Shattering the Ceiling

Local business leaders have an ambitious plan to help more women climb the corporate ladder. Supporters want to get the entire community on board to Widen the Circle and put more female execs in leadership roles.

By Julanne Hohbach
From the April 2013 issue of Columbus CEO

Cynics often contend that Washington is the place where good ideas go to die. But for George Barrett, chairman and CEO of Cardinal Health, a trip to the nation’s capital provided a spark of inspiration for how Central Ohio organizations could elevate more women into corporate leadership roles.

Barrett was in Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the Wall Street Journal CEO Council. A session on women in business featured actress Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004. “She was fantastic,” Barrett says. “She was incredibly fluent in the subject and quite passionate.”

If Davis could inspire the CEOs of some of the world’s leading companies, why not folks in Central Ohio? “I just thought it would be an interesting conversation with us at Cardinal Health,” Barrett says.

At a subsequent meeting of the Columbus Partnership, a thought struck him. “For a city which is, as you know, known for its openness, we look surprisingly gender imbalanced,” Barrett says. So he pitched the topic to the Partnership’s executive committee as a broader community issue.

Barrett says Central Ohio has numerous business advantages. “It’s a place where you can make things happen,” he says. As community leaders, it seemed logical for Partnership members to talk about whether they are getting the kinds of talent they need and whether women are moving to the top spots.

Steve Lyons, vice president of member services and community engagement for the Columbus Partnership, says committee members immediately embraced the idea. “It was a resounding yes,” he says.

The Widen the Circle initiative kicked off with an invitation-only event Oct. 1 at Ohio State University. Davis delivered the keynote address and participated in a panel discussion.

Now, the hard part has begun. The Partnership’s HR Council is gathering data about local women in leadership, including percentages of women in the workforce as well as in management, senior leadership and executive roles. The results will be used to compile a set of best practices to be shared with the entire business community. The initial call went out in January, Lyons says. The group aims to have ideas compiled by the end of the first quarter.

“From there, our challenge—our next step—is to convene a broader community dialogue that takes Widen the Circle to Widen the Circle 2.0,” Lyons says.

Carole Watkins, chief human resources officer for Cardinal Health and an HR Council member, says the group aims to develop a menu of options so local organizations can adopt their own related initiatives. The company aims to host a session on sharing best practices in the spring.

The HR Council (which also addresses issues such as creating a sustainable talent pipeline for the region; local, state and federal policy implications; leveraging and engaging students; and marketing and branding) has 15 members: American Electric Power, Battelle, Big Lots, Cardinal Health, The Dispatch Printing Company (parent of Columbus C.E.O.), DSW, Express, Greif, Huntington Bancshares, Limited Brands, Nationwide, OhioHealth, Ohio State University, ScottsMiracle-Gro and Squire Sanders.

Lyons says tackling issues such as work-life balance, flexible schedules and even communicating the importance of having women on boards of directors—so that every level of an organization is engaged in the effort—are steps companies of all sizes can take to Widen the Circle. He also would like to see more collaborative opportunities to keep the conversation moving forward, whether it takes the form of leadership programming that talks about mentoring or even speakers’ bureau events. 

“When you talk about women in leadership, it’s not always a one-size-fits-all,” Lyons says. “Also, I think it’s important to continue to engage the male perspective. … I think it’s important that both men and women gain a more thorough understanding.”

Keith Sanders, senior executive vice president and human resources director at Huntington and a member of the Partnership’s HR Council, agrees. “It’s really important that men understand the importance of engaging all their employees,” he says.

 

Building Support

Using the Partnership’s backing to launch such an undertaking is a logical starting point, given that its members include 50 of the most respected and influential organizations in the region.

The Partnership, which has consciously grown its ranks under the leadership of President and CEO Alex Fischer, has increased the number of women at its own table to six. Still, there’s always room for improvement.

According to the Institute on Women, a Columbus-based nonprofit research organization, Ohio has had only two women serving as CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies: Kerrii Anderson, formerly at Dublin-based Wendy’s International, and Beth Mooney at KeyCorp. in Cleveland.

The 2012 Central Ohio Leadership Census (compiled by the institute, Otterbein University and the local chapter of Women for Economic and Leadership Development) states that 8 percent of the 48 largest private companies in Ohio have female CEOs. Of the 28 public companies in Central Ohio, none have female CEOS and 36 percent have no women on their boards.

Nationally, according to a March report from nonprofit research organization Catalyst, women make up 46.9 percent of the U.S. labor force, but hold only 4.2 percent of CEO jobs at Fortune 500 companies and 16.6 percent of board seats at those organizations.

At Cardinal Health, the largest public company in Ohio and No. 21 on the 2012 Fortune 500, Widen the Circle was a logical extension of several existing efforts, including the Women’s Initiative Network, which focuses on ways to make the company a good place for women to grow their careers. The company also is trying to boost the number of women pharmacists through its Women in Pharmacy Initiative. More than half of pharmacy school graduates are women, Barrett says, but the percentage of women who are pharmacy owners is in the teens.

Cardinal Health has won its share of accolades for women in the workplace, including recent rankings among the 2012 Working Mother 100 Best Companies and the 2013 NAFE Top 50 Companies for Executive Women, bestowed by the National Association for Female Executives. According to the NAFE data, women make up 44 percent of Cardinal Health’s 22,651-person U.S. workforce, 31 percent of its senior managers and 22 percent of corporate executives. According to the company’s website, five of the top 21 executives are women, and three women sit on its 12-member board of directors.

Columbus, too, is getting noticed as a good place for career women. The city landed the No. 8 spot on Forbes’ list of The 15 Best Cities for Female Entrepreneurs and was ranked No. 1 on the magazine’s The Best Cities for Working Mothers 2012.

 

Measuring Success

Sanders says Widen the Circle gives employers as well as the community an opportunity to acknowledge support for women leaders, and to “focus on not only the accomplishments of women, but also give women aspirational people to look to.”

Watkins says the concept of sponsorship, rather than mentorship, can help move women up the career ladder. Coaches, she says, talk to you. Mentors talk with you. Sponsors talk about you. 

Sanders says the bank strives to empower and advance not only women (it has women’s business resource groups in Columbus and several other markets), but all employees. “At Huntington, we focus on inclusion,” he says. The goal: making sure all associates feel included and treated with respect, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and the like. “We want to create an environment where differences are valued,” Sanders says. “When we do that, we create business value and we create a competitive advantage.”

According to its website, three of Huntington’s top 12 executive officers are women. The company also has two female regional presidents and two women on its board of directors. Overall, Sanders says, 63 percent of Huntington employees are women—significantly better than the DiversityInc. Top 50 national average of 47 percent. “We’re very proud of our efforts,” he says.

Barrett says Cardinal Health, too, regularly talks about diversity—at both the executive and board levels. “Diversity is a very loaded subject,” he says. To some, it’s about rights; to others, it’s about quotas. “To me, I try to think of it in the context of inclusion.

“We want it to be an environment where we are great because we have great people that look and think differently,” Barrett says.

The company’s Voice of the Employee survey has an inclusion index, which has been rising for the last three years, Barrett says: “Our board cares about this.”

Ultimately, it will fall to many organizations’ HR departments to track and try to improve the percentage of women in leadership roles. Already, the Widen the Circle initiative has gained buzz and companies want to get on board. “Other people in the community are hearing about it and they’re calling me,” Watkins says.

Getting buy-in from those in the C-suite and at the board level is critical to success, Lyons says. Sanders agrees. “It all starts with leadership at the top. The leadership team has to have a firm commitment,” he says.

Sanders advises midsize and smaller organizations to focus on succession planning, looking at the women who are in place now and evaluating recruiting efforts to build a “pipeline of talent.” That could be as simple as having an internal referral process, he says. “The key is succession planning and talent identification.”

Those involved in Widen the Circle certainly hope to see improved metrics of women in leadership as the initiative continues. “But I think more important, the measure is the organizational health of companies that are involved in this effort,” Sanders says.

“We would like to be recognized as the No. 1 place in the country for women to grow their careers,” Lyons says.

Julanne Hohbach is the editor for Columbus C.E.O.