Peak Performances

By Ann Pomeroy Apr 1, 2007

Tough choices, mentors and broad experience are critical for women who hope to climb the HR executive ranks.

Ten years ago, an HR Magazine article about the status of women in the HR profession ended with a prediction: “[It’s] a good bet that the next 25 years will find more women leading the HR departments of the nation’s blue chip companies. It’s just a matter of time.”

As we set out to re-examine the issue in 2007, it quickly became clear that, while incremental progress has been made, the proportion of women to men in HR’s executive ranks is little changed 10 years later. (See sidebar “Modest Gains”.)

To explore the reasons for this discouragingly slow progress, we talked to a number of successful women in executive-level HR positions. We asked these women why there aren’t more like them at the top. We also asked them about their own career paths and the challenges they’ve faced. And we asked them what advice they have for women competing for executive HR jobs today.

Choices and Trade-Offs

Libby Sartain, SPHR, senior vice president and “chief people Yahoo” at Yahoo! Inc., the Internet services company based in Sunnyvale, Calif., acknowledges that women who choose to compete for the top jobs confront trade-offs and choices not usually faced by their male colleagues, beginning with the fact that women are the ones who have the babies.

Sartain, for example, chose to limit her family to one child because of the heavy demands of her career. Some women decide not to take on both children and career, she says, because they don’t think they can handle both. And some choose not to marry for the same reason.

The women HR Magazine interviewed agreed that moving up requires some choices that have nothing to do with competency. Instead, they said, women simply need more flexibility than men because they are usually the primary family caregivers. The traditional male model of full-time nonstop employment is a career path that is not always workable for women, these women told us.

But, those traditional models are changing. Sartain is a baby boomer whose daughter is grown. As she begins to think of retirement, she notes that the lives of the female Gen-Xers coming after her are different. For example, “The younger women I work with today often have stay-at-home husbands,” a trend Sartain has noticed for at least 10 years. “They also have nannies. Some have two nannies—one for daytime and one for overnight.”

Latrell Johnson, employee relations manager at the Warren, N.J., headquarters of Chubb Corp., is a Gen-Xer with 4-year-old twin daughters. (She was in her third year of law school when the girls were born.) She says she was fortunate that her mother could help care for the babies during their first two years.

Johnson agrees that women are still seen as the primary caregivers, recalling an incident when her daughters were babies that illustrated the perception that men who care for their children are doing something extraordinary, while women are just doing their jobs.

“I usually took the girls to the doctor for their checkups,” she says. “Once, though, I wasn’t able to do it and my husband took them instead.” Her husband, an elementary school principal who is completing his doctoral degree, “came home raving about how everyone in the waiting room was so impressed that he actually brought his children to their appointment all by himself and wasn’t that wonderful.”


Mentors and Role Models

Every woman we interviewed stressed the importance of mentors and female role models in their lives. But the lack of female mentors was a common complaint. One solution, suggests Toni Riccardi, senior consultant for diversity and inclusion at The Conference Board of New York and former chief diversity officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), is to look outside your company to find friends and colleagues at other organizations who can fill that role. Another option, she says, is to hire a coach.

Riccardi was head of HR planning at PwC when she made partner in 1998. The fact that she had a sponsor at the company, a female partner who supported her advancement to partner, was a huge advantage, she says.

Cathy Lord, vice president of HR services at grocery chain Safeway’s corporate headquarters in Pleasanton, Calif., recalls how mentors helped her throughout her career. (For more about Safeway and the company’s focus on mentoring, see “ Cultivating Female Leaders” in the February 2007 issue of HR Magazine.)

As Lord illustrates, mentors don’t have to be female. Her first mentor was Jerome Churchill, a cousin of Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Jerome, who was her boss, managed the HR function at the Spreckels Sugar Co. (later purchased by Imperial Sugar) in Newark, Calif., when Lord worked there. Now deceased, Churchill was ahead of his time in his progressive ideas, says Lord. He set a standard of excellence for HR that she has pursued throughout a 25-year HR career. In addition, she says, “He mentored me in such a way that I could mentor others.”

Lord says she has never had an “official” female mentor. Because she understands the importance of good role models, she feels a responsibility to mentor women coming up behind her. Of course, she mentors men as well, and Lord says it’s particularly satisfying when a man who had never worked for a woman before joining her staff asks her to mentor him.

Johnson, a black woman who is the first college graduate on both sides of her family, says she has consciously sought out good mentors during her career. “And my personal goal, which is as important to me as my professional goals, has always been to be a role model for my family.

“It’s not that I think I’m so wonderful that everyone should want to be like me,” she explains. “I wanted [the women in my family] to know that it’s possible to do what I’ve done and more.”

In another context, John Thompson, CEO of Symantec Corp. in Cupertino, Calif., expressed a very different view when asked if he saw himself as a role model for other blacks. “I don’t think of myself as a role model, because I think to the extent that you move in that direction, you delude yourself and you start to think that you are more than you actually are,” he said during taping of an episode of the PBS television series “CEO Exchange,” sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management. Thompson continued: “I concentrate on doing the best job I know how to do … [which] gives me the opportunity to demonstrate to others that it can be done. … It’s all about hard work and staying focused. … I cannot be distracted and spend all my time mentoring, as opposed to spending more of my time doing my job. That’s what makes for real role models,” he concluded.

All the women we interviewed, however, agreed with Lord that they have a particular responsibility to the women who follow them.

Getting There from Here

Whether male or female, there is no debate about the skills and experience needed by successful HR executives. As we reported in 1997, knowledge of the business, financial savvy and the ability to tie HR initiatives to business goals are essential. The increasing number of female MBAs indicates that women have taken this advice to heart.

The executives we spoke with identified several other steps women can take to promote advancement. For example, gaining broad experience, including line experience, at a variety of companies enhances a resume. However, that’s an area in which women sometimes find themselves at a disadvantage.

Assistant professor Mary Shapiro of the Simmons School of Management in Boston says women often start their careers at the bottom of HR and move up. Men, on the other hand, frequently move into management roles in HR after gaining significant line experience.

Shapiro says women in HR can improve their chances for advancement by looking for opportunities to take on line positions early in their careers.

Helen Drinan, SPHR, senior vice president of HR at Caritas Christi Health Care in Boston, recalls a time when her lack of broad experience threatened to stall her career. She persisted, however, and found a way to clear that hurdle.

During her earlier career at BankBoston, Drinan was told that she was being considered, along with another internal male candidate, for future succession to a top job. “It was a highly public internal competition,” she says. Later, however, she was informed that the male candidate had a leg up because he had more experience at other companies. “I was told that I needed to get some experience at other companies,” she said.

Drinan pointed out that, since the job was slated to be filled within three years, it was highly unlikely that she could go out and get that external experience and return in time to take the job. “Oh, you’re right,” they told her. The message she got was, “Never mind, you can’t get there from here.”

But she did.

At that time, BankBoston was involved in a number of mergers and acquisitions (M&As), and it was Drinan’s job to perform due diligence for all HR-related merger activities. “I probably did 30 M&As during that time, working with a variety of companies, and that turned out to be a proxy for the ‘other company experience’ I lacked.

“It was an internal opportunity to make up for a weakness” without leaving the company, Drinan continues. As a result of her highly visible work with multiple companies, she was chosen as the new executive vice president of HR. As she puts it, “The story ended well.”

Like many successful women with whom we spoke, the knowledge Drinan has acquired during an HR career spanning nearly 30 years makes her a valuable resource for women who are climbing the career ladder today. Drinan’s previous positions include president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management as well as 19 years of senior management positions at BankBoston.

She says women who want to compete for executive positions should “find opportunities that will test you. You need to be opportunistic and aggressive to show that you can play at [the top] levels.”

It’s also important to be “interpersonally competent.” Some women are uncomfortable dealing with top executives, Drinan says. She advises these women to bolster their self-confidence by “doing your job so well that you recognize that you are doing a great job.”

She adds that it’s vital to build relationships at all levels of the organization, not just at the top.

Drinan modestly downplays her own success. “I think I always tried to make up in ‘sweat equity’ for what I lacked in gifts. I’ve always been a very hard worker, doggedly committed to hanging in there.” She says she and her husband refer to each other as the tortoise and the hare. “He’s a quick study. I take longer, but I get there in the end.”

Being in the right place at the right time is a major success factor, but that is often beyond your control, says Drinan. “My mother was in HR, but there was no way she was going to make it to the top at that time. I think I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.”

A Double Burden

Women in HR face two big hurdles on their way to the top, says Shapiro. “There is the general hurdle of women moving up in organizations, plus the hurdle of moving [the HR profession] up in influence in their organization.” Anything that advances the visibility and influence of the profession will advance women’s promotional opportunities, she says.

One way is to combat stereotypes such as beliefs that HR is a good profession for women because it’s “about taking care of people, while men’s role is to take care of the business,” says Shapiro. Getting across the idea that HR’s role is to align employees as contributors to company strategy can help change outmoded thinking, she says.

In “Confronting Career Double Binds: Implications for Women and Organizations,” an article to be published this summer in the Journal of Career Development, Shapiro and her Simmons co-authors Cynthia Ingols and Stacy Black-Beard write about a woman who “inherited a department with a crisis culture—a sense of urgency pervaded every task, resulting in all-nighters to get projects out by their deadlines.”

When her boss questioned her willingness “to do what it takes” (a common criticism that equates working late hours with true commitment), the woman “asked him if he really wanted people doing high-visibility client work when they were exhausted.”

To support her case, she compared reports generated during normal business hours with those done during late-night sessions. She found that reports produced at night contained significantly more errors than those done during the day. When she showed her results to the boss, “The all-nighters became a thing of the past.”

Believe in Yourself

Self-confidence is particularly important for women, says Chubb’s Johnson, who believes women tend to be perfectionists and are susceptible to self-doubt.

For example, she says, “Men see a job listing and say, ‘Great! I meet 80 percent of the requirements. I’ll apply.’ Women see the same listing and say, ‘Oh, I only meet 80 percent of the requirements. I guess there’s no point in applying.’ ”

To help others overcome these perceived shortcomings, Johnson believes it’s important to publicize the accomplishments of successful women. “We need to let their good work be known to encourage others to believe that they, too, can succeed.”

Yahoo!’s Sartain agrees that self-confidence is important. She says she got to the top by maintaining a positive attitude. “I have never perceived a glass ceiling in my career. I always felt that my own ability was the only thing that would stand in my way.”

Confidence has to come from within, says Riccardi. “You can’t give someone self-confidence. If [it] requires a fundamental personality change, it’s not worth it.” But “focus on what it is you aren’t doing well,” she advises. “If it’s simply a habit, habits can be changed.”

Opting In

Riccardi sums up an opinion echoed repeatedly by other women: “The state of women in HR today is better than it was 20 years ago, but is still a far cry from where women want it to be.” For some women, the trade-offs are simply not worth it; they self-select out of the race.

Nevertheless, the mood is generally upbeat. “I really expect a significant change in the next five years,” says Lord, who raised her son as a single mother. She has also worked full time while studying for her master’s degree (paid for by Safeway) and advancing up the executive ranks. “We’re just at the starting gate.”

Johnson agrees that change is coming, albeit not as quickly as women might like. “Even if change is gradual, we must stay committed to making it happen,” she says. “I actually think successful women are not as scarce as we think they are.” The problem, she suggests, may be that “women tend not to tout their accomplishments as much as they should for fear of being seen as arrogant.”

Both Lord and Johnson agree that publicizing women’s accomplishments will help the coming generations of women feel more empowered. “I hope gender will be close to a nonissue for my daughters,” says Johnson.

Julie Daum, North American board services practice leader for executive search firm Spencer Stuart, also believes women need to “double their efforts.” Although she finds it discouraging that women’s progress has been so slow, Daum says she has observed improvement in the area of board membership. As she recruits for directors, she is finding “more acceptance of women in the boardroom today than in the past.” That should lead to improved opportunities for female executives in other roles as well, she says.

Shapiro agrees. She believes the notion is changing that a woman’s career choice—be it working part time, putting boundaries around workload or not working for a time—is a “deviation from the norm” because it follows a different trajectory from a man’s career.

The old model is outdated and unsustainable, she says, and a new model is evolving, one in which women act as “career self-agents” who define their availability for work by their own terms about where and when they will get the work done. Lord says “the sky’s the limit” for women looking to move up today.

Ann Pomeroy is senior writer for HR Magazine .


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