All-In Women Leaders: Just In Time

I first met Susan McKay more than 30 years ago when we were both hired by Sperry Corporation as sales trainees. In 1980, Susan joined Sperry in Philadelphia after four remarkable years at Franklin & Marshall College where she earned an amazing 12 Varsity letters in field hockey, basketball, and lacrosse. She was also a nationally ranked squash player who built an equally strong academic record. Susan and I did not work closely together after training ended, but I was not at all surprised to see Susan repeatedly promoted in subsequent years.

At Sperry, Susan stood out for several reasons. She displayed both strong personal discipline and confidence in spite of a new setting. She seemed to know where she was going and that insight led many to admire her. Susan had an aptitude for team building and liked to support others. She worked very hard to create her future. In addition, Susan’s humility struck her contemporaries as representative of a strong set of values. Susan quickly established a track record of success in a culture that was dominated by men.

Years later, I was running a marketing unit for the company and I had the opportunity to add Susan to my team. I jumped at it. While Susan continued to deliver strong results, it was clear that she needed help to continue her rise up the corporate ladder. There were very few female role models for her to follow. I approached senior executive Joseph Tucci to sponsor Susan for a $10,000 Executive Presence Program specifically developed for women. This was the first request of its kind and Joe agreed. With support, Susan continued to build a successful career and is representative of many other women who are leaders in American business today.

I share this story in part because many organizations are now benefitting from strong leadership by women who started their careers at a time when men dominated corporate leadership positions. While Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard and Virginia Rometty at IBM have earned recent headlines, they join a long list of women who are leading major companies. Indra Nooyi at Pepsico, Ursula Burns at Xerox, and Irene Rosenfeld at Kraft are among other women currently leading Fortune 500 companies.

More importantly, as American businesses struggle, the increasing number of women leaders at all levels is perhaps one of our best reasons for optimism. While each story of success is unique, these leaders share common threads. In the face of daunting odds, every successful woman has earned a place of leadership with a combination of strong skills, hard work, personal choices, and the support of others. They have demonstrated resilience and delivered results.

These role models displayed a combination of discipline, insight, support, creativity, and values that positioned them for greater impact. I refer to these actions and attributes as All-In Leadership because they lead to engagement of all the leaders in an organization. Further, these are the essential elements that enabled many women leaders to climb the corporate ladder as they made positive impacts along the way.

Significantly, these very same factors are also of paramount importance in our current volatile business environment where so many organizations are experiencing poor performance. Corporations are facing new challenges and an increasing need for leadership throughout their organizations. In fact, the ascension of All-In women leaders in American business is not only really good news—it may be just in time.

As companies search for every competitive advantage in challenging times, all leaders would benefit from the lessons taught by All-In women leaders. One of them is Susan McKay, who currently works at technology giant EMC in Hopkinton, Mass. EMC’s visionary CEO is Joe Tucci.