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Minnesota’s women executives are in good company

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Photo by Sara Rubinstein
Angela Busch of Ecolab

Angela Busch has never been afraid to play with the boys. Growing up on a farm near New Prague, she learned to do whatever needed to be done, whether that meant taking care of livestock, butchering chickens, or helping clear rocks on the family’s 100 acres. She spent much of her career in male-dominated fields—mechanical engineering and investment banking—and studiously resisted pointing out that she was often the only woman in the room. As she says, “What a way to put a neon sign on myself as being the odd man out!”

She was at a career crossroads in 2006 when Ecolab came calling. Busch was intrigued that this old St. Paul company best known for making soap had financial performance a tech company in Silicon Valley would envy. She met the company’s CEO, Doug Baker Jr., who struck her as not just smart, but authentic; he talked about the company’s strengths and weaknesses, and wanting to add a voice that could help the company improve. By this time, “I’d already checked the boxes,” Busch says. “I’d been a consultant, I’d been an investment banker. I was looking for—not so much resume building … I was looking for: Is this going to be fun? Is it going to be challenging? Am I going to be contributing? Really much more of the softer stuff.”

Almost seven years and $10 billion in acquisitions later, Ecolab is now also into water treatment and energy services, and Busch, the company’s senior vice president of corporate development, has been busy. A confident woman who laughs easily and often, the 46-year-old Busch is the opposite of bashful, never hesitating to speak her mind. And yet, she says it helps to know that with three other women on the executive team, she always has a friend in the room, “someone who’s got your back, who won’t think something is a dumb idea, who will give you the benefit of the doubt.”

Today’s elite women executives, like Busch, have choices about where they want to work. Some are voting with their feet, going where they are most welcome—where they know they will have a friend in the room. Unfortunately, that’s still a minority of companies, in Minnesota and across the nation. While the bad old days of outright discrimination and harassment are mostly history, the number of women at the top of the state’s public companies is still small, and progress remains elusive.

Stalled out

As the 2012 Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership makes clear, the number of women at the top of Minnesota’s 100 biggest public companies has plateaued. The research mirrors national findings by Catalyst, the women’s research group, executive search firm Spencer Stuart, and others. Though women now make up half of the managerial and professional ranks, women have stalled out at the top levels of corporate leadership, just when many expected them to be taking off.

There is some good news: Nationally, 21 Fortune 500 CEOs are now women, and locally, Shelly Ibach joined the small sorority of Minnesota women CEOs when she was named to lead mattress-maker Select Comfort in June. In corporate leadership, as in so many things, Minnesotans are above average. The state still leads the nation in its proportion of women executive officers, at 17.4 percent, and our percentage of women on corporate boards, 14.5, ranks fifth out of the 15 regions studied by ION, the InterOrganization Network, a national organization that advocates for women’s business leadership.

To be sure, the census doesn’t capture the full picture of Minnesota’s women leaders, as it looks only at publicly traded companies. The Women Presidents’ Organization, made up of leaders of private firms, has about 100 members in Minnesota, with another 40 in the wings. One of the state’s largest private companies, hospitality giant Carlson, named Trudy Rautio its CEO last summer. Women now own nearly one-third of businesses in the state, according to U.S. Census data. More women hold elective office than ever before (see “If Women Ran America,” page 45). And our nonprofits and foundations are loaded with talented women, with Mary Brainerd, CEO of HealthPartners, Kathryn Correia at HealthEast, Becky Roloff at the YWCA, Olga Viso at the Walker Art Center, and Sandra Vargas at the Minneapolis Foundation just a small sampling.

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Maureen Steinwall

But given the large number of public companies based in Minnesota—per capita, we have more Fortune 500 headquarters than all but one state—the lack of women’s progress in the state’s public companies is troubling. The number of women in top executive positions or on corporate boards has barely changed since 2008, when St. Catherine University began analyzing the Minnesota census data. Sixteen women of color held directorships at Minnesota public companies, just 2 percent of the total. The lack of gender diversity means companies are missing out on the full range of talent. “We still don’t have the number of women sitting around board tables that will advantage the companies around here,” says Susan Boren, a partner at Spencer Stuart’s Minneapolis office and a former Target executive.

Alone in the room

A closer look at the Minnesota data shows that a third of the state’s top 100 companies had just one female executive officer in 2012. Thirty-one had two or more, and 36 had none, at least as disclosed in Securities and Exchange Commission filings. (Companies may distinguish between corporate officers like Ecolab’s Busch, who serve on the executive team and report to the CEO, and a smaller set of executive officers.)

A new study for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Women in Business by their research advisor, McKinsey & Company, found that some Fortune 1,000 companies are doing much better than the rest at developing women leaders, says Joanna Barsh, a senior partner at McKinsey who led the study. Most had certain advantages: Many were in industries that attract women, such as health care and retail; they had bigger executive teams, with more spots to fill; and they already had women on their boards of directors. They have good systems to track and manage talent. Just as important, Barsh says, is the company’s culture, and the story the CEO tells about the importance of women. “Companies with very, very strong values that are part of their ‘genetic code’ are especially compelling to women.”

Such cultural changes don’t happen overnight, says Maureen Steinwall, president and CEO of Steinwall, Inc., a $19 million injection molding company. When she took over the family business in the 1980s, the company’s workers headed for the exits rather than work for a woman in her 20s, and she had to start over from scratch. Still, she says, reinforcing the humanistic management style she favors has taken constant effort. “It takes about 20 years to shift the culture,” Steinwall says, as new people come in and have to be “deprogrammed” from what they’ve picked up elsewhere.

Sometimes, however, a company gives itself a shot in the arm with new hires. Ecolab recruited Busch and its other top female executives from outside, in part because of their expertise, but also in recognition that the talent wasn’t ready yet in its internal pipeline. “Ecolab is fortunate to have an outstanding global leadership team with considerable diversity,” says CEO Baker. “We’re committed to building a strong leadership team and a great workplace, where all people, including women, can excel and advance in their careers, because we want the very best people.”

To bolster those efforts, Ecolab is working on “the softer stuff,” trying to make sure that all employees—not just women—have a friend at work, and an initiative called E3 aims to foster connections among women with a sort of internal LinkedIn quarterly letter noting job changes, promotions and other achievements.

Risk-taking

The softer stuff only goes so far, of course. Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO, set off a firestorm last year at a women’s gathering when he scoffed at all the talk of mentoring and affinity groups. That’s not how women get ahead, he said, according to the Wall Street Journal: “Overdeliver! Performance is it!”

Sharon Jones can relate. She’s spent 28 years at Alliant Techsystems, also known as ATK, and is now vice president of technology for ATK Sporting, the world’s largest commercial ammunition supplier division, which is based in Anoka. (The company recently moved its headquarters from the Twin Cities to the Washington, D.C., area.) A chemist by training who grew up “without two nickels to rub together” in Rapid City, South Dakota, she started out in ATK’s operations in Utah, where the company makes rocket motors. Part of the troubleshooting process in such manufacturing requires the ability to challenge subject-matter experts, as a missed issue could have extreme consequences.

For much of her career, she’s been the only woman around. “I had to establish credibility at every meeting,” she says. That lasted 10 years. She volunteered for “icky” assignments, “the really undesirable ones.” The upside was big, she discovered, and she learned that if she was willing to try, she’d get resources. “As I got into management, I realized how important it was” to take such risks. Over the years, she’s mentored about 30 women, and a few men. Most have done well.

In her current job, the 53-year-old mother and grandmother manages 300 employees spread out over every time zone in the United States. She recently compared notes with two other women who have similar roles in other parts of the company. “We tend to be in an integrator-type role,” she says, facilitating in a non-threatening way. “I really enjoy what I do,” Jones says. “In some twisted way I enjoy the adversity.”

The path to power

Some workplace obstacles are more subtle. Operating experience, “the power path” that leads to top jobs, can be elusive for many women, especially those who start out in human resources, legal, communications, or even finance. Many women gravitate to such roles, especially if they have families, because they are more controllable, and usually require less travel, Barsh says. But to get a shot at the top job, most need experience running a business.

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Mary Brainerd

Mary Brainerd, CEO of HealthPartners since 2002 and mother of two adult children, advises women worried about balancing work and family to keep their options open. Even if a C-suite job isn’t in someone’s immediate future, they can take steps to make it possible later on. “There are times for different things in the course of a lifetime, and while the right time might not be when your kids are 3 and 5 or 14 or 15, the time might be exactly right when your kids are 18 and 20.”

She also thinks some C-suite jobs have gotten a bad rap: “It’s a very rewarding job, in the sense of being able to work with talented people and actually be able to accomplish so much, not as an individual contributor, but with and through others,” she says. The loneliness of the job is overstated, as executives have the chance to develop their own teams. “Accomplishing things that you think are important with and through others is one of the wonderful things about being a CEO.”

What obstacles remain? “Ourselves,” says Sharon Jones. “We’ll fight to the death for our staff and our families, but we have a very big blind spot: saying, ‘I want that.’ ”

She cites research that compared male and female responses to a job posting with five qualifications. How many does a man need to have before he will apply? One. A woman? Five.

Many women still wait to be encouraged or tapped on the shoulder, rather than put themselves up for new challenges. “We need to be better advocates for ourselves,” Jones says. “Humility is a great character trait, but overdone, it’s limited.”

The boardroom

When it comes to the boardroom, however, men usually hold the keys. Women Corporate Directors makes a database of candidates available, but some companies don’t ask. From a search firm’s perspective, Boren says, “if you’re not including women, you’re not seeing the very best pool.” And with women making almost three-quarters of purchasing decisions, she says, “they often represent the voice of the customer.”

It’s not a matter of men setting out to block the path of women, she notes. “I don’t ascribe intentional discrimination to any of this, frankly. This is a business of human beings.” The reality, she points out, “is that the highest percentage of board membership is men,” and they tend to replicate themselves, drawing upon the people they know. Four out of five open board seats went to men last year. At that rate, women aren’t going to catch up very fast.

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Esperanza Guerrero-Anderson

Women who have had board experience say it’s made them better leaders. Esperanza Guerrero-Anderson’s international banking background and work with entrepreneurs has made her an asset on many nonprofit and private boards, as well as on M&I Bank’s Minnesota board before it became part of BMO Harris Bank. But even though she calls herself “conservative and traditional,” she loved serving on the cutting-edge Walker Art Center’s board for two decades, partly because it was “so open-minded,” and “some of the best CEOs in town sit on that board.”

Maureen Steinwall has more than 20 years experience as president and CEO of her family’s manufacturing business. Yet she had never been asked to serve on a corporate board until recently, when the daughters of a stockholder in a family-owned private manufacturing company asked the board to find a woman in the industry.

Such investor pressure may be gaining ground. Last year, a new initiative called the Thirty Percent Coalition began a campaign to have qualified women make up 30 percent of board seats at public companies by the end of 2015. Composed of pension funds, public officials, and women’s and religious groups, the coalition argues that companies that embrace gender diversity are better governed, better managed, and have better long-term growth prospects. On a 10-member board, 30 percent would mean three women, the point at which, research shows, they can make a real impact.

The talent pool is ready, many women say, especially if boards look beyond the most obvious candidates—CEOs and retired CEOs—since only a few women meet that criteria. Mary Brainerd says that in three minutes, she came up with a list of 20 women, either CEOs, potential CEOs, or other community leaders she’d be delighted to serve with on a board. HealthPartners has a particularly diverse board, and that feeds on itself, she says.

“Intentionality is key,” Brainerd says. The companies that value diversity have been able to accomplish that, “and those that don’t see the value or haven’t made the effort remain unchanged.”

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Sharon Jones

Could women do more to bring other women along? Boren says that Women Corporate Directors encourages women who are approached for a board seat but can’t accept to “never just say no, but rather, ‘Let me give you three more names of fabulous women.’ ”

Dee Thibodeau, co-CEO of Charter Solutions, a consulting group, is part of a circle of women who are making themselves available should a director spot open up, and she says several are being interviewed.

What about the women who are already on boards? “I think it’s hard,” Boren says. “For most women who sit on boards, their primary role is to be a great director.” To assume that they are supposed to raise the diversity issue “is a little discriminatory”—sort of like putting a neon sign on yourself.

Twin Cities BusinessAsked whether she was interested in board service, Angela Busch laughed, “I have two young kids at home [ages 4 and 10], and I’m barely keeping my head above water some days!” Down the road, however, she doesn’t rule out serving on a board, or even taking on a CEO job some day, perhaps with a smaller private company. She shared that with her boss, and Baker kept it in mind. When the need came up to find someone to oversee the company’s hand hygiene business, he realized her experience with a related acquisition would make her a good fit. And, he told her, “You’re going to learn better where we know and believe in you.” So far, it’s working for both of them. She gets operating experience, and he gets to keep another woman at the executive table.

Ann Harrington is senior editor of Twin Cities Business.

***

If women ran America

In 1992, when Life magazine posited “If Women Ran America,” there were two women in the U.S. Senate, one on the Supreme Court, and one female Fortune 500 CEO. The magazine tried to imagine the reverse: Ms. Speaker? Madam President? Mrs. Chief Justice? Women earning more money than men? Men staying home to raise children, and networks replacing soap operas with more football?

Women still don’t run America, but they are certainly closer in many realms than in the top ranks of our corporations. There are now 20 women in the U.S. Senate, including Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, and 77 in the House of Representatives, including a pair of political opposites, Republican Michele Bachmann and Democrat Betty McCollum. In the Minnesota Legislature, 227 women are now serving, a third of the total.

We’ve now seen a Madam Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, is following so many formidable women in the job that he joked he had “big heels to fill.” Women make up a third of the Supreme Court, and Madam President is not so hard to imagine. About 29 percent of women in dual-career households earn more than their husbands, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In January, the Pentagon removed the ban on women serving in combat.

Yet all the talk about 2012 being the Year of the Woman in politics may be overblown. As Klobuchar points out: “We’ve made some great strides, but in truth, we still are 50 percent of the population and we are only 20 percent of the U.S. Senate, so I think that we still have a lot more work to do.”

Despite their small numbers, women in Congress are more effective than their male counterparts, Klobuchar says. “I have found that the women work across the aisle better, which we’re sorely in need of in Washington right now,” she says, sponsoring each others’ bills, listening to each other, and coming up with compromises.

“When you look at the track record in the Senate, it was women [who] led nearly half the bills last year that passed that were significant,” she says. She and Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington, led the effort to push the bipartisan Violence Against Women Act through the Senate. It ultimately passed both houses of Congress earlier this year, with every woman member voting for it. Women also played key roles in bipartisan efforts to move the transportation bill and the farm bill through the Senate, Klobuchar says.

Women also bring each other along, Klobuchar says. She’s mentoring the only new Republican senator, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, at Fischer’s request. In the late 1990s, when Klobuchar first was preparing to run for office, then-Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe “was a great advisor to me,” not only offering her policy advice, but also making sure she was treated with respect —something that’s not a given, especially with younger candidates, Klobuchar says. 

Growe also looked out for her in ways a man might not think of. Klobuchar recalls that when she was thinking about running for Hennepin County attorney, a job no woman had ever held, Growe looked at her and said, ”You need some new shoes.” —A. H.

This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.


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