Breakfast of Corporate Champions: Eye-Opening and Inspiring

boardroom womanBy Natalie Sabia Hackett

Despite a strong push for gender parity over the past 20 years, women on Fortune 500 boards have only increased, on average, by half a percent annually. Today, 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies have, at the most, one woman on their boards. At less than 17 percent representation, it will take 75 years to even out. On November 21, those statistics were enough to draw about 300 attendees to the New York Stock Exchange for the second bi-annual Breakfast of Corporate Champions, an event by the Women’s Forum of New York in partnership with the Committee for Economic Development and the National Association of Corporate Directors. The purpose of the breakfast was two-fold: to honor 174 US-based Fortune 500 Companies and 31 Fortune 1000 companies in the New York area with corporate boards that are at least 20 percent female and to hear CEOs discuss their companies’ success and how others can move toward parity.

Janice Reals Ellig, co-CEO of Chadick Ellig, opened the event, discussing the reasons to applaud the companies and executive leaders in the audience while also encouraging them to help inspire others to follow in their footsteps. “We honored the companies and their key decision makers to this event today and you have filled this room,” Ellig said. “You are driving change in the board room and we thank you for that.”

The Women’s Forum of New York City: Opening Doors
The Women’s Forum is New York City’s distinguished organization of over 450 women leaders representing the highest levels of achievement across all professional and business sectors, from finance to fine arts. Membership in the Forum is limited and by invitation only. Founded in 1974 by Elinor Guggenheimer, the Women’s Forum mission is to form a community where preeminent New York women leaders of diverse achievement come together to make a difference for each other and to take an active, leadership role in matters of importance to them.

Judy Woodruff, co-anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour, monitored a panel at the breakfast, reminding the attendees the event was about figuring out how to open more doors for women, as only 16 percent of board members are women.

Women on Boards is Beneficial to Business
According to recent studies cited by the Women’s Forum, when companies have more women in leadership positions, the bottom line is better. According to Roger Ferguson, president and CEO of TIAA-CREF, which elected its first woman board member back in 1940, implied that diversity is key. “We believe that diverse groups of all stripes make better decisions,” Ferguson said. Steve Kandarian, chairman, president, and CEO of MetLife, echoed Ferguson’s comment. “We view having a diverse senior management team and a diverse board as being critical to our success,” he said.

DuPont chair and CEO, Ellen Kullman, detailed just how different – and beneficial – a woman’s approach to board work can be.

“Women seek different opinions from people; they just don’t sit with what they think,” Kullman said. “They actually reach out to other board members, to members of management, to get a much more full view of the issue, of the opportunity and create more dialogue.”

When speaking about the qualities women have that adds tremendous value, General Electric’s chairman and CEO, Jeff Immelt, said it best. “There’s just no excuse anymore in any company that women can’t be successful,” he said. He went on to say that in his experience, women are good at asking probing questions and listening, which are basic, yet valuable qualities to have as a board member. “I think a board is a fantastic context by which to make decisions; you need the people who are willing to literally ask the questions and be in listening mode a lot. Tough-minded, good questions are all great qualities for a board member,” Immelt said. The CEO also shared a very telling observation he recently had while traveling: in a meeting with a woman, he said, she will typically start with questions. In a meeting with a man, however, he will start with a speech.

Macy’s chairmen, president, and CEO Terry Lundgren said there’s no denying the value that women bring. “There’s no question about it that what women are bringing to the table is a different perspective; it’s a perspective of the actual consumer themselves,” he said. This is reflected in consumer spending habits: women influence 8 percent of purchasing decisions globally and spend over $20 trillion annually.

Championing Women
Many of those who participated on the panel emphasized the importance of companies focusing on being patient and finding the right person. Too often companies are trying to quickly fill a seat, rather than strategizing in advance to identify the person with the right qualities and skills for the position. This was echoed by Guardian Life Insurance Company of America’s president and CEO, Deanna Mulligan. “I think that’s important, you can’t be in a hurry, she said. “We’ve [Guardian Life Insurance] waited as long as a year for the right candidate to come along that met all of the qualifications.”

One of the most pervasive myths shadowing women pursuing board seats was also tackled at the Breakfast of Corporate Champions event: the idea that it’s really difficult to find a qualified woman for a board seat. The panel agreed companies should do more to help women within their organization understand how to access the board pipeline and be prepared to have the conversation among management. “Open forums like this are important because it’s top of people’s minds. Women on current boards can reach out to deeper parts of the organization to plant the seeds for the future,” Mulligan said.

So what can companies do today to better prepare women for more board seats, how can they help increase the pool of women who do qualify for the role? Kullman said that in order to increase the pool of candidates, the number of women CEO’s has to grow. “I think more CEOs and more senior leaders have to be willing advocate for the people in their organizations to be on boards. They have to be willing to take more chances and risk on promoting others,” Kullman said.

Ferguson said many committees fail to think about one basic, but crucial question: do we have a diverse board? Ferguson went on to say that companies should have a diversity-related statement accessible to the public, making it known where they stand on diversity issues.

The event was both eye-opening and inspiring, as it managed to approach the lack of women on boards honestly while also managing to honor the corporations that are making strides to close the gap. The breakfast also serves another vital purpose. As Immelt said, “Every meeting is a chance to meet someone that you think might be a good board member someday.”

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