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Mike Coates

CEO at Hill+Knowlton Strategies

New York, NY

Our business success can be directly tied to taking care of our people and creating a culture where they can achieve.

As the hockey-playing son of a deep sea captain, charged to “look after your mother and sisters” for months at a time growing up while my dad was at sea, I’m not what most people expect when they think of a gender equity advocate. I informed my wife-to-be that we were going to have only sons. Five, so we could have an entire first line. Naturally we had three daughters.

They weren’t interested in my hockey skills, so I focused on instilling in my girls the values that served me well: hard work, loyalty and persistence. In time I found myself at home surrounded by successful women in politics, management and entrepreneurism, and later, successful working mums. At work it was more of the same. More than half of the people who naturally rose into our senior leadership at Hill+Knowlton Canada were female. I was used to being surrounded at all times by impressive women.

I read Lean In just before moving to New York to take on the job of U.S. and Americas CEO. I figured that I was about to lead a U.S. company in an industry that is 70 percent women – I’d see what I could pick up from one of the most successful women in America, Sheryl Sandberg. I didn’t realize I’d pick up inspiration for a new approach to a core challenge of our business.

Retaining talent in our industry is the toughest issue we face. When an employee leaves, it can hurt our relationship with a client. Our business success can be directly tied to taking care of our people and creating a culture where they can achieve. Reading Lean In, I realized I took for granted how much society and culture in Canada created an environment that was encouraging to women, and working parents, in particular. Just as in Canada, more than half of the people who naturally rose into senior leadership in the U.S. were women. I decided one of the stamps that I could make on the U.S. company would be to do everything I could to officially put women’s opportunity on equal footing with men’s.

We rolled out the industry’s most generous paid parental leave program. One year later we saw that women and men were taking leave at the same rate. We launched policies supporting flexible work arrangements. Women and men are both taking full advantage. We also announced policies to affirm our dedication to gender pay equity. The move was applauded by women and men alike.

As a CEO, all this has served me well. Our financial results are up, employee satisfaction is up, staff turnover is down, and client retention is stronger. As a father and grandfather to impressive girls and women, it has the added value of being good for the soul. But make no mistake. The efforts we’re taking on these issues are not favors to women. Ensuring that men and women are placed on an equally competitive footing will help H+K and all our people be leaders in our profession for many years to come.

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