, success is all about innovation. Therefore, diverse teams and the idea that people can bring different perspectives drive the highest level of innovation! Comparatively, from a leadership perspective, providing an open community in which employees feel they can share their personal stories, can enhance a sense of purpose and definitely create a more welcoming environment for women, who are more often than not, underrepresented.
We have enabled a more inclusive and diverse workplace by getting leaders to share their personal stories of how they “dare to be themselves” at work, through the creation of peer group mentoring sessions, directly combating each aspect of the “systemic web of challenges” for women, inviting experts to discuss the importance of an inclusive culture and much more!
Although these initiatives are all useful tools when establishing diversity and inclusion, benchmarks and setting targets of where you want to be are vital for driving change. You must hold leaders accountable for success, like you hold them accountable for any other business objective that you are trying to achieve.
Diverse teams and the idea that people can bring different perspectives drive the highest level of innovation.
To conclude, we have the tradition of concluding the interview with a question from Proust’s questionnaire. Who for you has been a key figure in your life who has supported and motivated you during your career trajectory?
My husband Pierre! I have a wonderful husband who, on top of everything, is my best friend. We have a rich family life, whilst simultaneously staying respectful and encouraging of each other’s professional careers. It is a dynamic and supportive partnership and I am very lucky!