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Celebrating Executive Women in Business and Women in the Board Room

In honor of the official American Business Women's Day on September 22nd, BlueSteps has launched an Executive Women in Business Initiative throughout the month of September. We will be featuring podcasts, interviews and more with female executives and executive search consultants throughout the month. In addition, we are offering 25% off BlueSteps Membership to all female executives throughout the month.

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Jeanne M. SullivanAESC: On behalf of the AESC and BlueSteps, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions today. First of all, can you outline the steps that led you to your first board seat and where you are today?

Jeanne M Sullivan: After several years of operating experience in a technology company, I joined a venture firm— giving me the platform to invest in and join the Board of Directors of many growth stage tech companies. As a general partner in my venture firm, I was able to join the male playing field to work with dynamic and experienced CEOs and investors. I like to share that I have seen the “best-of-the-best” and the “worst-of-the-worst” on both sides. That “perch” gave me the *street savvy* to know when to use the velvet hammer, where to focus, how to be effective.

AESC: What do you enjoy most about serving on a board?

Jeanne M Sullivan: The pleasure of serving comes from drawing on the white board offline and discussions with the CEO and team. Then, it is a thrill to see positive topline revenue results from a revised “go-to-market” strategy or by sourcing a new addition to the team that helps drive traction.  

AESC: What are the greatest challenges that come with serving on a board?

Jeanne M Sullivan: The single greatest challenge is: Alignment.  If economic interests are not aligned among investors, one half of the room tells the CEO to “go left”; the other says, “go right”.  The CEO and team go down the middle and they do what they want to do.  

A second challenge is around the team. I believe the CEO is the most important person in the company—setting the tone, building the strategy, protecting the economic interests of shareholders—if he or she is not the right person, there are challenging succession issues.

AESC: EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has been quoted widely recently with her comment that there are 7,000 “board ready” women in Europe i.e. it is not a question of supply. Do you agree with this globally or do you think it is a “demand” issue as well.

Jeanne M Sullivan: I believe Europe has had a different view of women as leaders. Look…this is a known fact pattern—women have led countries and companies for many years in Europe.

AESC: Diversity has been on the corporate agenda for many years now, and yet, as one example of diversity, we still see only a small percentage of women on today’s corporate boards? Why do you feel that this is the case?

Jeanne M Sullivan: In the US, women have not traditionally chosen the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math, and these disciplines have been a driver of both company leadership in the C-suite and board roles.  There is a large Supply and in my view, a large Need—our voices will help create the demand for this diversity and show why it makes a difference.

AESC: Why does gender diversity in the boardroom matter?  

Jeanne M Sullivan: Women bring a different lens to the table and to executive teams.  However, I do not believe that “just” diversity is enough—that is why women need to acquire the insights, education and operating experience to contribute value to a board and to support the CEO.  

AESC: How do you feel about quotas and legislated measures adopted by some nations to increase women on boards? Is there a model you feel is more effective?

Jeanne M Sullivan: I am hopeful that we would not have to legislate diversity.  Let’s train, and support, and build networks for women so they have the skills needed to be value-add at the board table.

AESC: How have women’s leadership roles evolved in the past couple of decades and what challenges remain?

Jeanne M Sullivan: A new book has been published by Susan Coleman and Alicia Robb, A Rising Tide that outlines financing strategies for women-owned firms. According to the authors, there has been a meaningful shift—women now earn more than 51% of doctoral degrees.  Women are making dramatic gains in both education and employment and going into growth-oriented fields. The US Census Bureau reveals there were 7.8 million women-owned firms in the US in 2007 generating $1.2 trillion in revenues, an increase of 20% from 2002 to 2007.  Plenty of challenges remain but the tide is rising for opportunity for both corporate leadership and board room value.

AESC: What can organizations do to prepare high-achieving women in their companies for senior roles and board positions?

Jeanne M Sullivan: I have met many dynamic women over the last 30 years—capable, articulate, smart, savvy, experienced.  They have taken risks in their careers—be it founding a tech or health care company—or rising through the ranks of their partnerships or corporations. Yes…they took a risk and sought a higher ground, but they will often share that it took the mentorship and networking support of other women and men to guide their efforts to learn and lead. The research of the Kauffman Foundation and American Express, among other corporations, proves this is necessary for continued success.

AESC: What can female candidates who are interested in serving on a corporate board do to increase their visibility? What skills do they need to cultivate to obtain a board seat?

Jeanne M Sullivan: There are three key things that may be done to increase visibility and obtain a board seat:  
  • Focus upon your functional skill set and understand what you bring to the table
  • Package that in a “board ready” overview that shows off your track record of success and experience
  • Understand some of the key initiatives that exist today—these efforts are working to kick open the boardroom door for articulate and insightful women
AESC: For women seeking board seats, how important would you say is having a career plan? When should that career plan begin?

Jeanne M Sullivan: This hits my true passion, where I practice my “professional give back”—I think it is critical to mentor women—both young and not so young—about their choices. Having seen thousands of companies throughout the years, I have seen hundreds of functional roles and how companies are organized.  Understanding the options, understanding your own gifts, talents and interests, are critical for successful career planning. Then, leveraging that sector insight or operating knowledge is one smart path towards the boardroom table.  

AESC: Is there any advice you can give to women who want to advance as leaders? Any key points to focus on?

Jeanne M Sullivan: Leaders lead. Women can practice leading in so many ways. There are many organizations today that mentor and support entrepreneurs, or that are focused on important needs in today’s world.  There are many ways to serve and create economic prosperity for an important cause and learn new skills along the way.  In the business world, the research supports the following: women need  to learn how  to create and use their business networks.

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About Jeanne M. Sullivan
Jeanne has 20 years of private equity experience and has spent 28 years in the technology sector encompassing both extensive operating and investing experience with technology companies.

Over the past 20 years as a founding principal of StarVest and previously with Olivetti Ventures, Ms. Sullivan has served on the boards of sixteen private and two public companies and has extensive experience creating “go to market” plans for expansion stage companies. Her expertise also includes strategy, an understanding of the technology landscape and industry trends.
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