Seven executive women leading the way

By
From the May 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

When Jo Ann Davidson was first running for elective office, there were few role models for her to emulate, so she looked for guidance elsewhere.

“I found one little book and it had four things for a woman candidate: ‘You have to think like a man. You have to work like a dog. You have to act like a lady, and you have to look like a girl.’”

Around the table, six other accomplished central Ohio women erupt in laughter amid gasps of disbelief.

“It offends me…but those are probably still basic things to keep in the back of your mind,” Davidson, 86, says.

Women take various paths to executive leadership. Some are natural leaders, but most have to work at it, and sometimes it feels like they’re working harder than their male counterparts. That was the consensus of seven women brought together by Columbus CEO for a roundtable discussion about their journeys to executive ranks.

“I was in a corporate setting for 20 years, and that’s exactly how I felt,” says Gail Kelley, 61. She is the woman behind Two Men and a Truck as the longtime central Ohio franchise owner. “I felt like I had to work twice as hard… I had to do better,” she recalls. Only half joking she adds, “I had to learn to play golf, and golf taught me that men don’t know what they’re doing either.”

More chuckles, but heads are nodding as others are eager to jump in with their experiences.

Rhonda Johnson’s predecessor was in the job 26 years. “I was held to a higher standard than he was….I knew I would not get a pass on making a mistake….You do have to work twice as hard, or maybe they’re not working that much,” she offers with a smile. A former teacher, Johnson, 59, has been president of the Columbus Education Association for 10 years and has accepted an offer from Mayor Michael Coleman to become the city’s first education director in June.

Melisa Miller has a different perspective for the group to consider. “Maybe we’re more oriented to the results and the outcome,” she observes. Miller, 55, works in the retail credit card industry. She is president of Alliance Data Retail Services, a leading provider of store-brand and co-brand credit card and loyalty programs and 12th largest employer in Columbus, with nearly 2,500 full-time associates.

Davidson adds another element to the discussion. “The thing that always worried me was to do it well enough so that another woman will have a chance, because if you fail, they’ll remember that for years.” Davidson blazed a trail from local politics in Reynoldsburg to become the first woman Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, a position she is widely regarded as having handled exceedingly well.

Kelley agrees with Davidson’s assessment. “It was like a rope around your neck….You could not fail for the rest of the women who were looking at you.”

Even small challenges can be tougher for a woman, notes Christine Merritt, president of the Ohio Association of Broadcasters, a statewide trade organization. “If my husband goes home because the kids are sick, he’s being a really good dad. If I go home because my kids are sick, I feel like it’s, ‘Oh, there she goes.’ There is that sort of double standard,” says Merritt, 49.

Nationally, women account for just 15 percent of executive officer positions despite making up nearly half the U.S. workforce. And in Columbus, corporate boards have just nine percent women, compared to 15 percent nationally, notes Elfi Di Bella. She is president and CEO of YWCA Columbus, which has empowering women as part of its mission.

“It’s so multifaceted in getting at this issue. Women leaders have to be a vocal presence,” says Teresa Caulin-Glaser, MD, OhioHealth system vice president, heart and vascular services.

The women convened by Columbus CEO were happy to share perspectives about how they have succeeded against the odds and to offer advice for other aspiring leaders regardless of gender.

Davidson runs a leadership development program for Republican women, so this is a topic on which she has focused a lot of attention. Women tend to be more risk-adverse, especially in politics, Davidson finds. Developing leadership skills “is not easy for anybody,” she says. “The biggest problem is women not having self-confidence in their ability.” Her leadership institute helps women gain confidence by exposing them to other leaders.

“A lot of times leaders evolve,” says Di Bella, 52, noting her own leadership style is “very different now than four years ago,” when she left a career in banking to head up the United Way agency.

Leadership development “needs to be very deliberate,” offers Caulin-Glaser, 59. “Starting young is important; that is where you learn to take risks.”

Johnson agrees, saying if enough early leadership opportunities are available in school, church and community settings, girls could take more confidence into high school and further develop their skills. “It’s about what we expose our children to and the expectations we have for them….It takes coaching. It takes pushing….(for) all of their lives.”

With 12-year-old twin daughters, Merritt is especially attuned to creating self-confidence in young girls. “That foundational piece is critical,” she agrees.

Playing sports helps develop leadership abilities – with women as well as men, contends Kelley. She credits Title IX, federal law enacted in 1972, for helping expand girls’ leadership potential because of how it increases their participation in sports. “You learn how to fail and get right back up. Every time I watch a sport, I think, ‘There is a leader being born.’....It’s about how do you face the world when you fail,” Kelley adds.

Miller, who likes to create words to capture complex concepts, calls a key trait of successful executives “humbition.” Good leaders have a balance of ambition and humility, she explains.

It is also important to be able to articulate a vision, Caulin-Glaser says, and to have a passion for your work, Di Bella recommends, and to be able to negotiate, Johnson adds.

As women are learning leadership, they need opportunities to say something in a meeting “that wasn’t particularly artful” and learn from it, Merritt says. She praised Davidson’s leadership institute for helping women “figure out how to make those mistakes early in a safe environment—and survive them.”

“We’re all talking about executive presence….(It) is a very difficult thing to teach,” says Caulin-Glaser.

Just as these executives have acquired common leadership traits in their diverse professional journeys, they have also witnessed—and winced at—behaviors that can keep women off the career ladder or on the lowest rungs.

Some women have trouble hiding judgmental body language and disagreeing agreeably, Davidson says. “You’re sitting in a meeting and you’re saying (to yourself), ‘That’s not a smart thing for her to do.’”

Miller understands. “The moment we roast someone because we don’t like their point of view is the moment that we just suck the oxygen out of the opportunity to create confidence in a room.”

The list of toxic traits grows as the discussion continues.

“Being negative” is on Di Bella’s don’t-do list.

Rolling the eyes is a no-no for Caulin-Glaser, as is not recognizing your team’s contributions.

“There are few things more vulgar than women in a board room using really inappropriate language,” Miller adds.

Relying too much on instinct hurts some women, Kelley says. Better to be well-prepared with objective information and knowing how to present it so others will understand.

Davidson has seen too many women politicians hurt their progress by seizing an issue as their primary—or only—cause. “You know exactly what they are going to say….They diminish their effectiveness so much” by pigeonholing themselves, making it easier for detractors not to take them seriously.

Johnson decries “this command-and-control attitude of ‘I know it; I’m right…’ You’re not recognizing your team when you’re doing that.”

Just as there are behaviors to avoid, there are proven strategies for attaining and maintaining a seat at the table in corporate boardrooms, in executive offices and in running nonprofit organizations, the women agree.

Caulin-Glaser stresses the value of execution. “If you are moving things forward, people will notice, and that will advance you.”

“Have a great team around you….It is important to have your gladiators,” says Johnson.

Di Bella and Kelley are advocates for having mentors, and both cite advantages of having a male in that role. “You need a champion who is going to speak on your behalf,” Di Bella says.

‘Teach, don’t preach,’” Miller recalls her mother told her. “It was very simple, quick advice I could try to remember.”

“It is more difficult to be a mentor, but…it frees you up to do many, many other things,” agrees Kelley.

Active pursuit of professional development is a must, Johnson says. “Study; get training.”

The Columbus CEO Executive Women panelists advocate continued focused effort and grassroots initiatives to raise the ranks of female leadership in all sectors, but they doubt there would be advantages to improving the situation through quotas or other legal remedies.

Sometimes the best approach is direct and targeted, says Davidson. She recalls being part of an effort years ago to add a woman to the board of the Columbus Chamber. It was a matter of learning the chamber’s criteria for board participation and then finding a willing female business leader who met the requirements. Katherine LeVeque was happy to oblige, Davidson recalls.

Di Bella’s organization annually lifts up central Ohio females through its Women of Achievement awards. Now in its 29th year, the luncheon program added five honorees this year to the 232 previously feted for “extraordinary contributions to their families, workplaces, and communities.”

Another initiative Di Bella espouses is WATT, which stands for Women at the Table. The central Ohio organization works to identify, educate and develop local women for corporate board seats.

Looking ahead, the women shied away from clear predictions for increasing the ranks of women business and nonprofit leaders.

Caulin-Glaser sees some hope for more significant change if women can increase their political presence, but Davidson says progress on that front has stalled, at least at the state level. Congress has seen more movement toward gender parity, Davidson says.

Di Bella is heartened by steps such as Johnson will take soon when she joins the mayor’s cabinet.

Acknowledging the esteem, Johnson sees her task simply: “We have to bring everyone up.”