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Sunday, 03 August 2014 22:00

Women CEOs on a steady rise

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Birgit Klohs, CEO of The Right Place Inc. Birgit Klohs, CEO of The Right Place Inc. MIBIZ FILE PHOTO: RYAN PAVLOVICH

When Birgit Klohs became the CEO of The Right Place Inc. on Nov. 30, 1987, she was the first woman CEO of a nonprofit economic development agency in the Midwest.

“I didn’t pay that much attention that I was the first woman. I just wanted to do the job and do the job well,” Klohs said. “If I did that, then it would show leadership and thus give other women the opportunity to step up and look at these other opportunities, other than bemoaning that there weren’t enough of these opportunities.”

In the interim, the industry has changed considerably, according to Klohs.

“Today, if I look across the landscape, particularly in Michigan and in economic development organizations, there are quite a few (more) of us than there were even 10 years ago,” she said.

Related: Klohs appointed to authority that will oversee Detroit-Windsor bridge project

A recent poll commissioned by The Chronicle of Philanthropy and New York University’s George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising of 644 female nonprofit workers found 57 percent of the women who did not already hold leadership positions had aspirations to lead a nonprofit.

“The nonprofit world has really been dominated in many ways by females because I really think there are more opportunities for women,” said Diana Sieger, CEO of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. “To have the richness of the nonprofit sector being led by a number of real quality CEOs, a number of whom are women, is really amazing.”

The industry is also experiencing a generational shift as well. In the same poll, 72 percent of women nonprofit workers who were 35 years old or younger had leadership goals, while just 30 percent of those 55 and older had those same goals.

“The experiences I’ve had with running this organization have mostly been very positive because I know how to carry myself and I’m not intimidated by a lot,” Sieger said about her success as a CEO in the nonprofit sector. “I’ve had a lot of men and women attempt to denigrate myself or the organization, and those are futile attempts.”

While many women leaders have successfully broken the glass ceiling in various industries, change is happening at a slow pace. When Fortune magazine released its Fortune 500 list in June, it included the largest number female-led companies to date. That number, however, is still but a small percentage. Only 24 companies that made the cut were led by women CEOs. Additionally, female CEOs led just 51 of the companies included on the Fortune 1000 list. In 1998, there were two women on the list: Mattel’s Jill Barad and Marion Sandler of Golden West Financial.

“You talk about statistics with Fortune 500 companies where there was one female CEO many years ago and there are 24 now: There still needs to be more,” Sieger said. “We’re at least moving in the right direction.”

Sieger stepped into her position at the Community Foundation around the same time Klohs became CEO at The Right Place. Throughout the years, both women have seen the landscape change as more women have stepped into leadership roles in various sectors.

Both have also faced challenges head on.

“What I find is that some people will attempt to marginalize me, and we have a bit to go when it comes to how people perceive female leadership and really respecting that leadership,” Sieger said. “There’s an environment that will still give lip service to acknowledging the role of women as leaders. Actions, however, say quite the opposite.”

To help train that new generation of nonprofit leaders — both male and female — educational programs around West Michigan have stepped up to meet the need. Grand Valley State University will offer a master’s degree in philanthropy and nonprofit leadership this fall and was recently approved to develop a proposal for a doctorate program. At Western Michigan University, nonprofit leadership programs are being revised to include updated technologies and strategies.

Not that all experiences for women CEOs are as challenging, however. Shelleye Yaklin, president and CEO of North Ottawa Community Health System in Grand Haven, cites the supportive work environment she’s experienced not only at NOCHS, but throughout her career.

“For me, personally, I can’t think of a bad experience I have had because I am a woman CEO,” Yaklin said.

Yaklin, who is the health system’s first female president and CEO, added that her focus is not on being a woman leader, but instead on putting her best effort into the job, making sure needs within North Ottawa are met and having the confidence and experience a CEO needs to succeed.

“Shelleye’s leadership style is approachable, collaborative and decisive,” said Jen VanSkiver, chief communications officer at NOCHS. “She sets the tone from day one by attending every single new employee orientation. This ensures that those who are joining NOCHS hear, directly from her, where we are headed as an organization, as well as feel welcomed into our culture.”

Across the board, CEOs say confidence is a key quality needed in that position, regardless of whether they are a male or female.

“There will always be those who believe that women should not be in those jobs or whatever, but if you get distracted by the noise in the airwaves, then you don’t really get the job done that you were hired to do,” Klohs said.

But Klohs also emphasizes that both men and women should find the job that makes them happy, even if it’s not the top spot in the nonprofit or corporation.

“Not everybody is cut out or wants to be [a CEO], and that should be a choice,” Klohs said. “If you choose that the stress is too much, the time commitment is too much and you are fine that you are in a career that is not the top job, we shouldn’t criticize that woman.

That is her right to decide what the balance of her life is.

“I wanted to lead. That was a goal I had. I knew it would come with stress. It comes with stress every day; I struggle with life/work balance every day. But I wouldn’t want to be number two.”

Read 3905 times Last modified on Wednesday, 13 August 2014 10:36

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