When GM’s new, and first female, CEO Mary Barra moved quickly and publicly to recall cars with the company’s potentially lethal ignition switch problems her predecessors had known but failed to address for a decade, you could feel the fresh air.
It would be foolhardy to say her gender made her act in this ethical manner, or to assume a man would not. Still, you can’t help but notice that Barra straight-up owned the problem in a way startlingly distant from the public relations posturing typical of Fortune 500’s protecting their fortunes.
What was your life and career path?
My dad was a human resources executive; my mother owned an advertising agency. Dad told me I might as well focus on a degree that’s practical, where you can get a job, like engineering for accounting.
I got excited about technology in my first job with Ernst & Young. Apple had been a client, then I went to work there. I developed expertise in bringing organizations to scale. I’m a good coach and mentor. All along, I used my background in finance and the numbers of business. I’m goal oriented and liked being closer to the action than auditing the numbers.
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You sound very intentional about what your career choices…
I didn’t have a long-term goal of being CFO. Careers are journeys in how you get from place to place. The core is I was a natural leader, a natural delegator, good at communicating and getting people to move in a direction. I keep teams connected. Everything you do as a leader is about connecting with people.
I’ve talked and worked with many women leaders and you are the first who ever said, “I’m a natural-born leader.” Tell me more.
Not only did I feel I was a natural leader, I also invested in my own leadership. You have to invest in yourself. I read every leadership book early on—I wanted to be better, to develop, to grow. To know how do you work through obstacles.
Was any training was particularly helpful to you?
There’s no silver bullet, but every quarter I did an offsite with extended leadership team with outside experts. Even if we only learn one thing each time, we get better. The key is knowing yourself which sometimes executives don’t do, your strengths and weaknesses. And you have to be your own advocate.
You also serve on the boards of Echelon and Autodesk. Why did you join the GoDaddy board?
It’s one of those special companies with a unique global built platform. It has the power of an established company with the energy of a start-up. I was drawn to help them scale.
Only 17% of Fortune 500 boards are female and in Silicon Valley that number hovers at 10%. Why do you think, or do you think getting more women on boards is a good idea?
Yes — I do, actually. I’ve always been a believer in my responsibility to help other women. Women always want to be so pure and say we just want the best person, whereas the men help each other. You show the value of diversity when women get onto the board.
What’s your advice to women interested in serving on boards?
I was fortunate that after 2002 when Sarbanes- Oxley came into effect, it put requirements on boards to have people who are qualified, especially in finance. Coming from a background in finance made me stand out as someone who had the experience to be in that capacity. The first thing to understand is your value proposition: finance, legal, securing funding, for example. At the end of the day, they’re looking for people who are experts in their field.
The second piece of advice is to have a network and to understand the people who are going to be making decisions about who joins the board. Are there ways you can get experience relevant to board service without being on a board? Are there ways to enhance your viability as a board member?
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’d like to think I’m a golfer. My husband and I play golf, and we have two dogs that are spoiled rotten. We have 3 out of 4 parents who need some assistance. I serve on the board of trustees of Santa Clara University where I went to school.
Postscript:The press release announcing Rafael’s appointment plays the gender card. But Rafael isn’t just varnish for the company’s image. She sounds solid, matter of fact, well grounded. When she says she’s a natural leader you don’t hear ego — it’s just a fact, ma’am.
You can also imagine that like Mary Barra, Rafael keeps calm in chaos. You sense those studies finding the addition of women increases group intelligence must be true, and that you’ve just met the archetype of the woman whose risk aversion — a key factor in that vaunted better performance of companies with more women on their boards — is firmly planted not in fear but in intelligent consideration of evidence.
Let me know what you think:
- Are Barra and Rafael examples of a core difference rooted in culturally baked in attributes of gender, or does this behavioral difference have more to do with their being self-selected “firsts?”
- What would change about organizations if men and women held equal shares of leadership?
GLORIA FELDT is the New York Times bestselling author of several books including No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets, and the Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead. People has called her “the voice of experience,” and among the many honors she has been given, Vanity Fair called her one of America’s “Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers,” and Glamour chose her as a “Woman of the Year.”
As co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit, her mission is to achieve gender parity by 2025 through innovative training programs, workshops, a groundbreaking 50 Women Can Change The World immersive, online courses, a free weekly newsletter, and events including a monthly Virtual Happy Hour program and a Take The Lead Day symposium that reached over 400,000 women globally in 2017.