Female CEOs Say Dad’s Advice Helped Them Shatter Glass Ceiling

Denise Morrison
Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison. Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg

As a girl growing up in Elberon, New Jersey, Denise Morrison, future chief executive officer of Campbell Soup Co., got a business education from her father.

An executive at AT&T, Dennis Sullivan brought home models of the Princess Trimline phone and talked to Denise and her three younger sisters at dinner about product development and marketing. He described new assignments and taught them to write business plans when they wanted something new, like a bicycle, that included the costs of different models.

“He was educating us about so many things, from pay for performance to the importance of changing jobs often to gain broad experience,” says Morrison, 61, who worked at half a dozen consumer-products companies, including PepsiCo Inc. and Nestle SA, before joining Campbell in 2003. “He said he saw the world opening up for women and wanted us to be prepared.”

(Morrison’s younger sister Maggie Wilderotter is chairman and former CEO of Frontier Communications.)

Father’s Day, celebrated Sunday, gives businesswomen like Morrison and General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra an occasion to remember and salute their dads for teaching them important lessons about how to succeed in a world where females still hold only about 14 percent of senior executive jobs and are CEOs at just 23 companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

All children are shaped by their parents, but a father can have a particularly weighty influence on a daughter’s career path, says Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

“For girls who have interests and aspirations in areas that are traditionally male, a father’s confidence in them can be very helpful” and counters the bias that “if you’re an assertive female you’re somehow too aggressive,” she says.

Workshop Bonding

Barra says her father encouraged her interest in cars and science and her decision to work at GM. Her father, Ray Makela, worked for 39 years as a die maker at GM’s plant in Pontiac, Michigan, retiring just as Barra joined the company as an 18-year-old intern.

Makela had a workshop in his basement where he fixed appliances and tinkered. Barra had to help her mother around the house, but was allowed to join her father in the workshop once she finished her chores.

“I got to work next to him on the workbench,” she said in an interview last year.

Whenever her father brought home a vehicle from his plant, Barra, 53, spent hours exploring it. “That was a big part of my life growing up, being excited about new cars,” she said.

Debra Cafaro, CEO of Ventas, Inc., a Chicago-based real estate investment trust, says her father, a Pittsburgh mailman, made sure she was the first in her family to attend college. He worked a second job collecting and selling rare coins to raise enough money to pay for her to attend Notre Dame University.

At age 16, when Cafaro told her father she wanted to become a lawyer, he arranged for her to meet the one attorney he knew, an influential criminal litigator, at a trial. He also took her frequently to football and baseball games.

“My father always supported me and said ‘You can do whatever you put your mind to,’” says Cafaro, 57. “Looking back, I realize how incredibly unusual and important his constant support and reinforcement were,” especially at a time when there were hardly any female executives or law partners.

Because women often have to jump hurdles to get top jobs, having a father who has overcome adversity can be enlightening and motivating. Linda Addison, managing partner of the U.S. practice of the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, was raised by parents who were imprisoned in different Nazi concentration camps during World War II. After surviving the Holocaust, her father walked from village to village across Poland until, against high odds, he found her mother.

Inherited Confidence

“He never gave up, and I got the message that determination and perseverance can achieve the impossible,” says Addison, who is 63 and one of the few high-ranking female attorneys at a large law firm. “I got my confidence from him. I wasn’t daunted working in firms that weren’t friendly to women.”

Male executives who have daughters are more likely to treat the women they work with better, studies have found. When a male CEO has a daughter, especially if she’s his first child, he’s more apt to close the gender pay gap at his company, according to a study of more than 10,000 private companies in Denmark from 1995 through 2006. Salaries of female employees grew by 1.1 percent, compared with a 0.6 percent gain for male employees, if the CEO’s first child was a daughter, the study found.

“A switch seems to go off in a male CEO’s mind when he has children, and especially a daughter, making him more appreciative of women,” says Cristian Dezso, an associate professor at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and one of the study’s authors.

Daughters whose fathers were themselves raised by successful women may be especially lucky. Ashley Fina, president of Michael C. Fina, a third-generation family-owned retailer and employee recognition company, is the only female among three cousins and a brother running the business. Her father inherited it from his parents who ran it jointly.

Fina, 30, joined the company in 2009 and soon after her father passed the president’s job to her, although he’s still giving strategic advice.

“My father’s mother was a strong entrepreneur, so he’s used to women being in charge,” Fina says.

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