Building an Effective Network is Crucial to Women’s Career Advancement
Beth Ford, Kathy Higgins Victor, Cam Hoang, and Trudy Rautio discuss women's career advancement at TCB's 2019 Women in Leadership event. (Photos: Joy By Jo Photography)

Building an Effective Network is Crucial to Women’s Career Advancement

During TCB'ss annual Women in Leadership event, women leaders from Land O'Lakes, Best Buy, Dorsey & Whitney, and Cargill shared their strategies on moving toward gender parity.

If women want to one day serve on a corporate board or hold a C-suite executive job, they can’t sit quietly and wait to be asked to accept one of these roles. Two women who’ve served as chief executives—current Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford and former Carlson CEO Trudy Rautio—said Tuesday during a TCB Talks event that talented women need to make their career ambitions known. They also emphasized the importance of building and leveraging professional networks.

Ford and Rautio were among four women leaders who participated in a panel discussion that focused on how women can secure more board seats at Minnesota’s public companies. Currently, only one in five board seats and executive officer positions are held by women at Minnesota’s public companies.

Best Buy has achieved gender parity on its board. Veteran Best Buy board member Kathy Higgins Victor talked about how she and Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly led the effort to consider diverse candidates for board seats they wanted to fill with specific skill sets.

Panelist Cam Hoang, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney, advises companies on their approaches to recruiting and selecting board members. She addressed the pattern of some of the same minority candidates surfacing in multiple board searches. Hoang and the other three panelists also weighed in on a new California law, which mandates gender diversity on public company boards.

These were among the topics the panelists discussed during the 2019 TCB Talks: Women in Leadership event, which attracted a record 800 attendees at the Hilton Minneapolis.

Speakers at the event included Twin Cities Business editor-in-chief Allison Kaplan and St. Catherine University’s president ReBecca Koenig Roloff.

Rebecca Hawthorne, professor emerita at St. Catherine’s, presented research data on the incremental progress that women have made over the past 11 years in obtaining executive officer or board seats.

The one-hour panel discussion was moderated by TCB’s trending editor Liz Fedor. Here are some highlights from the discussion:

How did you develop the confidence and inner drive to become the successful leader you are today? 

Beth Ford: “I think the way that I developed confidence and the ability to see myself in this particular role is a lot of failure, actually.”

While Ford also credits the strength and leadership of her mother, she continues: It’s about “what you can get out of your failures, what you can learn. Then you decide you’re going to move forward, and the sun comes up the next day, and it isn’t the tragedy you thought you had. I think that’s really an important thing because I can point to a lot of people in my career who were helpful, who were great role models, but more directly for me, understanding that I could make it past things that were less than bright, learn from those, accept that failure, understand what I needed to do, and move forward, allowed me to position myself for the role.”

Kathy Higgins Victor: “Success really is about being resilient…I think that’s core to how I have lived my life…There was a time in my life—it was my first semester of college and I had just recently become a legal guardian for my siblings—and I remember a professor asked me if I had a moment to stay after class. So, I said, ‘of course,’ and he said, ‘It seems like you’ve got a lot of weight on your shoulders right now. I don’t want you to respond to that. I just want to tell you what I see in you.’ And he reflected to me qualities that he saw, and it made me realize that even though I was in a dark hour, somebody saw me in that light. And that’s what began my journey at being resilient. I tell my daughter all the time: ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ ”

Cam Hoang: “I recently went to hear a sports psychologist speak, and she worked for the Vikings. She was talking about how she could, by and large, predict which of their prospects would end up having successful careers in the NFL, and one of the big factors was whether or not they were focused on the issues in their life and their career that they had control over, versus the factors that they couldn’t control. So, are people saying bad things about you? Can you really control that? No. You just develop positive relationships and hope the word spreads. You make a mistake—what is there to do? You apologize, you make it good, and you move on. Obviously I’m not an elite athlete, but that really resonated with me because I’ve spent my career trying to grow so that my practice doesn’t control me; I control my practice.”

Trudy Rautio: “I had to laugh when you asked the question because my immediate response was, ‘What makes you think I have confidence?’”

“Find yourself a sponsor—more than just a mentor relationship, but someone who will really sponsor you. Of course, I was so fortunate that I had the uber-sponsor, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, and from the first hug on my first day of work, literally, she sponsored me in ways that are just unimaginable…Marilyn knew that confidence wasn’t my strongest attribute, and so she literally called me on the phone, and she didn’t say, ‘I have a job for you. I’m offering you this.’ She said, ‘The board has elected you to be the next CEO of Carlson.’ And so with that, changed my life, and I got opportunities that I had never imagined. I would suggest that all of you can find sponsors that would be very helpful to you in establishing your confidence and giving you experiences and helping you navigate the pathways.”

Kathy, you’ve worked over the past five years on diversifying the Best Buy board. How did you go about doing that, and how you were patient in the first 15 years you were waiting before this happened? 

Higgins Victor: “I think the topic of diversity is so broad that until you understand what it means for you organization, it’s really hard to make progress.”

You have to spend the time to define diversity within your organization before beginning your journey to it, she says. “It was especially helpful to have a chairman of the board partner in that, but it also takes the commitment of the entire board. It doesn’t just happen. I think another reason we were able to be successful was that we didn’t look at it in terms of the lens of diversity. We looked at it in terms of the lens of the types of skills that we needed to have on the board for the future of the company. We identified those skills, and then we saw diverse candidates with those skills.”

​Cam, you work on a regular basis with companies, helping them when they are trying to figure out who they should put on their boards. According to statistics from St. Catherine University’s 2018 Census of Women in Corporate Leadership, the number of women in leadership only grew from 14.2 percent to 20.2 percent between 2008 and 2018—only six points of improvement over that time period. That we’re not making very rapid progress is  an understatement. Because you watch these boards in action, why do you think that companies will say they are strong advocates of diversity, but their numbers don’t reflect much change? 

Ford: “What I’d be interested in beyond the fact that there’s been movement up to 20 percent-plus of board members here that are female, is the number of open positions there have been during that time. More women were more frequently chosen for those core positions, and I think that’s important for us to understand.”

“Men get more positions because they have a network. Men get more positions because they know other board members. So, networks are critically important for your career, period, whether it’s on a board, whether it’s in business…I’ve moved to seven companies in six industries, and it’s because I have a very strong network.”

Also, “making your ambitions known, making an intentional comment that ‘I want to be on the board,’ and continuing to leverage your networks is important, but understand—I think one of the reasons why you have this long journey for female representation is because many board positions don’t open up. It’s not like a whole board opens up every year. And then when they do, there simply are more men on that board, and they have a network, and that’s how men get board positions. Women, oftentimes, have to come in through a recruiter. I’m not endorsing that; I’m simply saying that is the map. But again, my best advice is networks are critically important for boards and for your careers, period, to get into the C-suite and to get into senior positions.”

Higgins Victor: “As you’re preparing for a board, I think you need to recognize what boards are looking for. They’re looking for the ability to run a business. They’re looking for the hard skills of business—financial acumen, the operating maxim. So, if you’re interested in getting on a board, you need to develop those skills.” 

Hoang: “I don’t want to steal any credit from companies; I do think that there is an effort now to find candidates that are diverse and interview them. Often in these conversations, there comes a moment where there’s a gut feeling. So, is this person going to be the right fit for the board? Will the other board members feel comfortable engaging with them and working with them productively? And, unfortunately, there might be a feeling that diverse candidates can bring a disruptive impact onto a board. But I think the next job for all of us is to dive a level deeper and ask, ‘Could that disruptive impact be healthy?’ I think all of us can think of boards and companies where the very last thing that they needed was another director who was ‘the perfect fit.’ So it’s time for us to go beyond that discussion of a good fit…The person who’s going to get along well with other directors and…be thoughtful about what skill sets, what attributes, what perspectives that person can bring.”

“I think one of the best ways to position yourself to be on a board is to get to know other directors. When you’re a diverse candidate, what you will find is actually that diverse candidates tend to get recycled more, so it’s the same small pool of directors who are being asked over and over again. So, if you get to know one of those people, one day they’re going to say, ‘You know, I’m done being on four or five boards, but I know someone who would be really good’ and tap you perhaps.”

“So while the expansion of the percentage of women on boards has been slow but steady, what we are seeing is that as more women directors are joining the board, the skill sets that they bring diversify those boards…There’s still very much an emphasis on bringing in senior executive leadership talent, CEO experience, financial expertise, but we’re starting to see more human capital management, legal risk management, strategic advice—and all of those skills, they’re correlating with greater diversity on boards.”

If you were giving advice to people here, what should people think about, how should they prepare themselves, and how should they scope out a board they’d like to serve on? 

Rautio: “I think one of the first things to do is to assess your own strengths and skills and experiences and then capitalize on those.”

“Also, network with other board members. We’re always told to network within the organizations, but I think it’s important to meet the board members of your target organization. Most of them are more than willing to give you time and attention and helpful tips on how you might serve on their board.”

The state of California has a new board gender diversity law that says by the end of this year, all public companies must have at least one woman on their boards, and by the end of 2021, every public company based in California must have at least three women on their boards if they have six or more board directors. Do you favor or oppose states enacting laws that require public companies to have a certain number of women on their boards, and what’s your rationale? 

Rautio: “It’s not an easy answer. Generally speaking, I don’t favor legislating these kinds of activities. I think that you have to be very careful about unintended consequences. Such legislation can drive the perception that you’re only being placed on that board because you have to be. And I really think women should be placed on boards because they’re great leaders.

I also think that in the United States, it poses some difficulties if you have all the states having different rules. And you can have companies actually incorporating in different states depending on what their rules around governance are…That said, you will move the needle very quickly with that legislation. It’s been done in places like Norway where they have 40 percent women represented. I would say take advantage of this opportunity and work with the companies in California.”

Hoang: “And to Trudy’s point, 25 percent of those companies do not have a single woman director. I’m a fan of private [actions] over legislation, but this law’s time had come. And I sincerely hope that we won’t need too many more of them, because there are investors who are putting pressure on companies.”

Higgins Victor: “Whether it’s mandated or not, I think the diversity imperative is here to stay. And I think you can either lead it, or you can follow it. I think a lot of progress is being made with the institutional investors because their investors are demanding it. So, I think it’s here to stay…It does accelerate things when you have mandates. I think that’s unfortunate. I think it should be done for other reasons. However, if we’re not moving the needle, we need to find alternative ways to move the needle. I hope that we get to a place where we stop talking about CEOs who are women, and we just talk about CEOs. I hope we get to a point where we stop talking about women directors and just talk about directors. I hope that I see a day when we’re talking about equity. Because the pushback on the mandate is really around [whether] it’s unconstitutional and that one group is advantaged more than another.”

Ford: “I don’t really favor legislation that requires this. I certainly understand a desire for it. What I would prefer, and the way we made progress internally on diversity of our staff, is by requiring every open position have a diverse slate…I’d almost rather them say with everything that you have to document that you have a diverse slate. And when we did that, we shifted, for instance…from 20 percent to 44 percent women. And with that, we increased diversity—minority as well. So, I would prefer that people make progress. I would prefer that you have a diverse slate, and then let the best candidate win, and I believe [in many cases] that will be women and minorities.”

If a woman in her 30s wants to be CFO or CEO of a public company one day—particularly a Fortune 500 company—what’s your best advice? 

Ford: “My best advice is to always allow yourself to go on the journey…Continuing to invest in yourself, allowing yourself to take sideways moves to expand your understanding of the business is really important. You should get broad experience early in your 20s and 30s: Take leadership positions; be out in the field in a business—don’t always be in the headquarters, because headquarters is headquarters, and the field is touching the customer. And when you do that, you position yourself in your 30s and 40s for elevation to broader roles because you’ve been seen as a leader of people, you’ve had a broad career, and you’ve had a lot of different experiences…Don’t think there’s a linear path; it is rarely linear. Allow yourself the humility to continue to learn and ask questions and understand that you don’t know everything, and that’s OK.”

“Oftentimes it feels like you’re in competition with someone to build your career to get up to this level, and I would suggest to you that the best careers that are being developed are the ones you’re doing in partnership with others…When you do that, by definition, you become more attractive as a leader of people and as a leader at the senior level.”

Rautio: “In addition to that, studies have shown that women assume that good work will get noticed and rewarded, and that just isn’t the case. You need to be your own advocate, and you need to stand up and say, ‘My career mission is to be the CEO of this company. How do I get there?’ And if you don’t have the skill set to do that, to say that, go to an organization that can help you build up that reserve of confidence so that you can be competitive with others that are seeking that same job.”

Ford: You also have to be ready for an answer when you state what you’re seeking: “That’s an important one. Because if you raise your hand and say, ‘I want to be the CEO,’ what happens if they say, ‘I don’t see you in that role’? It doesn’t feel good, right? But the reality is it’s a gift and you need to think of it that way. Because you’re really not in a worse place than you were before you asked the question, and you get to ask the next questions: ‘Why is that? What are my gaps? What do I need to do?’”

How do women achieve the C-suite if they have children? 

Ford: “When you have a dual career…you have to be very deliberate and plan-forward about your schedule, about what’s going to work, who’s going to be home. So, I want to encourage those who are young in their career and thinking about a family: you can do it. It’s amazing what you can make time for…When you’re making decisions about your career, you’re making decisions about your whole life. It’s not just whether this job is good. It’s: ‘Where are you in your life with your family and your children?’…There have been times in my career when I specifically stayed in my role for seven or eight years. I didn’t want to move because I had just had my sons. I wanted to make sure that I had time with them…Remember that your career is about your whole life.”

Higgins Victor: “I would say, too, it’s a journey. It’s your journey. It’s no one else’s journey. Don’t give anyone else the pen. You need to write it like you see it. I remember how intimidated I was when I pulled into the executive garage at Northwest Airlines, and I was the only one that had a child car seat in my car…I was 32, and I decided I wasn’t going to be intimidated by that. And at some point, I learned to let others help…It takes an island, so bring in the people that you trust, and let them be part of your journey. That was the hardest thing for me—to let go of the control of everything. But that’s also what made me the best leader, when I was able to pick and choose where I was going to spend my time. Oh, and by the way, it made me a better mother.”

Related Stories