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Williams: When executives embrace diversity, anything is possible

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Henry T. Latimer Diversity & Inclusion Luncheon at the Bar's Annual Convention

Sherry D. Williams Law firms and corporations that ignore diversity in hiring and promotion not only rob themselves of talent, they risk becoming irrelevant in a rapidly changing society.

That’s just one message that keynote speaker Sherry D. Williams, a corporate attorney and University of Miami Law School graduate, gave Florida Bar members who attended the Henry T. Latimer Diversity & Inclusion Luncheon at the Annual Convention.

Addressing a packed ballroom at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, Williams described a challenging and sometimes lonely rise from modest means and first in her family college graduate to the executive suites of some of the nation’s largest corporations.

“It’s a pretty standard legal career story,” Williams said. “And I pull from that story the sheer number of times I was the only woman in the room, the only black person, the youngest, the person with the least amount of wealth, and the person with the least amount of access to wealth.”

From 2016 until earlier this year, Williams served as vice president, deputy general counsel, and global chief ethics and compliance officer for Jabil, Inc., an international electronics and diversified manufacturing services corporation based in St. Petersburg.

Prior to that, Williams served as chief ethics and compliance officer and senior vice president for Houston-based Haliburton, where she advised the oil and gas drilling behemoth’s board of directors on such things as proactive compliance programs.

Trailblazing is never easy, Williams said, and the sleights she suffered, intentional or otherwise, could be wounding.

“As you might imagine, I was subjected to a lot of ‘isms’, classism, sexism, racism, and it all had an impact on how I saw myself, and how I approached my career,” Williams said. “I will tell you about the time I was sitting in a room, preparing a take a deposition, and the 50th white lawyer comes to me and asks, ‘can you tell me when Ms. Williams is coming to take the deposition?’ — because he thought I was the court reporter.”

Female partners and colleagues who were supposed to be allies sometimes gossiped about her, Williams said.

“I had no respite, no sounding board, nowhere to turn because I was the only one in the room.”

But the journey held welcome surprises, too, Williams said.

“I would also like to tell you about my sponsor, a 60-ish white male who put his reputation on the line to send my career skyward,” Williams said. “He supported me unconditionally, and he did the most important thing a sponsor can ever do for a young lawyer, he gave me room to make mistakes.”

When executives embrace diversity, anything is possible, Williams said.

“I will tell you about my leadership of a group of colleagues who were all white males, who were all at least 10-years older than me, and the bond we built as a team and the times they would come into my office and sit down and show their authentic selves and talk to me about troubles with their children and troubles with their wives, and ask me about what I would do if I were in their position.”

Women and minority executives, especially single mothers, are still asked to make bigger sacrifices for their careers than their male and white counterparts, Williams said. She said she did it because she felt she had no choice.

“I carried the responsibility of representation on my shoulders because I didn’t want to disappoint my mother, I didn’t want to disappoint my community, and most importantly, I did not want to give my detractors the joy of seeing me falter or fail.”

Lawyers who are dedicated to inclusion should apply the concepts of diversity to their workplaces, Williams said.

“Ask yourself seriously, how would your organization welcome difference?” Williams said. “How do you integrate and celebrate difference? If you don’t know the answer, then you need to ask somebody.”

With the latest Kaiser Family Foundation research showing that the U.S. population is 51% female and 39% diverse, Williams said, law firms should do more to reflect the society they serve.

“I guarantee you that if it doesn’t change, it’s going to negatively impact the practice of law and it is also going to negatively impact our culture,” Williams said.

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