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March 11, 2021

Lessons to Learn from Female CEOs of Public Corporations

A record number of women took over as CEO in 2020 to help steer their company through an uncertain and volatile business environment prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. During the first quarter of 2021, 41 women will lead Fortune 500 companies. That’s just 8.2 percent, but an improvement from the 33 companies in 2019 and 24 in 2018.

It is unfortunate that women are more likely to be elevated to positions of leadership in times of crisis and downturn and are essentially taking on a higher risk for failure. However, this change does present an opportunity to examine how female leaders make decisions and transform the companies that they lead:

Karen Lynch, CEO, CVS Health (CVS)

In February 2021, Lynch assumed the CEO role of the largest health provider in the world. Previously, she was executive vice president of CVS Health and the president of Aetna, the corporation’s insurance arm. Lynch is included on Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women in the World 2020 list, and it’s exciting to see how she’ll lead the health provider through the changes due to COVID-19 and in a post-pandemic world.

Karen Lynch has been quoted as saying: “When I was being considered for a senior role, I was told on an evaluation to avoid wearing pink because it made me look too ‘girlish’… Indirectly, I was told my femininity was a barrier. Because of my outward appearance, they couldn’t see my internal strength. Regardless, I fought back and got the job. Ever since then, I’ve made it a point to wear pink.”

This reminds us to question stereotypes in the workplaces, and people’s attitudes towards traditionally feminine things. It’s also important to not let other people dictate what you wear, how you work, and how you choose to portray your personality at work.

Mary Barra, CEO, General Motors (GM)

Mary Barra is the first female CEO of General Motors, and one of the few female leaders in the automobile industry in the US. She became CEO in January 2014, taking over from Daniel Akerson, the man credited for turning the company profitable after it filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2011.

Mary Barra is leading the charge for GM to transition to electric vehicles by 2035. Her announcements have been met with skepticism or outright criticism from the traditional industry but that has not deterred her. One day after she announced that G.M. has plans to electrify their entire fleet of vehicles, Barra said in an interview that “Climate change is real…and we want to be part of the solution by putting everyone in an electric vehicle.”

She remains one of the few from the automobile industry to openly admit that climate change is a major issue, and adjust the company’s strategy accordingly. While a fierce proponent of feminism and female leaders, she has also said that “I never want to get a job because I’m female. I want to get it because I earned it and I deserve it.”

Rosalind Brewer, CEO, Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA)

Rosalind Brewer is slated to become the CEO of Walgreens in March 2021. She is  only the third Black woman to run a Fortune 500 company, but is a seasoned leader with years of experience. She is currently the COO of Starbucks and the former President and CEO of Sam’s Club.

At Starbucks, Rosalind helped right the course when the company was going through a bit of an existential crisis. Sales had flatlined, and a few months later Howard Schultz, the embodiment of the Starbucks brand, had announced his departure. Additionally, the company was criticised in April 2018 for a racially charged incident at one of its stores. Brewer helped the company expand its diversity training and initiatives, and set diversity targets for managers that are included as part of their performance metrics.

She is credited as saying “You can and should set your own limits and clearly articulate them. This takes courage, but it is also liberating and empowering, and often earns you new respect.”

Jane Fraser, CEO, Citigroup (C)

Jane Fraser was named CEO of Citigroup in February 2021. She is the first woman to head a major Wall Street Bank, but she’s been involved with finance and banking for many years. She has held several senior roles at the bank including chief executive of Citigroup Latin America, chief executive of the U.S. consumer and commercial banking and CitiMortgage, and chief executive of Citi’s global private bank.

When asked about her home life in an interview, Fraser said that “It’s a fairly normal home life for me but I’m often asked, ‘Can you have it all? Can you do it all? And I say, ‘Yes, you can, but you can’t do it all at once and don’t expect everything at once.”

Coming from one of Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women and Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business, this is an important reminder. Sometimes you’ll devote a larger portion of your time to your work or business, whereas other times your personal life can take precedence. You can’t do everything perfectly all the time, which is often an expectation put on women unfairly.

Carol Tomé, CEO, United Parcel Service (UPS)

Carol Tomé retired as CFO of Home Depot in 2019, but recently came out of retirement to lead UPS in June 2020. This was mid-pandemic, and UPS was struggling with the unanticipated swell of ecommerce and was already warning buyers that the holiday season deliveries would be majorly delayed.

During the first 100 days as CEO, Tomé prioritized planning the logistics for the 2020 holiday season and ultimately the delivery of a COVID-19 vaccine. She renegotiated contracts with large-scale customers, gave constant updates, and prioritized a lean business model.

Tomé is empathetic to the unique challenges of her company and team during the pandemic and the essential nature of the business. In a recent interview, she says,  “I learned that the answer to really all of the strategic questions facing a company can be found by listening. In the Home Depot world, that meant listening in the stores. So in my free time, in the evenings, on the weekends, I would put on an apron and work in the stores. And I really got to understand the experience through the lens of the customer.”

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