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CEO shares tips for advancing women in corporate leadership

Bea Abdallah, vice president of external relations for St. Catherine University, with Frontier Communications CEO Maggie Wilderotter and Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz ’82.
Bea Abdallah, vice president of external relations for St. Catherine University, with Frontier Communications CEO Maggie Wilderotter and Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz ’82.
Photo by Rebecca Zenefski ’10

It was the very definition of “power lunch” St. Kate’s style. Several local women business leaders gathered Tuesday to discuss ways to expand executive leadership opportunities for women, including serving on corporate boards. The luncheon featured Maggie Wilderotter, CEO of Frontier Communications, who shared her personal story.

The event was initiated by Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz ’82, who heard that Wilderotter was visiting the Twin Cities and was interested in speaking with other women executives. Kautz immediately thought of St. Kate’s and its focus on women in leadership.

“I’m an alumna and a product of that environment,” says Kautz. “I thought this was the best venue for a chairwoman and CEO of a fortune 500 company to share her story, and to inspire and show women the path to the executive suite and the boardroom.”

One CEO’s advice

Advancing women starts in the corner office, Wilderotter said in her opening remarks, adding that “with 85 percent of consumer buying decisions in this country made by women, it's important to have a balance of women and men in leadership.”

Far too often, women undermine their own growth opportunities by underestimating their power and their own potential, Wilderotter said. She offered the following tips for overcoming career pitfalls:

  1. Refuse to be invisible.
    Too often, women get complacent in their positions and are afraid to risk taking on high-profile projects. Additionally, women are quick to give others credit for good work on collaborative projects, while not ensuring that their own contributions are recognized.

  2. Networking is working.
    “Women see networking as an extracurricular activity — it’s not, it’s work,” explains Wilderotter. She also stressed the importance to network with people at all levels, and to “align yourself with the people who get things done.” Another tip: If there’s a board you want to join, find out what the directors care about. Volunteer at the same places they volunteer. Through shared interests, relationships are built.

  3. Field experience.
    Having experience in operations gives you hands-on perspective. Also, volunteer to be a spokesperson for your organization or company. “Be available and responsive for media interviews. Write articles and columns,” she says. In other words, build awareness of your own field expertise.

  4. Help ourselves, help other women.
    “We have two hands for a reason,” says Wilderotter. Women tend to be good about mentoring other women in the early stage of their careers, but often quit doing that as they become successful and feel “too busy.”

Setting an example

Wilderotter doesn’t just talk the talk. When she took the helm of Frontier Communications, there was only one female VP. Now, the top 7 percent of executives are women, and women comprise 50 percent of the operating presidents company-wide.

Joy Eldred, regional VP of engineering at Frontier Communications saw this shift firsthand. Starting as a secretary at the company 37 years ago, she’s worked her way up through the ranks.

“If you work hard and get things done, you do well. The company truly fosters career growth from within its pool of talent,” she says. 

Over the course of her career, Wilderotter has served on 23 public boards. On all but three, she was the first woman director. She sees this as another area where women can strategically advance other women.

“I make it a personal policy not to leave a board unless there’s a woman that can take my place,” she says.

When joining a corporate board, be ready for hard work, warns Wilderotter.

“You shouldn’t sit on a board unless you’re ready to be courageous, because doing the right thing is difficult,” she says. “Boards have to create an environment where companies can be sustainable. There are tough decisions. It’s not about prestige, it’s about hard work.”

Her take on the most important things a board can do to make a successful company: Put a good strategy in place and hire the right CEO to oversee its execution.

Women in corporate leadership, by the numbers

Joann Bangs, dean of the School of Business and Professional Studies, and Rebecca Hawthorne, director of the Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership program shared research findings at the luncheon from the latest Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership.

“Thirty percent is the tipping point where women can influence corporate governance and company performance,” said Hawthorne. She explained that companies with 30 percent or more of women directors and 30 percent or more of women executive officers see an improved bottom line, increased innovation, improved decision-making and group performance, and increased representation of stakeholder interests.

While we are far from the 30 percent benchmark nationwide, Minnesota is seeing a small uptick — with women representing 14.9 percent of directors and 18.6 of executive officers. The growth is small, but it’s still encouraging, said Bangs.

“If we can continue at this growth rate, we’ll reach that 30 percent benchmark in board directors by 2038, and 30 percent in the executive suite by 2020,” she explained.

Related content:
View more photos from the event on flickr.

June 19, 2014 by Sharon Rolenc

See also: Alumnae/i, Business, Leadership