Claudia Brind-Woody is the Vice President & Managing Director for Global Intellectual Property Licensing at IBM. She’s worked at IBM since the 1990s, and she has spent her tenure there emphasizing how fostering an inclusive corporate work environment is good for business – and spurs positive societal change.
“When our employees don’t have to think twice about struggling for the same benefits and recognition… then productivity goes up,” she told Business Insider in 2016.
Brind-Woody believes successful business units are in many ways similar to winning sports teams, and that when leaders create space for each contributor’s unique talents, a team can be greater than the sum of its parts. She credits this insight to the time she spent as an assistant to legendary Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt.
“That focus on individual’s talents, and playing to each person’s strengths, has been so amazingly effective.”
A Virginia native, Brind-Woody lives in England with her wife, Tracie.
How and when did you first knew that you were LGBT?
Well, I’m old enough to not have had public role models – on television, in the media, or anywhere else. I was about 12 when I knew I was different, but I didn’t have a word for it. The local library in my small factory town in Southern Virginia didn’t have much in the way of resources on the topic, but I knew I was different, and looking back, I could tell that absolutely I was lesbian. I had the classic crushes on my gym teachers and my camp counselors, and I wasn’t boy crazy like my peers were. I came to an awareness of my difference at a time when I had no words or role models to understand it. I just knew I had crushes on girls instead of boys.
And then how did you come out?
Coming out is not a one-time event. Every time I have a new team or a new boss or a new client, I continue to come out. We all do.
The only time I was ever really closeted at work was when I was working in women’s athletics. I graduated from university in 1977, and my first job out of college was as the assistant basketball coach to Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee.
I acknowledge the irony – but at that time, the words dyke and lesbian were thrown at many women working in athletics, because men didn’t want the women taking resources away from them in college sports. Those of us who were lesbians and working in college athletics were very circumspect. We wanted opportunities for all women in athletics, and we made the assessment that being out wasn’t worth jeopardizing opportunities for other women.
Ever since then, I’ve never gone back into the closet. I’ve chosen to be authentic.
Who are your role models?
Pat Summit. She was and is my role model, and she was my dear friend. We shared an apartment for a couple of years before she married her husband. I was dating a woman at the time, and she didn’t care. She didn’t bat an eye. She taught me to coach, and I use that skill every day in leading a very high-performance business team. I play to people’s strengths. I have the ability to put those strengths together in a way that lets people succeed together. We win together. Everybody gets the gold medal. It doesn’t matter how many points each individual scores.
At the end of last quarter, at IBM, we were working really hard on a deal. And I shared some of her advice with my team. She said, ‘Claudia, there will always be people who are smarter than I am, and there are always going to be people that are more talented, but there’s never going to be anybody who will outwork me, because I can choose how hard I work.’ And that has been for me one of the most powerful tools in my toolkit, as I think about how I want to approach work and life.
Can you identify any particular ways that coming out or just being an LGBT+ person has influenced your leadership approach and style?
Certainly. I think it has in many ways, but authenticity is the key one, because when you work with people, trust is the basis of how you work together. Whether you’re negotiating a deal, whether you’re serving a client, whether you’re leading an internal team, trust is absolutely key. If I’m not authentic, if I am deflecting, ‘How was your weekend,’ type questions or changing pronouns, then I can’t lead. I can’t lead because I don’t develop trust. And it’s a two-way street. When I’m authentic I clear the way for others to be authentic with me.
Being LGBT+ is not bad. It’s who we are, it’s ordinary. I use the word “ordinary” very intentionally. Enabling those everyday conversations is very powerful. A coworker might ask me, ‘Where’d you go on holiday?’ If I naturally respond, “My wife and I went horseback riding,” then the conversation generally turns to horseback riding, not to the fact I have a wife.
It’s very, very powerful to create an environment where people can be ordinary. I just went to a high school reunion. I grew up in a small factory town in Southern Virginia. Most people didn’t go beyond high school. The men went to work in the furniture factories, and the women went to work in the textile mill. During the course of the reunion evening, I had a woman come up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much for what IBM does. You stood up for the transgender folks in North Carolina and Texas, and my son, who used to be my daughter, is transgender and lives in North Carolina. I showed him what IBM was doing, and that gave him hope.’
And then I go toward the bar to get a glass of wine, and I had two other women stop me. One of them says, ‘Claudia, oh, thank you for what you post on social media. I always show my daughter and her wife, what you and IBM are doing, and I brag that you’re my classmate.’ And this other woman was saying, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, my grandson’s gay, and we always knew he was gay, but finally his parents are understanding he’s gay, and now he’s relaxed, and everybody’s happy.’ Those were ordinary conversations at a high school reunion that I would have never expected, growing up in my small factory town. Decades later, because I’m authentic, I can have ordinary, but powerful, conversations.
If you could have any job other than the one that you have now, what would you do?
I’d probably be a rancher and raise quarter horses.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from a boss?
Along the way, I’ve had lots of bosses, but from my good bosses, I have learned to ask for help. Those bosses created an environment such that asking for help was a strength, not a weakness.
And what’s something important that you’ve learned from someone who worked for you?
I’ve learned the value of clear communication – it’s so important to set expectations and do whatever I can prevent second-guessing, because no one can read my mind.
If you could tell someone who had just graduated from college one thing that has been valuable for you to know, what would it be?
Well, I’d probably tell them more than one thing.
I would remind them that life’s a journey, not a destination, and that what they think they’re going to do coming out of college in 2018 is not what they’re going to be doing five, fifteen, twenty years from now. They are going to have opportunities that haven’t even been invented yet as they go through their journey, so continuing to learn is going to be important to them.
One little powerful thing that I learned, that I share with young folks, is: “what you think of me is none of my business.” When you understand that, you get to keep your personal power.
I’d also tell them: “Don’t delay joy.”
Can you tell us a story about a time a mentor or a sponsor helped you take your next step?
I had a wonderful female mentor at IBM who was very senior. It was coming up on a time when I really needed to start looking for what my next assignment would be in IBM, and I got on her calendar. She asked me, “Okay, Claudia, what do you want to do next?” I said, “Well, I could do this. I could do that. I could do this other thing. I could even do this thing over here too,” and she said, “No, no, no, no, Claudia. We’re going to hang up now. We’re going to hang up this call, and when you are clear about what you want to do next, get back on my calendar, and we’ll talk,” and I went, “Oh, my goodness.”
And sure enough, she ended the call, so I thought about that for a couple of weeks and decided what I wanted to do next, and I got on the phone with her and said, “Okay, here’s what I want. I want to be managing director of one of our big accounts, and I want an international assignment,” and she said, “Okay, fine, if that’s what you want, I can help you. I can help you when you’re clear about what you want and you ask for it.” Sure enough, six months later, I was the IBM Managing Director of the IBM Nokia account in Finland. It was a hugely important moment in my career, to understand that being clear about what I want. To be able to articulate it and ask for it enabled somebody else to help me along the way.
Who is your all-time LGBT+ hero?
Edie Windsor. I had the privilege of getting to know her, in part because she was a former IBM-er, and we embraced her and pulled her into our LGBT+ community at IBM. I live in the UK now in part because when I married my wife, she couldn’t emigrate to the US, but because of Edie Windsor, she now can.
When you look around at the world that we live in, what do you think is a really tantalizing leadership opportunity?
I think that the leadership opportunity in front of us today is what are we as senior leaders going to do? What are we going to do, not just to talk about?
I think we’re at an inflection point. How do we expand the scope of ‘LGBT+ inclusion from focusing on employees. We’re going to want to keep the best and brightest, attract the best and brightest,’ Now we need to go from that conversation to how we do business together as the Good Ol’ Gay network, as opposed to the Good Ol’ Boy network? How do I reach out to another senior leader and say, “Let’s do a deal from IBM and X Company, and there is a business opportunity because we have an affinity.”
If you were planning a dinner party and could invite anyone from history, who would you invite and why?
They’ll probably all be women: Joan of Arc, Eleanor Roosevelt. Billie Jean King. Michelle Obama. Hillary Clinton, Pat Summit. Sappho, Mother Theresa, Sally Ride, Susan B. Anthony…. Any topic with that kind of brain power and those kinds of perspective would be just absolutely be fabulous.
What are six things that you could never live without?
Well, there are things I wouldn’t want to live without. My wife, my friends, my dogs, my horses. The opportunity to meet new and interesting people. And I would not want to live without the opportunity to make a difference. When I was the assistant dean of the business school, we had a retired Xerox exec teach for a dollar a semester. I was chatting with him in the faculty lounge one morning over coffee, and he said, “Claudia, learn, earn, and then give back, and do it in that order, because you’ll be more impactful.” Retirement for me or success in my career will be where I can teach for a dollar a semester. That’s always been my goal.
Where do you like to go on vacation?
My friend’s ranch in Evanston, Wyoming, right now, because we get to ride quarter horses and work cattle. It’s a working ranch, so we get to get dirty and unhook from business. Nobody can reach me when I’m out pushing cattle, and I don’t want to talk to anyone then, either.
What are the three books that you would take to a desert island?
I don’t know that I could live with only three, because I would love to bring the major books from all the great religions. So, that’s right there more than three. If I were on a desert island, I’d figure it’s time to get spiritual. I’m a voracious reader. I read about three books a week, so I wouldn’t last very long on that desert island.
Do you think that the future of LGBT+ progress is primarily in business?
I think that the business leaders have to step up, because together, we can influence government. IBM has a history doing that in the States. Back in the ’60s, the governors of both North Carolina and Kentucky wanted us to build plants in their states, and they had separate drinking fountains and toilet areas for blacks and whites, and IBM said, ‘No, we’re not coming there until you treat everybody equally.” The laws of those two states changed, and IBM did build plants. They built a printing division in Lexington, Kentucky, called Lexmark. They built a huge manufacturing site in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina
I think to call for those sorts of political changes, businesses need to work together in coalition, because that gives us courage. This is a space where businesses shouldn’t be in competition. We want to join hands with our traditional competitors and everybody else in different industries to make a difference, and at the end of the day, change the world.