Culture Matters When Attracting Female Executives
Female execs from Securian (from left): Jean Delaney Nelson, Nancy Swanson, Kathy Pinkett, and Leslie Chapman

Culture Matters When Attracting Female Executives

At Securian and Donaldson, supportive and flexible environments increase the ranks of women executives.

Several businesses offered Jean Delaney Nelson a job back in 1979, a time when an increasing number of women were graduating with degrees in fields that had been dominated by men.

With her newly minted bachelor’s degree in math from the College of St. Catherine, she decided to accept a job as a programmer analyst at Securian Financial Group in St. Paul. She had interned there and thought it would be a good place to use her problem-solving skills. “It was a collaborative environment, not competitive,” she recalls. And it seemed like it had a good corporate culture.

Her instincts served her well: Delaney Nelson’s been with Securian ever since and today is senior vice president and chief information officer of what has become one of the largest privately held companies in Minnesota. Its annual revenue has grown to $3.5 billion and its national workforce is about 5,000 employees, half of them based in Minnesota.

Securian also is a leader among major Minnesota employers when it comes to recruiting, retaining and promoting women to key corporate leadership positions.

Women hold six of the company’s top 28 executive positions of vice president and above—more than 20 percent. Securian also has a strong talent pipeline of women when one considers the group of second vice presidents. Twelve of those 28 positions—almost 43 percent—are occupied by women.

By comparison, the 2013 Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership found women hold 18.6 percent of senior leadership roles in the state’s 100 largest publicly traded companies.

How Delaney Nelson and many other women rose to the top of their corporations raises a common consideration: Corporate culture is one of the most important factors in fostering an environment where women have opportunities to ascend the corporate ladder.

“Corporate culture is twice as important as individual mindsets in determining whether women believe that they can succeed,” according to Women Matter 2013, a McKinsey & Co. report released earlier this year. It examines what types of corporate culture can thwart or support women who want to lead through top corporate positions. More than 1,400 managers were surveyed worldwide to gauge the views of women and men about business cultures.

In Minnesota, the careers of women leaders at Securian and Donaldson, a Bloomington-based manufacturer, have been enhanced by hard work and hospitable workplaces.

Delaney Nelson blazed a trail for other women at Securian. She became its first female vice president in 1998. At the time, some of her women colleagues offered congratulations and were excited about her ability to crash through the glass ceiling. “I felt that I had to do great because I was representing the whole gender,” she recalls. “I felt undue stress that I put on myself.”

She grew up in a White Bear Lake home as the only girl among brothers and attended a women’s college, both of which helped her develop the confidence she needed to succeed, she says. She stresses, however, that women have been able to excel at Securian because the company judges employees based on their substantive contributions, yet also offers support to help them balance their duties as family members.

“Success at Securian is based on performance, results and commitment. People that demonstrate that quite frankly get ahead,” says Securian CEO Robert Senkler, who joined the company in 1974.

“When I came here there were very few women in actuarial science. Today, almost half of our actuarial leadership at Securian are women,” he says.

Supporting Work and Family Life

One reason this demographic shift occurred is a change in the way the company viewed work-life balance issues. For example, if women were to build long careers at Securian, top management asked what could be done to accommodate those who wanted to have children during their company tenures. The answer: “Let them have the flexibility to work part-time when there are extra demands at home,” Senkler says.

Indeed, Delaney Nelson was in the early years of her career at Securian when it was altering its hiring practices and organizational culture to provide more opportunities for women who wanted to assume greater leadership over the long haul.

“We have always believed that a diversity of experiences and thought processes drive better solutions for our company. So we did make an effort [starting in the 1970s] to seek and hire qualified women,” says Kathy Pinkett, the company’s senior vice president of human resources and corporate services.

By 1987, Securian recognized that “all employees may have life balance needs and [the company]wanted to accommodate greater flexibility,” she says. Policies were adopted enabling employees to have flexible work schedules, especially when starting a family. Since then, when working mothers or fathers with good track records with the company seek part-time or flexible work schedules, Securian does what it can to accommodate those requests.

“We believe that this flexibility drives loyalty and engagement, motivating [employee] associates to perform at a high level because their company cares about them,” Pinkett says.

The proof is in the numbers. Securian’s high percentage of women in senior leadership can be traced back to its conscious effort to improve its culture for all employees years ago, while emphasizing its fundamental mantra: Do well at your job and you’ll get ahead.

Leslie Chapman, senior vice president, chief actuary and chief risk officer, came to the company in 1976 as an actuarial trainee and found this to be the case. But she also knew that juggling children and a career would be challenging.

Within her actuarial field, Chapman says that she wanted to complete all of her exams to become a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries before she had children. Most people study 300 to 400 hours outside of work for each exam, so she wanted to clear the decks, take the exams and secure her certifications before becoming a parent.

Securian granted her the flexibility she wanted—years before many other companies would even consider doing so.

After completing her exams, from 1988 to 1992 she cut her work schedule to 25 to 30 hours a week to focus on her children’s needs when they were babies and toddlers. Previously, she had been working 50 to 60 hours a week.

“I was determined to show that this would work really well, and that this would be a win-win,” she recalls. “I would do teleconferences at home. I would take work home on days I officially had off. That flexibility on the part of both parties was the ticket for success.”

Despite her decision to reduce her hours for a number of years, Chapman didn’t get trapped on what is known as a “mommy track” at some firms. The fact that she devoted more hours to her family at a certain point in her Securian career did not blind Securian’s executives to her leadership potential. She was promoted to a second vice president in 1996, and rose to chief actuary and chief risk officer in 2010.

In some companies, a mentor or sponsor will help women like Chapman secure the opportunities she needs to advance her career. “While we don’t have a formal mentoring program at Securian, we do have a culture of mentoring,” Pinkett says. “Management understands their responsibility to nurture talented associates and to support our strong philosophy of promoting from within.” About 85 percent of job openings at the company are filled through internal promotions.

Securian also looks to new challenges for its employees—women or men—at different junctures in their work lives, Senkler says. He provides as an example the story of Nancy Swanson, who started at Securian as a teenager with a high school education, working in a clerical job.

“We took someone from the steno pool who was assistant to the chair and CEO, and now she’s leading compliance for this organization,” Senkler says. “It’s not common, but it’s smart business.”

“There is a culture here of working together in a non-adversarial relationship with our peers,” says Swanson, who pursued a business degree after joining Securian. “Whether you are a woman or not is not the first thing they pay attention to. It’s the quality of your work and what you can bring to the company.”

She worked for 22 years as the assistant to then-CEO Coleman Bloomfield. After Bloomfield died of cancer, the general counsel asked her to manage the inside and outside counsel for a major lawsuit. She oversaw the litigation over seven years, and also managed the operations of the law department. She performed so well that now she’s in senior leadership and works with business units to ensure they comply with laws and the company’s values and ethics.

Women’s Paths to Leadership

Like Senkler, Donaldson Co. CEO Bill Cook describes his company’s work environment as tantamount to a meritocracy. Both are focused on promoting qualified women and men.

A global business that makes filtration systems, Donaldson employs about 12,600 people and had net sales of $2.4 billion in fiscal 2013. When Cook joined the company 33 years ago, he says that Donaldson’s management ranks were “pretty much exclusively white male.” Today 21 percent of Donaldson’s corporate officers—four of 19—are women.

In the 1980s and 1990s, he says, an increasing number of women were graduating with bachelor’s degrees in business, and many also were earning MBAs.

At about the same time, a shift in thinking was unfolding among Donaldson’s leadership. Some of the older male leaders had been hesitant to promote women because they thought the women would leave the company when they had children.

“They were used to the traditional model,” Cook says. “A wife worked for a few years and took time off. That was their reference point.” But with a generational change in leaders, the perspectives of male executives running Donaldson changed and they discarded any speculations about how long a woman of child-bearing age might stay with Donaldson.

“Why would we think that? A man could come and go as well,” he says. “If a woman is given the right opportunities and challenges, we want to keep them.” To that end, the company established a mentoring program to ensure that its leadership ranks include women and people of color.


While acknowledging that Donaldson’s culture change opened up opportunities for women, Cook is quick to stress that credit for the success of the executive women should be ascribed to their determination, dedication and intelligence.

“Donaldson is a company with low politics, very humble leaders and a really strong work ethic as a culture,” says Peggy Herrmann, vice president of disk drive and microelectronics. “Within that, it allows men and women to be judged equally in terms of what they do. It is easy to be judged on what you actually deliver.”

After working for General Mills for six years in finance and accounting, Herrmann joined Donaldson in 1988 as a business analyst. Early in her career, she was promoted to manager of business analysis for the engine group, when she was seven months pregnant.

In the mid-1990s, she was the first woman to serve as general manager of the engine aftermarket group, and explains that several men at Donaldson became her mentors.

At Donaldson, Herrmann says she didn’t run into problems with male colleagues. However, when she was interacting with some male customers in the trucking and heavy-equipment industries, she sometimes had to deploy her sense of humor to deal with men who tried to flirt with her.

Sheila Peyraud, a Donaldson vice president and chief technology officer, had been at the company for three years in 1981 when her first child was born. “People did think I would quit [working] with the first,” she recalls, but she stuck with Donaldson, had two more children in the 1980s and took three months off for each child. In the same decade, she also earned her MBA.

Looking back at her career development at Donaldson, Peyraud recalls, “Sometimes I didn’t quite believe I could do something or couldn’t picture myself in a certain role.” But Donaldson likes to place men and women in new challenges with great regularity.

“There were a series of lateral moves, but that just increased my confidence,” Peyraud says. “Now we are much more methodical. Talent is identified [and supported] early on.” Yet in some cases, she observes, there are still talented women who don’t recognize their potential or place themselves in high-profile situations.

“There is a lot of informal mentoring that is woman-to-woman here,” Peyraud adds. “All of us feel a strong responsibility to reach back and pull people along and convince them that they can do it.”

Related Stories