Women in Leadership: A Conversation with Michelle Taylor-Jones
Women are making huge strides in leadership, even in the middle of a global pandemic. Michelle Taylor-Jones tells us how she navigated her career in leadership and gives advice to others.
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LHH’s research has always underscored the importance of empowering women leaders to help organizations reach new levels of success. It’s particularly important for younger generations of working women to be exposed to strong women role models to help them believe they too can take on advanced leadership roles. This series is dedicated to profiling some of the top women leaders we work with so that we can all learn from their examples.
When Michelle Taylor-Jones needs to find inspiration to continue the struggle for gender and racial equality, she really needs to look no further than her own family.
Throughout her varied career, Taylor-Jones – currently vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Manulife – said she frequently relies on the powerful examples set by her grandmother Anita Garcia and mother Gwendolina Garcia Taylor.
In the 1930s, Taylor-Jones said her grandmother, her mother and an uncle made a perilous crossing from Cuba to Jamaica in a small boat without much in the way of food and water. Later, her mother and father emigrated to the U.S. and set about working on their own version of the American dream.
“When I think about what fuels me, it’s those stories,” Taylor-Jones said during an LHH Women in Leadership webinar. “I tell myself I can’t lose because it’s in my DNA. I am born of strong women such as my mother and my grandmother and my sister Jennifer, who continue to lift me up. I think everyone needs to reflect on who in their life keeps them strong and sustainable.”
Taylor-Jones’ career is a testament to the example of strength and determination set by other women in her family.
Graduating from college in 1986 with a business and accounting degree, but without a firm job offer, Taylor-Jones began her career in a temp agency assigned to a bank. At the end of a three-month contract, Taylor-Jones said she was determined to turn her temporary assignment into a foothold on a more rewarding career.
On the last day of her temp assignment, Taylor-Jones said she made an unscheduled visit to the office of the bank’s CFO. “I said to him, ‘Ed, I say hi to you every morning, my bosses are telling me that I’m doing a great job. Well, my assignment ends today, and I need a job on Monday. Would you hire me?’”
This demonstration of sheer will and determination was rewarded with a full-time job that would lead her into a career in high finance.
“Ed became my mentor,” she said. “He put me in mergers and acquisitions, and then in financial analysis. He and I met once a week. He became my advocate, my mentor, my sponsor. Simply because I asked for what I wanted. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. The answer is not always going to be what you want it to be, but sometimes you’ll get a yes.”
Taylor-Jones would eventually rise to the executive level of the bank, before pursuing an interest in diversity and inclusion that would take her to some of the world’s largest companies, including Dell Technologies and, finally, to Manulife. Throughout most of that time, she also operated her own consulting business – The Taylor Group – that helps companies formulate D&I solutions.
If all that weren’t enough, Taylor-Jones has also published a book of poetry (Sonnets from My Soul At Peace) and is a co-founder of Black Women of Influence, a New York City-based organization for multicultural women in executive or mid-level leadership roles.
For her most recent role at Manulife, Taylor-Jones not only faced the challenge of starting a new job with a venerable insurance company but doing it in September 2020 following a summer of social unrest sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement and heading into one of the worst periods in the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many women around the world, Taylor-Jones said she has felt the added pressures of trying to earn a living at a time of such great disruption, a challenge being faced by women all of the world.
Before COVID-19 and BLM exploded on everyone’s consciousness, women were forced to balance an at-times unmanageable number of competing work and family obligations, she said. However, the pandemic has forced so many women to work from home, while also providing constant care for children unable to go to school. It’s a situation that is taking an enormous toll on women, particularly given their propensity to set impossibly high standards for themselves and assume the duties of primary caregivers for others, she added.
“As women, we know we’re fixers. We need to take care of everyone. But what I think we’re realizing now is that in addition to taking care of everyone, we need to give ourselves permission to take care of ourselves. It’s okay if our environment is not perfect. It’s okay if we can’t take care of everyone because absent of realizing that, we’re putting ourselves at risk. This is what this new environment has taught a lot of women.”
The pandemic quieted the world in many regards, which heightened awareness on racial, wealth and gender inequality and the impacts in communities across the country and around the world.
The intense focus on global public health and social justice has prompted many in the world to “lean in and unpack inequities that have always existed,” Taylor-Jones said. This includes expanding our definition of diversity to ensure that chronically overlooked groups – like women of colour – are no longer being ignored.
“We’re all looking at gender programs differently. How many women are of a diverse background? When we have a dialogue around development and promotion and retention, it’s moving beyond the gender conversation and talking about people of colour as well. I think when we speak about women of colour, there are unique stereotypes, unconscious biases and micro-inequities that are not dissimilar to the gender conversation that we have on a regular basis.”
Although there are many hurdles still to be crossed, Taylor-Jones said she firmly believes that the world has accomplished more than it has lost in the last year.
“We’ve moved from shock and awe to action. And that’s a great place to be.”