This past fall Inforum Center for Leadership published a discouraging report regarding the progress of women at the executive level of Michigan’s public companies.
“A Decade of Women’s Leadership in Michigan Public Companies” revealed that during the past decade, women have made no significant progress in the executive suites and boardrooms.
Given that disappointing news, it might be hard to cast an optimistic glance forward, but that is exactly what Inforum and its local arm, Inforum West Michigan, are doing.
When the report was first released, Terry Barclay, president and CEO of Inforum and Inforum Center for Leadership, said despite its findings she felt optimistic about the future.
“I am more optimistic than I have been in past years,” Barclay said. “I think that these issues are starting to be more visible. We are starting to talk about them more. We are starting to recognize that they are economic issues. It’s not about fairness or being politically correct. I think there is growing recognition in companies that this kind of diversity is an economic issue for the company.”
With the turning of the calendar year, Inforum and Inforum West Michigan appear to be rolling up their sleeves and moving forward on that optimism.
Barclay said the organization has just embarked on its new three-year strategic plan, which is focused on deepening its relationship with Michigan corporations.
One of the things the organization is most excited about is the upcoming rollout of a new program, Genuine Leadership Presence, which Barclay said was developed at the request of a handful of Michigan’s Fortune 500 corporations.
“There was one Fortune 500 company that we work with regularly. … They were noticing that in their talent management meetings they were seeing some patterns where … the women candidates that were being discussed for promotion had the technical skills — they had that nailed. Nobody in the meeting questioned whether they had those skills or not, but they did tend to question whether, if they were promoted and started dealing at a higher level with the company, they would be heard, and whether they could influence people at that level — other executives, their peers,” Barclay said.
Genuine Leadership Presence is a program Inforum created to help women develop their “executive presence” so there will be no question during those talent management discussions of whether or not they can command a room and inspire their teams.
“We can see this being a follow-up on our Executive Leadership program, or something that women do in between our Next Up and Executive Leadership program, but it’s an essential skill that is clearly linked to the whole pipeline issue and the question of whether women advance, whether their careers advance,” Barclay said.
In addition to Genuine Leadership Presence, Barclay is excited about the possibility of extending all three of its programs to Michigan companies’ global networks through virtual and modular programming. She said that would also allow smaller companies with fewer employees to take advantage of Inforum’s programs.
As the organization embarks on its new strategic plan, it has temporarily hired Jeanne Englehart at Inforum West Michigan to help grow the organization’s relationships in the region.
“My job is to be out there, to be their ambassador, to be the person that people know and recognize as someone they can come to with Inforum issues,” Englehart said. “I also want to work to help increase the visibility with the corporate members that we have and to help introduce Inforum to some new corporate members that haven’t been exposed to Inforum.”
She said one of the reasons she decided to take on the role is because she thinks the organization has a proven track record in helping women pull themselves up the rungs of the career ladder.
Inforum West Michigan currently is searching for a full-time vice president of corporate engagement, a newly created position.
“The person in that position will be responsible on an ongoing basis for maintaining and deepening those relationships with companies and women who work at those companies to continue the great work that Jeanne is going to be jumpstarting,” Barclay said.
West Michigan has grown to include more than 600 members and 13 affinity groups. More than 225 women have graduated from the Executive Leadership program and more than 80 from the Next Up program.
Patti Griswold, a West Michigan resident and senior vice president at Comerica Bank, will assume the role of chair on the statewide Inforum board this summer.
“Commitment to Grand Rapids is long term and strong and real,” Barclay said.
Whether or not women will make their way en masse into the corporate boardrooms and executive suites within the next decade is still to be seen, but Barclay and Englehart seem to be doubling down on the bet that they will.