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Q&A with Andi Cullins

Earlier this fall I coordinated a happy hour with the D.C. Women’s Bar Association, and I enjoyed talking with several interesting women (and a handful of men brave enough to come to a WBA event!).  I talked with Andi Cullins about her efforts to get more women on corporate boards.  Andi explained that she is putting together a network of women who will work to identify board-ready women and market them to corporate boards.  She’s calling it The DirectHer Network.  I told her about my interview with Serena Fong at Catalyst about the same issue, and I was excited Andi agreed to meet up for an interview about her efforts.

Kate

What got you interested in the issue of increasing the number of women on corporate boards? 

Andi

A lot of people have been working on this issue, including Boardroom Bound, Catalyst and more recently, The 30% Club, but they’ve been working for a while now and we’re not seeing the needle move by much.  Despite our efforts, we’re just not getting enough women on corporate boards.

Kate

Why is the needle not moving?

Andi

Board members themselves typically fill vacancies on boards, based on their existing networks.  Let me explain:  when there is a vacancy on a board, the board members already “have the suit built.”

 Kate

By that do you mean that those selecting the person to fill the vacancy have already defined the type of person they want?

 Andi

That’s right.  If Joe, for example, leaves the board, the board members talk about who should replace Joe.  And these guys – and let’s be honest, they are mostly guys – think about who they know and who are already in their circles.  Someone says: “I play golf with Fred and he might be interested.”  Typically, Fred will fill the vacancy.  These guys are not purposefully excluding women.  They are just filling the “suit” with people they know personally.

Even when that doesn’t work and the board members hire a search firm, they describe the suit they need filled.  They have already built the suit.  The suit is a certain size.  There is little that I, in the executive search business, can do to affect who goes into the suit.  The position will be filled by someone who fits their pattern already.

Kate

How is The DirectHer Network working to change this pattern?

Andi

We’re using a proactive method that we use at The McCormick Group and that is somewhat unusual in the executive search world.  A lot of what we do is what other executive search firms do – find people for employers.  An employer says:  “Find me a red-haired, left-handed litigator.”  Fine.  We can do that.

But what makes us unusual is that sometimes we flip the script on this and  take on representation of highly qualified individuals.  In the course of searching for the people to fit the suits developed by employers, we occasionally meet individuals who are absolutely outstanding.  They are so outstanding and they are ready to make a move, and agree to help find a position for them, even if no client has identified the need. We conduct a proactive campaign to introduce these candidates to potential employers in their area of expertise.

We work with the individuals to identify what they can offer and what they want in their next career move, and we try to find that for them.  I market them to employers.  These individuals are so outstanding that occasionally we have clients create positions for them.

The McCormick Group has developed a sweet spot in doing this for high-level government officials – former secretaries, cabinet members, congressmen, etc.  We are able to take these individuals to employers and say “you really need to look at this person.”  We’re not waiting for the right job to come that person – we’re being proactive and making it happen.

Kate

This is the approach that The DirectHer Network will use?

Andi

Yes.  By being proactive, I can get to corporate boards and pitch outstanding women before they have the chance to define the position so it can be filled only by people in their circles – before they build the suit.  At that point, the boards may be more open about the characteristics of the person who should fill the open seat.

Kate

Can you talk with me about the women you expect to pitch?  How do you anticipate identifying them?

 Andi

That’s where the women in the Network come in.  We’ll be working together to identify board-ready women.  I know that a lot of organizations working to have more women on corporate boards have training programs.  That’s great, but there are a lot of   training programs already established, and they do an excellent job.  But most board seats are filled through recommendations from CEOs and other board members.

Kate

They get there through their networks.

Andi

Right.  So I’m getting together women with large spheres of influence who will create a network that can help identify these women and pitch them to boards.

Kate

In my work representing women professionals, I see a lot of the Joe and Fred situation you mentioned – men not intentionally excluding women, but including only those in their immediate circles.  I think that happens often.

But in my work I also see discrimination.  I see people excluding women because they are women.  Are you concerned that will continue to be a hurdle?

 Andi

Oh, certainly!  I’ve seen it.  I’ve been in this business since 1979. I started at a time when there were very few women in professional management.   I know there will be those hurdles as well.

So, yes, I anticipate we will get push back.  But at the end of the day, I think that corporations are interested in shareholder value, and studies show that increasing diversity has an influence on shareholder value.

I hear people say they want to involve more women but they can’t find them.  That’s when the whole “binders full of women” comes in.  But come on.  This is silliness.  They just aren’t looking in the right places.  You put someone qualified in front of them, they’re going to have less resistance.

Kate

What inspires you to do work to increase the number of women on boards?

Andi

I have what I call an “ice pick theory.”  I am not a hammer.  I alone am not strong enough or powerful enough to break the glass ceiling.  But I can pick at it.  I can pick at it and make lots of little holes and cracks.  We are all working to attack the glass ceiling with our ice picks.  And eventually it will come down.

Kate

You have an impressive bio and you work to identify others with impressive bios.  I think our readers – who are largely women earlier in their careers – would be interested in hearing your advice on how to have such an outstanding career.

Andi

I grew up in the 1950s and was the product of a biracial marriage.  I’ve always been “different,” and I learned early on I had to work to fit in anywhere.  I learned I was going to have to create space for myself.

I was also the youngest of nine children.  That’s not like when you’re the youngest of three and you’re coddled.  I was dragged along.  I learned that I was able to do anything anyone else did.  I also learned that no one was going to do it for me, so I had to do it for myself.

And what that means is that I had to take my career into my own hands.  And my advice for women is to do the same.  We can’t wait for someone else to show up and do it for us.  We have to do it for ourselves.  We have to figure out what it is we bring to the table and pursue it.  You need to get out there and ask for what you want.  No one is going to hand it to you.  You figure out what you’ve got and you work it.

It’s like when you get dressed in the morning – you don’t ask what the latest fashion is – you ask what looks good on you.  It’s the same with your careers – you figure out what you’re good at and you publicize it and promote it.  Being good at your job is not enough.

Kate

I think that is absolutely right.  I have talked with clients about how it is important to make sure that their managers understand just how much their clients and stakeholders love them.

Andi

I am familiar with the kind of work you do.  I used to be in HR, and I can tell you that HR advises the company to document, document, document.  So employees need to do it in reverse.  At all times.  Save your emails.  Save your praise.  Establish your value to your employer. If a client says you did great on something, ask the client to email your boss and say the same thing. That way, when it is annual review time, or promotion-decision time, you can walk in with documentation of what you’ve done.  You can build a case for yourself.

*  *  *  *  *

I think this is great advice, especially for women.  Ideally, the employer would take note of the successes of women just as much as it does the successes of men.  But, sadly, that’s not always the case.  Men in management will often mentor and sponsor men who are like them.  In Andi’s words, men who already fit the suit.  For more advice on building a case for yourself, check out my interview with Anne Collier.

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Kate Mueting

Kate Mueting

Kate Mueting dedicates her working hours in the DC office of Sanford Heisler, LLP to advocating on behalf of women and to speaking on issues of pay equity and gender fairness.  Because she cares about it a ton, Kate also manages to talk about gender equity during non-working hours, although this is liberally sprinkled with references to her home state of Iowa and to her selection as Rookie of the Year by Nebraska’s marching band. 

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