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Cecilia Nelson-Hurt

Chief Diversity Officer

Heidrick & Struggles

In your opinion, what qualities make a “Moves Mentor”?

A “Moves Mentor” is someone who recognizes the need to give back to others and has a passion for supporting the development of young talent. There is a great joy in seeing people blossom into who they are meant to be – and to help in these efforts, mentors must show agility, patience, courage and passion. 

It goes without saying that every individual is unique, with a different personal journey and experiences they draw from. To be a successful mentor, it’s important to have the patience to allow mentees to develop at their own pace and customize the relationship based on their needs. Everyone has different needs and requires different levels of support. Mentors should have the agility to customize their approach and relationship depending on those individual needs.

Finally, as someone with experience, good mentors have an awareness of how a mentee’s skillset and competencies can and should evolve, both within a specific industry as well as across a broader corporate landscape. So, while this may look different depending on the individual, mentors must also have to have the ability to have courageous conversations, giving actionable feedback so the mentee can flourish. 

How does mentoring benefit the mentor? Career-wise? Intellectually? Spiritually? Socially? Any other “-allys”?

Mentorship is reciprocal and is as much about paying it forward as paying it back. As someone who strives to be seen as an advocate and an ally, I can say that, without a doubt, mentors gain countless benefits through the process. 

Spiritually and socially, mentoring helps to keep a mentor grounded and connected in the work they do. Seeing an individual who you have invested your time and energy into go on to do great things is incredibly rewarding and inspiring for your own work and for continuing to give back.

Intellectually, mentorship helps keep a mentor on their toes and can serve to challenge existing ways of thinking. Being able to have conversations with individuals at different stages of their career and life can help people move away from the typical group think and introduce different angles or new ways of looking at a problem to find potential solutions. 

Career-wise, relationships and professional development are important. A mentor can learn a great deal about issues that are top-of-mind for junior talent – particularly within the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion space – which will only serve to make the mentor a better leader. Speaking from my own career, I’ve been able to leverage feedback and experiences shared by mentees to help better shape programming and initiatives around DEI. 

Should mentorship be a company requirement or a personal give-back?

Simple answer is – both. For me, mentoring and giving back are one in the same, something individuals and leaders across companies can and should do. When I think about mentorship, I often reflect on the scripture – “To whom much is given, much will be required.” 

In addition, from a company perspective, it’s just good business. Mentorship and connection can help to foster inclusion, as well as drive engagement and retention. When an individual has a mentor, they’re more likely to stay with an organization longer. Additionally, the mentor can contribute to an individual’s career development by creating opportunities for exposure to other leaders and parts of the organization, as well as their wisdom and experience – and a company ultimately benefits from that. 

For leaders, this is also a great opportunity for professional development as it naturally helps leaders further develop inclusive leadership skills such as empathy, vulnerability and curiosity. Additionally, mentorship helps leaders continue to challenge their own biases, and develop their cultural competency. 

What is your mentorship method? Do you prefer a more hands-on or laidback approach?

My mentorship approach is all about customization based on the individual needs of the mentee. Each mentee is unique, as is their situation in terms of their immediate and long-term needs. Those ultimately drive what is needed from me as the mentor. 

If the mentee needs a more hands-on approach, such as weekly sessions or more focused meetings, I focus my attention that way. On the other hand, if an individual requires a more casual, free flowing approach, I do my best to follow this method. 

What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time 15 years?

It’s always easy to look back in time and think how you might change one decision or another, but I like to look at the bigger picture. If I could go back 15 years, I’d simply tell myself – “You’re capable. Trust yourself and take up more space. Take risks and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Nothing is wasted. Learn to see the lesson in every situation.” 

Women of color sometimes play small. I recently read an article that defined playing small as having actions motivated by fear, insecurities, and concepts of scarcity. By shifting our mindsets and learning to challenge self-limiting doubts, we can stand in our power. This is an important lesson to learn sooner than later. Many times, we let fear limit us. We should all normalize constant learning and that it’s okay to take risks and put yourself out there. 

Given the evidence that successful mentoring increases the bottom line, should any responsible five-year corporate strategy include a detailed plan and budget for mentoring complete with an official position for a mentoring director and regular progress reports to the board.

Mentorship programs will naturally look different for every company depending on the industry and structure of the organization. That said, given the great benefits of mentorship across the board, where possible, I do believe mentoring should be a key component of an organization’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and Learning & Development strategies. 

“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism… in the 21st is century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for fairness and gender equality around the world.” * Why is gender equality even a challenge, especially in the ‘enlightened’ western world?

When it comes to gender equality, one area where we continue to see a need for improvement is women at the leadership level within organizations – particularly the C-suite and at the Board of Directors level. The importance of having women leaders at this level cannot be underestimated as there is clear value to having a variety of voices and life experiences at the table. 

As some background, according to Heidrick & Struggles’ 2021 Board Monitor Report, new women directors’ share of seats dropped to 41% from a record 44% in 2019. Additionally, as found in our firm’s 2021 Route to the Top Report, despite an increase in women appointed to CEO in the first half of 2021, women only make up 6% of CEOs globally today. There is work to do and it’s important for companies to take an in-depth look at their pipeline of future leaders to ensure they are developing a deep and wide bench of diverse executives, providing the experiences and opportunities required for the top job in a challenging future. 

Importantly, having women at the leadership level also inspires junior women to achieve greater success themselves. You cannot be what you cannot see, and representation matters.

“Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers, and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth.” Simone de Beauvoir. Is this still a major stumbling block on the 21st century road to equality? Do you think discrimination against women comes from the bottom or the top?

Bias is not about the bottom or the top – it can unfortunately happen anywhere. In corporate cultures, for years, women have been flying into headwinds while male counterparts inherently have tailwinds at their backs. Going against these “headwinds” requires more energy, more work, and more time for women to fulfill their potential and can feel like impossible obstacles. 

It’s important for organizations to continually look within and across – not only at their people, leadership pipelines and professional development programs, but also their policies and the language they use in everything from feedback in performance reviews to job descriptions. 

One way to help address this issue is to provide more opportunities for women in leadership positions. It’s something Heidrick & Struggles, which I joined recently as the Chief Diversity Officer, does every day.  

What do you want the next generation of power women to know?

I go back to what I would have told myself when I was getting started in the corporate world – take up space, be authentic to who you are and unapologetic for what you want. The next generation should not hesitate to be bold and courageous in pursuit of those things that inspire them and what they’re passionate about. 

Additionally, I’d encourage the next generation of power women to remember the opportunities they have been given and how they have helped along the way, so that they will then pay it forward and give to others. 

Was there a defining moment or experience in your life that led you to where you are today? What was it?

I have always had a personal “board of directors” or group of mentors who have served different purposes for me in different stages of my career. Years back, one mentor pointed out to me that when I was asked to solve a challenge or take on a new responsibility, I tended to first doubt my own capability – then, after taking action, often exceeded expectations. This mentor then asked me what would happen if I skipped that pushing back on what I was capable of and went straight into action. 

That simple question was a career defining moment for me. Now, when confronted with a challenge, my first response is to say “yes, I can do that,” then focus my energy into figuring it out and getting it done.  

How does diversity play into mentorship?

Diversity in mentorship is essential and provides great opportunity. In fact, I recommend that mentees and mentors do not always share the same affinity. This can help build allyship, diversity of thought and further develop both the mentee and the mentor – which, again, not only benefits the individuals but also the organization.

Diversity in mentorship is also why customization in mentorship is so important. Each individual brings their own experiences and journey with them. You can’t assume a situation is the same for someone else or that they should handle it the way you did. It’s important to recognize where someone is in their skill development and be courageous in our conversations. 

What do you think is the number one action we as a society can take for women’s power and equality? (e.g. affirmative action?)

We need to continue creating work environments that allow for the duality of a person’s life and looking for ways for women to achieve “harmony” and not just “balance.” In today’s world, between work and home and the expectations that go along with both of those worlds, women are not only asked to wear so many hats, but to also figure out how to do it all successfully. It’s unsustainable, as evidenced by the great number of women who left the workforce during the pandemic. 

Achieving balance assumes you’re giving equal energy to all the various aspects of your life. It does not take into account what a person values – what gives them energy and power so they can fill up their “tanks.” It does not take into account that each individual is unique, with different situations and different interests. For many, the pandemic shined a light on what’s really important in life – whether that is work, family, leisure time, you name it. “Harmony” is allowing women, and all individuals, the opportunity to be authentic to themselves and to find ways they can meet their personal needs, which in turn, will help them to thrive in the workplace as well.  

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I’ve received two great pieces of advice in my career that continue to guide me today. 

The first, is to say “yes,” then figure it out. You are capable. 

The second is about finding your voice and not playing small. When you’re in a meeting, look for opportunities to bring your voice into the space.  

If it is true that whenever women are involved in any one aspect of life – domestic, business, recreation – the empirical evidence shows that activity is enhanced in a real and tangible way, why is there such fierce resistance to this female influence?

Overall, we’re seeing a shift in the attributes that we value and use to define a great leader – vulnerability, empathy, communication, to name a few. Traditionally, these skills may have been as inherent to women and seen as a “weakness” in the workplace. But we now know that managers who lean into these skills can not only lead, but their employees will follow, and results will be successful.

Who do you most admire? Why?

As mentioned previously, I’m blessed to have an amazing circle of leaders at all stages in their careers as part of my personal board of directors. These great women not only inspire me for what they have achieved in their careers, but also for the harmony they have achieved in their own lives with their families and as they give back to others and their communities. The list is too long to mention here, but to name a few, these include:

  • Cynthia Marshall – President of Dallas Mavericks 
  • Thasunda Duckett – CEO of TIAA 
  • Mikki Taylor – Former editor of Essence Magazine
  • Aisha Thomas-Petit – Chief People Officer & Inclusion Officer of AMC Networks

I always look for opportunities to incorporate the lessons I learn from these women and aspects of their leadership qualities into my own journey.