fbpx Skip to content

The Future of North American Business

Senior executive women at the senior executive and board tables


As a Senior U.S. Mergers & Acquisition attorney in the late 1990’s, I had the opportunity by my mid 30’s to run and contribute to the negotiation of multi-billion dollar deals both in New York and Boston. I hit the market during the dot com boom, when U.S. firms were hungry for M&A lawyers – attorneys that loved the deal. We ere all well known as deal junkies and we took pride in the title. It takes one to know one – and to this day I can recognize one a mile away. I quickly earned a seat at the table, and I didn’t stop for a moment. In those days when we were billing every six minutes in our dockets, I was billing 24 hours out at a time, days upon nights when deals were hot, going home in the morning on day 2 or 3 for a shower while my driver waited (that’s the plus of living in NYC) – the years flew by quickly and I absolutely loved it. It was a very exciting time, adrenalin flowing, deals flowing, each step of the deal quickly reported in the New York Times. I was in my element. When I started out, more than 50% of my law school class consisted of terrifically talented women. Somewhere during all of these deals – and I will never forget when it hit me – as I was sitting in a Boardroom in Manhattan, when

I took a look around the room of the 25 Investment Bankers, Board Members, Attorneys and Senior Executives on both sides of the deal, all of a sudden I realized that I was the only woman in the room. Where did they all go?

There were early signs of the inherent challenges facing each of us while I was coming up – when I arrived in the Boardroom and the CEO of the company we were acquiring asked me to pour him a cup of coffee with cream and double sugar, which I graciously did, and then let him know, that we were now going to negotiate the terms upon which our client was going to buy his company – which we very successfully did.

Or when many of my colleagues chose to get out of law all together as they wanted some semblance of life balance and couldn’t see how to do it as a Partner in a firm. Even then, I still didn’t truly get it. Just what we were up against and how few of us would make it through and what we’d have to do (or put up with) to make our mark.

Fast forward two careers later, I am now a Senior Client Partner of an Executive Search and Consulting Firm (and the first woman Partner in 30 years at my firm), leading our Board, Legal, Health Care, Not-For-Profit, Leadership Advisory and Strategic Consulting Practice areas – with much work in For Profit, primarily at the CEO and Board level. My job, everyday, is to interact with Board Members and CEO’s across North America. Needless to say, in Executive Search, I see the statistics we are all aware of, as I am faced daily with the everyday reality that is it is a SLIM number of Senior Executive women at the top.

This has led me to become a passionate advocate to do something about this – as I fundamentally believe that the future and success of North American business both at the Board and Senior Executive level will be very positively influenced if we do. It’s without question, just smart business. There are numerous statistics and studies to support this view. The Washington Post in July 2009, noted in their article, “Fixing the Economy? It’s Women’s Work” that at least half a dozen studies, from a broad spectrum of organizations such as Columbia

University, McKinsey & Co., Goldman Sachs and Pepperdine University, have documented a clear relationship between women in senior management and corporate financial success.

“Pepperdine found that the Fortune 500 firms with the best records of putting women at the top were 18 to 69 percent more profitable that the median companies in their industries. McKinsey looked at the top listed European companies and found that greater gender diversity in management led to higher than average stock performance. Catalyst, a research firm focused on women in business, found that Fortune 500 companies with three or more women in senior management positions, scored higher on top measures of organizational excellence. In addition, companies with three or more women on their Boards outperformed the competition on all measures by at least 40 percent.”

The statistics are clear: More women at the senior executive and Board tables is just smart financial business. The Post article also suggests there is value in diverse views in the room to get to better decision making: “The studies rounded up show that women make the difference between economic success and failure in the developing world, between good and bad decision-making in the industrialized world, and between profit and loss in the corporate world.”

Why is this? As an Executive Search Partner and Strategic Consultant, my job is to understand an organization’s business strategy, their business and growth plans, organizational culture and Board and Executive team dynamics and to assess both their existing and future Senior Leadership requirements in order to provide the right Executive solutions for their business.

I work with large, complex organizations, complicated politics and personalities and most regularly with the Boards and Selection Committees that lead their CEO searches. In this role, I have learned a lot about just why, and how, Senior Executive Women and Women on the Board of Directors can make a difference to their organizations – and how they can effectively influence decision-making at the Senior and Board level – and have seen it done many times.

The first observation is that diverse views at the table, which inherently come from diverse backgrounds and experience – be it functional, multi-cultural or gender – clearly and simply get to better decisions at the Board and Executive table. With multiple and diverse lenses to see a problem and all its potential solutions, a richer conversation takes place. Different questions are asked, different paradigms and solutions are developed – and different CEO and Senior Executive candidates are hired as a result. Women challenge. They aren’t afraid to ask the difficult questions and are most often interested in a different result for their organizations – they don’t want the same solutions – they want new ones.

The way this is done, is equally interesting. The most effective Senior Executive Women Leaders and CEO’s are exceptionally capable of making tough decisions, are able to chart the course and communicate the new direction and vision for their organizations. What’s unique is how they do so, and how they do not.

At the CEO and Senior Executive level, I have observed that for these leaders, it’s about understanding the issues and connecting with the people that support their businesses. It’s about seeking input and collaborative engagement, from all levels of the business. It’s about strategically assessing and evaluating the fiscal and operational issues, identifying synergies and opportunities and then charting and efficiently implementing the organization’s strategic plan to deliver results. It’s about transforming culture and getting the right people in place, optimally aligned to deliver on the strategic plan. It is most often not about what’s best for them individually, it is not about ego or politics, (although they are extraordinarily familiar with both, as they have had to navigate and work alongside it for years to get where they are), it is consistently about getting the smartest people to the table to provide the best insight into the decision-making process for the business, and about getting to the right decision that is best for their organization.

In 2008, Betty DelBianco, Executive Vice President and Chief Legal and Administrative Officer at Celestica, a US $6.1 billion dollar global electronics manufacturer, became the first woman to be appointed to one of the top five positions at the company.

“This is still a male-dominated industry for the most part,” says DelBianco, “but that is changing. Our CEO is a strong advocate of putting women into senior management positions. Some of the most effective leaders he has worked with over the past 30 years have been women. We operate in an increasingly competitive environment where effective collaboration and faster decision-making is critical to our success.

My experience has been that women are natural collaborators. The more perspectives you can bring to an issue, the better the decision. I also feel that team dynamics improve when a woman leader is involved – as women are more interested in what is right than who is right. When egos are getting in the way, women can often diffuse the situation and get the discussion quickly back on the right track.”

At the Board level, Carol Hansell, an experienced Director and a seasoned advisor to numerous Canadian and U.S. Boards and a Senior Partner at Davies, Ward, Phillips and Vineberg LLP, notes, “In looking at the governance landscape and as we move further away from the epicenter of the financial crisis, the change most commonly looked for is a change in culture at both senior levels of management and in the Boardroom. While many lament the lack of real change in corporate culture since the Enron crisis, it is at least worth noting that this coincides with a lack of real progress in terms of the number of women on Boards. Will more women on Boards change corporate culture in a positive way? While it’s impossible to know, it certainly seems more than a reasonable chance to take.”

In an economy that has required all businesses and organizations to creatively find solutions, with little money or funds available, it is often about the ability to effectively influence buy-in from multiple stakeholders, and how to build synergistic alliances or partnerships for their organization’s broader good.

Gone is the autonomous “my way-or-the-highway, fear-based leadership.” Instead the focus is on inspiration and motivation to ignite their teams to deliver what’s best for their organizations.

Bonnie Adamson, one of the top CEO’s in the Canadian Health Care system, put this culture/leadership shift into practice in her organization this way: “We moved from a culture of blaming to accountability; from command and control to stewardship; from bosses to coaches; from silos to systems; from individuals to teams.”

This is future-focused leadership, not seeped in past networks or systems. It is truly transformational change leadership – and there is no doubt in my mind, that women are uniquely qualified to deliver and contribute to this, to the betterment of businesses and organizations everywhere.

What I was particularly good at as an M&A lawyer was not to bang my fists on the table but to actually listen to the views around the table and to intuitively understand what mattered beneath these positions, and why they did, and to bring all these views, inclusively and collaboratively, together for the success of all.

An exceptional work ethic, the ability to multi-task effortlessly, and the energy to get things done and done on a tight timeline, with a focused view to the bigger and most importantly, strategic picture, certainly helped.

Passionate and enthusiastic, and always wanting to learn, I sought out mentors, men and women, and worked to mentor those on my team. These qualities too, I consistently see in the many women CEO leaders I interact with and while not in any way unique to women, there is no question that every successful senior executive woman leader I have ever met shares them.

There are other qualities and competencies of successful leaders, but there are some that I consistently see in women leaders that all organizations could benefit from.

These consistently include the ability to communicate effectively, to inspire and develop buy-in for the vision, both internally and externally, and with multiple and key stakeholders and to effectively impact their organizational culture and operational and fiscal performance excellence by and through a transformational new way of doing and leading. They engage, they connect, they recognize talent and inspire and drive performance at all levels of their organizations.

This leadership style is getting noticed and is now mirrored and replicated within the leadership of the most innovative organizations throughout North America, by both men and women – it IS the next generation of leadership.

There is no doubt that there is a tremendous need, for what we, as Senior Executive Women, bring to both the Senior Executive and Board tables and that the time is now. Having had the pleasure to meet and work with incredibly talented women at the Board, CEO and Senior Executive level on both sides of the border, I am inspired, and encouraged, that we are, and will be, part of the next generation of leadership, and have much to contribute to it.

At the end of the day, this is nothing more than just smart business. In this economy, this is what our complex businesses and organizations need. The future of, and solution to, North American business and transformational, innovative leadership is a wealth and variety of exceptionally talented leaders, and this certainly includes more Senior Executive Women at our CEO and Board tables.

Lisa Heidman, LL.B., Senior Client Partner,The Bedford Consulting Group, North American Director of Bedford Legal, brings over 15 years of Legal, Board and Executive Search experience working with Boards and their Senior Leadership teams, placing Board, CEO and C-Suite Executives across functions. Appointed to the Board of Directors of Women of Influence in 2009. Lisa can be reached at lheidman@bedfordgroup.com,