Ascending to the C-Suite
  • Leadership

Ascending to the C-Suite

ANATOMY OF A PROGRAM: An innovative experiential program for senior-level women executives


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Women only programs attract a variety of reactions – from both men and women. Cheri Alexander has worked in large organizations for over three decades and having been on a women-only program in the early 1980s and not been over-whelmed by it, had maintained a position that if women are to work in a world alongside men, then it makes sense that they go on ‘co-ed’ development programs.

Alexander is now a Faculty member in the Management and Organization Department and the Chief Innovation Officer for Executive Education at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. She is also a board member of Inforum, a 55-year-old non-profit that provides programs and activities to accelerate women’s careers and strengthen talent initiatives for companies. In the spirit of innovation that defines her current role, Cheri Alexander decided to test her long-held ‘bias’ against women-only development programs, by bringing faculty from Michigan Ross, along with senior executives together to teach a women-only leadership program, in partnership with Inforum.

The result was a new joint Michigan Ross Inforum program ‘Ascending to the C-Suite: From Theory to Practice’ which had its inaugural run in November 2016. Alexander was aware from research data that one of the most frequent barriers encountered by senior business women in their ascent to the C-Suite is a lack of, or lack of confidence in, strategy, business and financial acumen. With Michigan Ross being the home of Ray Reilly, the ‘father’ of business acumen research, there was a natural opportunity to focus on this. Alexander, as program director, also brought in a plethora of Michigan Ross stellar faculty including Maxim Sytch and Scott DeRue, both listed on Poet & Quant’s Top 40 B-School professors under-40 in 2014; Gautam Kaul, who leads the most popular MOOC on finance on Coursera; Lynn Wooten, a clinical professor of strategy who led the crisis management module for the program (and was announced as the new Dean of the Dyson School of Applied Economics at Cornell on 27th February this year); and Sue Ashford, Chairman of the Management and Organizations Department and from the school’s Center for Positive Organizations.

To balance this wave of academic talent Inforum invited a series of guest executive speakers to the program including Maximiliane Straub, CFO and EVP at the German manufacturer Robert Bosch; Diana Tremblay, VP Global Business Services at General Motors; Shari Burgess, VP & Treasurer at Lear Corporation.

As with all executive programs however, the extent and delivery of the content is only ever part of the equation. The enduring value for participants is richest when those intangible elements come together. Where the energy created and the support that evolves amongst the participants to each other becomes the over-riding output. For Alexander, this is where her revelation occurred. “I had never experienced such amazing energy and camaraderie in a program before” she reflects, “it completely changed my view of women only programs.”

She acknowledges that the experiment is not rigorously complete, but for this level of executive (participants must have at least 15 year’s management experience), the program “delivers a quick network and connectivity with women who are ‘already there’”. The sustainability of the program lies as much in what occurs after the program as what is achieved in it. Cheri Alexander is pleased to note that the hyper-busy participants are already, only a couple of months’ post-program, arranging to get together to continue their learning and support as a group.

Given the spark for the program came from the Detroit based Inforum, it is not surprising that the majority of participants came from the Michigan area, but not exclusively so. Michigan Ross’s reach is extensive and drew in senior executive participants from China and Turkey, from over the border in Canada as well as US states of Indiana and Tennessee amongst other locations.

“Research shows men are promoted based on their potential, while women are promoted based on their accomplishments,” said Terry Barclay, president and CEO of Inforum. “The advantage of ‘Ascending to the C-Suite’ is that it builds the expertise that all rising executives – men and women – need to reach the highest corporate levels. And it does it in a way that draws on the deep expertise of top academics and top business executives.”

For Alexander it has been a hugely energising experiencing – and a revelatory one. Forcing her to reappraise her stance on women only programs and seeing the benefit and impact that they can have, as a part of a broader portfolio of personal development initiatives, for high-level women.

 Learn more: ‘Ascending to the C-Suite: From Theory to Practice’ 21 July 2017

Corporate cliches are for yesterday’s business. Today's business calls for a new kind of leadership, one that sees beyond yesterday’s cliches and creates meaningful change, the kind of change that yields long-term, sustainable results.

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