Personal perspectives Featured

12:00pm EDT March 11, 2004
Without the advantage of a female role model, Barbara Danforth rose to become assistant attorney general for the state of Iowa and chief prosecutor for the City of Cleveland. Today, she is executive director of the YWCA of Greater Cleveland, where she is helping to develop future female leaders.

Danforth has effectively moved from arguing cases in her matter-of-fact style to empowering women through networks and development programs. In the process, she is changing herself as much as she is changing the culture for women in Cleveland.

Danforth is just one of a growing number of women executives and entrepreneurs who are shattering the so-called glass ceiling. In fact, women are the fastest-rowing segment of business owners in the United States, and women-owned businesses employ 28 million people and contribute $3.6 trillion to the national economy.

So it should come as little surprise that this year's five panelists in "Perspectives: A Conference for Women in Business" are as unique as the industries they dominate.

Maureen Cromling operates Ross Environmental Services, one of Northeast Ohio's leading hazardous waste management companies with more than 200 employees. Yet she speaks with as much passion about being a breast cancer survivor as she does about being the unlikely successor to the family-owned business.

Sandra Pianalto, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, is only the second person at the bank to be promoted to CEO from within, and one of just three female presidents in the history of the Federal Reserve system. Her prestigious career spans 20 years, and began as an economist in the research department.

Yet Pianalto says an integral aspect of her development came at age 9, when she was tutoring her Italian-born parents in English and government for their citizenship tests. She says that experience taught her more about the U.S. political system than most American adults know.

Dr. Catherine Henry has joint appointments in the departments of General Internal Medicine and Otolaryngology & Communicated Disorders at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. In her highly successful career, the only thing holding her back was herself. Henry conquered her own inertia to spread her wings and excel in a brave move from the Michigan-based Henry Ford Medical Group, where she completed her residency, to the Clinic.

And Rose Jenne started her illustrious business career at the age of 14 in her father's country store. She began her $50 million telecommunication products distribution company because, simply put, she needed a job.

As beautifully unique and inspiringly different as each of these women are, one common trait is evident through each of their careers - success is less about conquering an industry than it is about conquering oneself.

Smart Business sat down with each of these women to explore their careers and thoughts on a variety of business-related topics. The five will speak on these and other issues April 20 at the 2004 Women in Business conference.

Playing the career game

Sandra Pianalto

My career is like football and the Hail Mary pass. I was vice president in charge of public affairs and the secretary to the board of directors at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland when I was offered the position of COO.

I had no operations experience, no background in operations whatsoever.

When the COO took an early retirement, I was asked to step into his role and was in a state of shock. There were nine senior vice presidents with operating experience ahead of me. Our CEO Jerry Jordan was the quarterback going for the long pass.

Jerry and the board wanted to change the way the organization operated, which was a culture of command and control. They wanted to bring the employees into the decision-making process.

They threw the Hail Mary pass because I was a woman with no operations experience and the first COO to come from within the bank in a very long time. That risk was the launching pad that put me in the CEO role.

Maureen Cromling

My career has been over a long period of time. I've had to be very persistent, kind of like digging in your heels for the long run.

Ross Environmental is a family-owned business, so I've had the unique dynamics of working with my mom, dad and siblings. My older brother was the heir apparent. All I wanted to do was show my dad and mom that I could do something really well. That meant doing something that nobody else wanted to do.

My dad and brother loved engineering, the mechanical and operations side of the business. So the pivotal point in my career also became the pivotal point in our business development.

In 1980, the single largest regulation ever published was passed -- the Resource Conservation Recovery Act. I decided I was going to become the expert in this regulatory area. And, as it turned out, the Conservation Recovery Act became a critical component not only to our company's success, but also to our entire industry.

Areas for continuous improvement

Barbara Danforth

Self-confidence. Unless you have confidence in your ability to accept new challenges, you can't rise to those challenges.

You get lost in the shuffle. You settle for second best because you'd never think you can be the very best.

Rose Jenne

Letting go. Letting go is hard. It means empowering others.

I still wanted to do it all myself, but when Jenne Distributors hit $50 million in sales, I knew it was time to let go. I needed experienced people who had been there, done that. I knew my limitations.

Pianalto

Good judgment. The Fed wanted to change the way it operated and needed a quick learner with good judgment.

It's not easy to listen to and draw people into the decision-making process. Especially if they were used to having someone call all the shots -- what to do, when to do it and how to do it.

Financial style -- in one word

Dr. Catherine Henry

Planning. In my personal life, I'm focused on making sure my retirement is taken care of. My dad was a partner in a small company and did very well financially.

But a series of events caused him to lose everything. Now, my mom lives on a small Social Security check. I'm planning for my retirement with an investment adviser and basically, I do what he tells me.

Cromling

Serious. Fiscal responsibility is a critical part of business. Ross Environmental is privately held, so we don't have some huge corporate parent supporting us. The buck stops here, and I take that very seriously.

Our industry is very capital intensive, so we understand the value of forecasting. During the recent economic downturn, we understood our finances so well -- where we made money, where we didn't, what things cost and where we could cut -- that we were able to make intelligent decisions.

You don't wait until the roof falls in before you fix it.

Pianalto

Conservative. That's the nature of the Federal Reserve Bank. We are very risk-averse, and we have controls in place that no other organization would pay for. Our books balance to the penny every single day.

Personally, I don't take risks, either, and I tend to be more of a saver than the average person. That comes from watching my parents' financial struggle.

So it's more my life experiences that influence how I view finance rather than if I'm a man or a woman or even the job I have.

Jenne

Calculating. Finance is my very strongest point. I run my company conservatively because bottom line growth is extremely important to me. I take risks, but only well-calculated risks.

On the other hand, I take more risks with my personal finances. I love the market and I watch it daily. I'll invest in other companies in my industry but only because I know the industry and who's doing well and who's not.

Danforth

Relinquishing. It's a terrible thing to abdicate my responsibility over my finances, but I can't do everything.

Other people handle finances better than I do. So I let them.

Betting on health

Henry

One of the biggest health issues people face is that they don't take time for health, time for exercise, time to really pay attention to themselves. It's true for both men and women. But I think the bigger stress falls on women because they often end up having more family responsibility.

I try really hard not to make family responsibility a women's issue, but truthfully, it is. Women are often under a bigger time crunch than men. That leads to stress, which is a huge factor in the risk for heart disease, affects your immune system, and ultimately has implications for cancer risk.

It simply boils down to taking the time to put yourself first. It's my job is to remind you of that.

Danforth

Health issues are based more on a person's age and stage than their rank within the corporate structure. Younger women have children and all the challenges that children bring. Whereas, older women have the care of her parents and all the commensurate challenges that brings.

So, the most dominant influence on your health is your stage in life and challenges you face.

However, the higher you go up economically, the more choices you have. And the converse is obviously true.

But women are caregivers, and as such, we seldom take time to take care of ourselves.

Gut reactions

Danforth

In my early career, I was educated and trained to make intellectual decisions. That's probably how I can account for some of the major mistakes I've made. I just wasn't attuned to the importance of that intuitive reaction, the value of the voice that brings the holistic being together with the decision.

Now I recognize the importance of listening to that voice and I rely on my gut, even when my gut and my head are diametrically opposed.

Cromling

There are some things you simply can't quantify. Sometimes you just can't add up the numbers. You have to base your decisions on the people and the situation and then let how you feel influence you. You'll know when you're right.

I trust my gut a lot. In 1995, we had had an explosion at the plant. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it shut us down for six months. Our revenue dropped to virtually nothing.

Then, the following year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and soon after, my mother died. That's when you start to say, I don't I think I can do this anymore.

My Christian faith became very important to me. I literally put everything in God's hands. That's when I realized I can only do the best I can do. I also realized that the people working for me could only do so their own personal best.

I think that surrendering to God was a gut reaction. When you have that much coming down on you, you realize that there's no way you can do it all. So rather than giving up, I simply decided I'm not going worry about what I can't control.

Those life-changing events impacted me, my relationship with God and my trust in myself.

Mentoring -- giving and getting back

Danforth

When I entered the insurance industry, I was a rarity -- an African-American female in an incredibly white male environment. There were no role modes. There were no mentors. I didn't even conceive of having a mentor.

Much of my career progressed in solitude. And it wasn't easy.

Now, I have a professional coach, and I can't conceive of life without her. I also make sure I mentor, just not in the traditional way. I'm more like as an adviser. The women I mentor have very specific goals. And so do I. Mentoring has created some of my best relationships.

In nonprofits organizations, there's less career laddering than in the for-profit sector. In fact, the mindset is, come in, do your best and stay until the executive director leaves.

To counter that, I've begun working on succession planning. As part of my community responsibility, I need to prepare my managers to be leaders in other nonprofit organizations. It's a shift in mindset and pretty different from the philosophy of most nonprofits. For me, that's why mentoring is especially important.

Cromling

In our business, we have an open-door policy and career development opportunities. My management team is a part of that process. We all mentor, just not in a structured way.

When someone wants to do more -- work on special projects, get more formal training -- we put together a targeted program. We try to understand their desires, their career path, their strengths and weaknesses. My management team is a part of the process because every member has a different strength, a unique skill and approach to offer.

As far as having a mentor myself, I've had a lot of people that influenced me. And some of them have been my advisers.

Because we're a smaller company, we use our legal and financial advisers as kind of quasi-management members. I look for advisers with high morals and good basic values because they not only help me with my business, they help me maintain my moral compass.

Things don't always turn out the way we want, and we won't always win. But by maintaining high morals, I can look myself in the mirror. I'm satisfied with that.

Henry

I believe it's really critical for women to intentionally mentor other women. The field of medicine naturally lends itself well to mentoring.

Once you get out of the classroom, it's like a rotating apprenticeship.

But once you're an established physician, you have good intentions to continue mentoring but not enough time. So we're just starting an online mentoring program at the Clinic. It's like a bulletin board. This way, if you have something to contribute, you can, and more people will be able to participate.

Also, I think it's important to recognize that mentoring can come from anywhere. You can learn different things from different people. Some of my best mentors were men.

Pianalto

When I first joined the bank, our president was the first woman president at the Cleveland Fed. However, our officer team was comprised 100 percent of white males. When your management team doesn't look anything like you, you simply don't put those types of positions on your radar screen.

Today, women have role models in senior positions to aspire to. And the bank is in the process of developing a more formal mentoring program. Informally, I do a lot of mentoring now. I also am mentored through the boards I sit on.

When you are the most senior person in your organization, you run out of people to learn from - you're the top person. Sitting on boards gives you the opportunity to learn from a lot of CEOs from a lot of different companies.

Outside the office

Pianalto

I sit on many boards, probably a few too many --Cleveland Tomorrow, Cleveland Roundtable, The Growth Association, Leadership Cleveland, The Northeast Ohio Counsel on Higher Education, Catholic Diocese Foundation Board, The Akron Center for Economic Education and the United Way.

I got to know a lot of the civic and business leaders in Northeast Ohio through my board activities. That's important whether you're male or female, but especially important for women. And it is not good enough to just sit on a board. You need to contribute and get recognized by other board members. The one thing you don't want to do is be on a board in name only.

Participating on a board is also a good way to do some of the things you like, some of the things you don't have the opportunity to do in your own job. It gives you a chance to develop your skills.

Danforth

Philanthropy is very important to me. Just because I give my time and talent to the YWCA, it doesn't diminish my obligation to support nonprofit organizations. I believe it's my responsibility to give to those who are in circumstances different from mine.

But I have a 13-year-old daughter, and getting her to age 14 will be my greatest accomplishment in my next year. There are just so few hours in the day that you have to be incredibly selective with your time.

My evening time goes either to my daughter or my church.

Cromling

Family is very important to me. I have two grown sons and six grandchildren. My husband and I enjoy spending time with them.

We have a place in Tennessee that's isolated from the rest of the world. It's our oasis where we all get together. When you're too close to work, it's tough to free your mind.

In my community, I'm on Team NEO, the foundation at Lorain Community College and am very active in our church. The church is important to me, so I try and give as much time to it as I can. How to reach: The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, (216) 579-2000; Ross Environmental, (440) 366-2000; YWCA of Greater Cleveland, (216) 881-6878; Jenne Distributors, (800) 422-6191; The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, (216) 444-5000