THE BLOG
10/11/2013 04:51 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A With Gayle Peterson, Co-Founder of Partners for Change

This month, the University of Oxford's Said Business School launched the Women Transforming Leadership Program which aims to address and heighten awareness around some of the disparities women face in organizational leadership roles.

Standing at the forefront of this initiative is Gayle Peterson, Associate Fellow at the Business School and Program Director of Women Transforming Leadership. As co-founder of the international philanthropic consultancy, Partners for Change, Gayle has extensive experience in business and social sector strategies to achieve global social change.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I have been fortunate to have worked across many disciplines -- as an entrepreneur, a publisher, a teacher, a philanthropist and a public servant. The common thread across all of my jobs, and in my personal life, is that I have had strong and supportive women mentors and role models. They have taught me the importance and value of partnership and collaboration. They have challenged me to live and work creatively, ethically, with spirit and through team. Just as important, they have shown me (and expected me) to the pass on knowledge and lift others up to succeed. Effective leadership is about we -- not me.

In reflection, Steve Jobs said: "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future." I feel that my varied life experience has allowed the dots to find their way of intersecting and creating a rich and satisfying pattern.

How has your previous experience aided your role in the Women Transforming Leadership Program?

Women Transforming Leadership embodies the principles of partnership. It was shaped over two years through convening's and discussions with women leaders and colleagues across disciplines and around the globe. A group of 30 women came together and selected the name to represent a philosophy and paradigm in global leadership. This shift recognizes and embraces the strengths of women to lead and to manage change in complex, ever changing environments. Most importantly, it builds on our strengths as leaders to have: the courage to embrace risk, compassion to put our egos aside, collaboration to build strong teams, community to find solutions from within, creativity to imagine new scenarios for the future, expanded notions of capital to see the importance of human, social, and environmental resources and candour to speak the truth about what works and what doesn't to constantly innovate and scale solutions.

What are your hopes for the impact of the Women Transforming Leadership Program?

First, and foremost, in the tradition of Oxford University, we want to transform lives, to inspire participants to succeed as leaders and as individuals, within their organizations, and in their work in the world. Second, we seek to build a strong network of cohort members that can support each other and work together to promote women's leadership at home and globally. Third, we intend to spark a movement that supports a new leadership paradigm that accelerates the skills and value women. This includes developing a knowledge base of tools and resources for women in developing and developed nations, as their needs and experiences are different. In the end, we believe women are the "hold the secret to effective leadership," now the world just needs to recognize it.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure as a co-founder of Partners for Change?

The high spots: When I founded Partners for Change, my colleagues and I chose to create an organization that lives its core values of fun, family, flexibility and financial reward. We have a remarkable, diverse, staff with global experience all of whom are dedicated and love what they do. We are a team in "flow" and it is energizing and productive. We have to remind ourselves to go home and stop working. Yet, we also retain team members by adjusting schedules to accommodate family needs -- working from home, flexible hours, support for family-care (including children and parents). In turn, everyone supports our dog friendly office for Golden Retriever, Abby and "pony dog" Cody, a Great Dane-yellow lab mix.

We are lucky to partner with philanthropists who are passionate about using their resources to positively change the world. Witnessing the change is humbling and inspiring.

The constant learning moments -- or challenge -- is that money is power. Unfortunately, we have seen harm done by social investors who want to do good, but do so by imposing their "silver bullet" solution on complex, multi-layers challenges -- poverty, food and water insecurity, violence and corruption.

The unintended outcomes can yield horrible results on the very people whose lives these donors sought to improve, on the planet the funders sought to protect, and on the investment they sought to use wisely.

Arrogance, not knowing what you don't know, refusing to partner and not respecting or understanding the needs and solutions offered by vulnerable communities, are all hallmarks for failure. Unfortunately, they are mistakes being made globally all too often.

What are your hopes for the future of Partners for Change?

To help the field of global philanthropy move to a new ethical and effective standard that will improve the lives of women and children globally. We are currently writing a book to be published by Stanford University Press book, titled, Good, Evil, Wicked: The Art, Science, and Business of Giving. (Good is what philanthropists want to achieve, evil is a play on Google's mantra to no evil, and wicked are the complex challenges.)

For almost two years, our staff and team of in-country consultants have crisscrossed the globe focusing on doing hundreds of interviews and in-depth case studies to understand emerging trends and best practices in the "art, science and business of giving." We have spoken with philanthropists, impact investors and multi-nationals about their experiences in the art, science and business of giving as it is experienced in the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and emerging countries in Africa and Asia.) The results of this work are remarkable and eye-opening and we look forward to sharing the results with the world when the book is published next year.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

When you love what you do, that can be hard to do. Fortunately, I have always had supportive family, spouse and extended family and friends who have made doing the work I love possible. They keep me sane and help me juggle work and personal life. When my children were young, they travelled with me on trips; I brought a crib to the office and when a babysitter didn't show up, I took them into delicate negotiations when I had to. My husband and I divided responsibilities equally -- actually, he does the cooking and I handle car maintenance and mowing the lawn. The result of this partnership (there is a theme here) is that my sons, now young men, are amazing. They are kind souls, work well with women and men, and are inspired to change the world through art, film and business.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

I don't believe there is one issue facing women in the workplace, just as I do not believe there is one solution to advancing women in the workplace. Women are really good a juggling, they are flexible, innovative -- they have to be to maintain a home and a profession. But women need multiple supports to address the systemic challenges present in our traditional work environments.

These supports must come from:

Family and spouses

Policies and practices across sectors that develop women leaders from infancy and elementary school, ranging from childcare supports to adult capacity building and beyond

Belief in themselves that they have the ability and the right to succeed

Mentors and networks to advance their skills

The glass ceiling is real -- though it is sometimes difficult to observe in action, as it can take the form of subtle, second-generation systems of bias and exclusion, as well as more obvious first-generation explicit discrimination. However, the numbers around the world clearly show that this discrimination is alive and well.

The reality of the data:

Globally, women hold approximately one in five senior management roles, and fewer than one in ten businesses have a female CEO.

In the US, women constitute an estimated 2.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO's and about 15 percent of these companies' board seats and corporate officer positions. Sadly, we are lagging behind our sisters around the globe.

According to Grant Thornton's 2013 survey with International Business Review of women in management, 19 percent of board roles around the world are held by women. This holds true throughout most of the developing world; for example, even taking all senior management positions into account, women hold just 19 percent of such positions in India, and 23 percent across Latin America. Yet, there are some bright spots -- Asia and, China in particular.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?

I agree with Sheryl's advice, but we need more Lean In books and blogs and buzz to address larger systemic issues facing women in developing and developed countries. To "think their way through," is insufficient. In many countries, deep-seated patriarchal systems exist, and in these situations while tenacity is valued, more must be done to break the glass ceiling which continues to hold strong. Addressing this inequality is itself a wicked problem that will require multiple avenues to address at a systemic level.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

As I said previously, mentorship shaped my leadership style and approach. I have been blessed to have had strong female mentors at every step of my career. Out of graduate school, my first mentor was one of the most powerful women CEO in Chicago. Working with her, I learned the importance of pulling people together to shape solutions. She is now in her 80's and dying of brain cancer and we are still very close. Another mentor was a commissioner of one of the largest public works organizations in the US and she fought corruption and nepotism. She taught me the power of equality, equity, and vigilance. While in publishing, a dear colleague and friend showed me how words can transform the human spirit and lead to policy change. The women in my family taught me empathy and compassion; the importance of putting oneself in someone else's shoes when making decisions that will have real impact on people for good or ill.

I believe strongly that women have a responsibility to mentor other women -- I take to heart Madeleine Albright's saying, "there is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women."

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

There are many: My mentors who embrace team, ethics and results.

Many of the women on Forbes Most Powerful Women list who image unlimited possibilities and make them reality. From Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo CEO, pushing performance with purpose that values profits, people and planet; to Angela Merkel's success at negotiating tough deals to coalesce diverse interests for the common fiscal good.

A female leader in literature and Nobel Prize winner, Pearl Buck, gave me one of my favorite quotes and approach to my life as a leader and a teacher, "To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth."