When she was a senior executive at Carlson Companies more than a decade ago, Marilyn Carlson Nelson and a team of women took on the challenge of creating opportunities for women in leadership at the company. It was not a good beginning. When the task force presented its idea for a women's council to the company's founder and chief executive, Curt Carlson (Marilyn's father), the women were accused of attempting to create a "pink collar union." This only made Nelson work harder. In her judgment, the Minnetonka (Minn.) company could not be competitive in the long run if it did not draw from the entire talent pool.
In 1998, when her father turned the reins over to her, Nelson's mission to create a meritocracy began in earnest. At that time, only two women held senior leadership positions. Ten years later, 49% of the company's U.S. management team (of 2,098) are women—one of the highest percentages of any large company in the world. No BusinessWeek Global 100 company comes close to having such a high percentage of female executives.
Nelson, chairman and recently retired CEO, not only transformed the company culture during her decade-long tenure; she also took the company's revenues from $22 billion to more than $40 billion. Today, 160,000 employees in more than 150 countries work under the Carlson brands—Radisson and Regent hotels, Country Inns & Suites, Carlson Marketing, T.G.I. Friday's Restaurants, and Carlson Wagonlit Travel. But Nelson's successful run began in fits and starts as she labored to convince her father that the right man for the job just might be a woman.
As Nelson describes the meeting in which the task force presented its recommendations, a very bright woman—a newly hired MBA—was only minutes into her pitch when her dad jumped up and asked, "How long have you worked here?" The new hire answered, "A few months." He said, "Why are you unhappy?" Then he turned to the executives in the room (all male, except for Nelson) and asked, "Do any of you support this?" Although they had all been involved and had periodically encouraged the task force's work, not one dared speak up. Nelson realized she would have to take a different tack.
It was clear that her father, who had created a command-and-control culture (with a senior leadership that was all male, except for Nelson), needed more of a "guerrilla warfare" approach to enact her vision of a meritocracy. In the 1960s, Curt Carlson had been a pioneer of health-care benefits for single mothers, and he felt he could handle any issues women might have in the company. Marilyn felt differently, however. She framed and named her judgment as the need for Carlson to build a meritocracy.
Her judgment was both strategic and people-focused. The strategy of the company, which operated in the service sector, required strong "relationship leaders"—something generally acknowledged to be a strong suit for women. In Nelson's view, leaving women out of the equation was a poor business judgment. She points out that her father saw capital as the scarcest resource. He grew up in the Depression, started the business with $55 he had borrowed from his landlord, and struggled over the years to capitalize and build the business. By contrast, Marilyn saw the importance of "human capital,", and she did not want to miss out on a huge source of it—the female half of the planet's population.
A decade ago, Nelson had a clear Teachable Point of View™ of what it would take to bring Carlson to the next level. Her aim: to shift Carlson's focus from financial capital to human capital while developing business goals for her company that included world-class brands, customer-centricity, and strong customer loyalty and innovation. She articulated her vision companywide with the phrase "a great place for great people to do great work."
Exercising judgment is a three-phase process: preparation for the judgment call; the judgment call; and execution of the judgment. The preparation phase starts with the leader sensing and identifying a need for a judgment. Nelson first experienced the forces against women in business in the 1960s as a security analyst at Paine Webber, where she was a star. Her reports were well respected but she was told she could not sign her first name—it had to be "M.C. Nelson" because investors would not take stock recommendations from a woman. At that time, she felt her best strategy against this inequity was to prove her competency.
It would be 20 years later, when she began her career in the family business ,that she framed and named the issue, not so much in terms of unfairness to women but in terms of building a globally competitive company that needed both male and female talent to win.
Eventually, after her "pink collar" fiasco and her "redo loop" with her father, Nelson had the leverage as CEO of Carlson to begin a sustained period of implementing inclusive business strategies. The company invested in mentoring programs with other major employers in the area, such as General Mills (GIS) and Medtronic (MDT), and ultimately created its own cross-company mentoring experience for woman. She continued to address the issues systemically. Carlson revamped its succession planning system, and the company worked with the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota to build business capacity in men and women both. Carlson began to offer flextime and on-site child care—major pulls for high-performing women trying to balance work and family.
Men and women were offered the opportunity to stop out of fast-track careers, then get back in. In most companies that is a career killer, and the talent usually goes someplace else. Carlson is a benchmark of what is possible.
Nelson continues to work to advance her judgment call around the issues of women's participation at all levels—across all sectors. She is co-founder of the Women's Leadership Program at the World Economic Forum and is a member of the Private Sector Leader's Forum to close the gender gap at the World Bank. She is also actively engaged at the Carlson School to encourage more women to seek an MBA.
When I started as a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Business in 1972, 3% of students were female. By the time I moved to the University of Michigan in 1981, 33% of our enrolled students were female, as was the case at most of the top 10 business schools at that time. Since then, the percentage of women MBAs has stayed the same or has fallen. I asked Nelson about her thoughts on this. If she can achieve nearly 50% women in management at Carlson, why can't we get the equivalent at the Carlson School of Management or at Harvard, Stanford, or the University of Michigan?
Nelson's solution is multifaceted. It includes building more flexibility into the university programs, having earlier exposure to opportunities in business so undergraduates have a real preview of the business world, and having companies play a more proactive role so business schools, like law and medicine schools, can prosper with 50% female enrollment.
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How Babson's Center for Women's Leadership (CWL) shapes female students to take and keep top jobs in what is still a man's business world
Marilyn Carlson Nelson found that there is no single solution that would bring more women into the ranks of corporate senior management. However, with a multi-pronged strategy, self-correction, and sheer tenacity, she achieved astonishing results at Carlson Companies.
Carlson Nelson calls for attracting more women into MBA programs, which certainly would be a plus. But this does not go far enough. Colleges and universities must devote more resources to develop female business leaders in undergraduate programs.
Educational institutions need a strategy to address this problem at multiple levels and in multiple ways. Babson College's approach takes the form of the Center for Women's Leadership (CWL), which we established in 2000 to attract more women to our MBA and undergraduate programs. Since then the percentage of women in our incoming undergraduate class has jumped from 34% to 45%.
Addressing the challenge of gender differences
CWL focuses not only on recruiting and admitting more females, but also gives them a wide array of opportunities to develop as entrepreneurial leaders with access to a strong network of connections to the business community. Deploying financial support, mentoring, research, speakers series, and female executives-in-residence, CWL creates a culture in which women can thrive. At both the MBA and undergraduate levels, women student organizations feature elected officers who have functional responsibilities in designing and delivering co-curricular programs, community service activities, and professional development and networking events.
Inside the classroom, CWL's curriculum encourages teamwork and leadership skills. From the first day of class, students form business teams in which gender differences exist—and, like any other differences, must be dealt with. As men and women learn to work together as professionals, female students can assume leadership positions, including that of CEO, in these start-up businesses.
While almost all of CWL's activities are open to males as well as females, 20 undergraduate women are selected each year for partial four-year scholarships and are admitted into the Women's Leadership Program. This program focuses on recruiting students who will take leadership roles at Babson and beyond; students must actively demonstrate that they are doing so in order to continue in the program. This cohort effectively serves as a women's affinity group for networking and mutual support—but they collaborate and compete with all students in the classroom, just as they will in the business world.
Opening Corporate Connections
The presence of more women on campus has changed the experience for the entire student body, and has inevitably altered the ways our male students think about leadership and collaboration. The bottom line is that our campus community now better reflects society in all its activities. We have consciously tried to create a student experience and environment that looks at the development of the whole person—not only what they learn in the classroom, but also what goes on in residence halls and in social activities—so that Babson's men and women learn to interact with each other in a number of dimensions, in different and positive ways.
Still, it doesn't do much good to prepare young women to become business leaders if their opportunities to advance to top management positions in corporate America remain limited. That is why CWL works with over two dozen organizations that give us direct access to recruiting tools and potential employers.
Beyond CWL's programs, its mere presence on campus demonstrates to prospective students, matriculating students, alumni, and employers our commitment to increase female leadership in the corporate world. Every year, alumnae and students participate in recruiting the next generation of women leaders, and former students and female role models return to campus to teach and mentor.
Undergraduate business programs that focus on developing female leadership inside and outside the classroom should be part of strategies to increase pathways to the top for women in business. Corporate managers who respect and encourage these efforts can dramatically facilitate the process.
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