Article – The Star-Ledger



Rutgers course helps build careers for female executives
By Elizabeth Fitzgerald
22 February 2006
The Star-Ledger © 2006

Dolly Sookdeo is a 25-year Verizon veteran who leads teams of workers in pursuit of corporate goals. But it was another quest that awaited her during a Rutgers course for women executives.

There, she was asked to journey inward – to define the particular attributes of her leadership that make her valuable to Verizon, and then take charge of her own career.

“In the past, I just kept working as hard as I could at whatever opportunity came to me,” said Sookdeo, who graduated from the program last month. “Now, I’m more willing to take risks, to look for opportunities for growth. I’m looking for me.”

Getting successful women to take a more deliberate approach to career-building is a central goal of the Senior Leadership Program for Professional Women. It was created in 2000 by Brigid Moynahan, head of a diversity management and executive coaching firm, in partnership with the Institute for Women’s Leadership at Douglass, the women’s college of Rutgers .

To date, 127 women have taken the five-month course. It’s made up of six day-long workshops at Rutgers ’ New Brunswick campus. In between, participants are supposed to put theory to the test in their corporate lives. The course is punctuated by individual executive coaching sessions and “success circles” where small group of women mentor each other’s careers.

The 24 women who graduated last month were fished from the talent pools of rising female executives at Johnson & Johnson, Chubb, Merck, Wachovia, Deloitte & Touche, Prudential Financial, JPMorgan Chase and Basell USA .

While women hold down about half the management and professional jobs in the United States , few make it to the summit of corporate America . Just eight Fortune 500 companies are led by women: Pat Russo of Murray Hill-based Lucent Technologies is New Jersey ’s only member of the list.

“We are still learning to see women as leaders and unconsciously we will not assume a woman is a leader unless she is figuring out ways to let us know – and that begins with the woman knowing it herself,” said Moynahan, whose Montclair firm is named Next Level.

Donna Griffin, head of worldwide operations for Warren-based Chubb Insurance, has witnessed a confidence boost among the half dozen or so women she’s sent to the program.

“Women sometimes wait to be invited to participate in things, and I see that as a difference from men, who often have a level of confidence -rightly or wrongly – that everybody wants to hear what they have to say,” she said. “I’ve sent women to the program who are great at getting the job done, but have not done much self promotion.”

The importance of leadership programs, experts said, is that they take direct aim at some of the obstacles ambitious women face.

“When we ask senior women what keeps them from the top jobs, they talk about gender stereotyping, being excluded from informal networks and a lack of role models,” said Jeanine Prime, director of research for Catalyst.

Then again, many women take the short cut to CEO: They quit the corporate world and start their own businesses.

When Merrill Lynch was downsizing a few years ago, Jackie Bunn took a buyout and in 2004 started an Internet-based meal-ordering service in Princeton called Life Made Simple. During her dozen years at Merrill, Bunn was sent to an executive training course that she said was similar to the Rutgers program, and where she learned that, “all leaders need to be strategic communicators; you have to make people feel valued, special and respected, so that they will follow you, even in bad times,”

Ten years ago, Kathleen Kady-Hopkins and her mother, Christine Sherwood, both former AT&T executives, started ASL Interpreter Referral Service, which provides interpreters for the deaf and blind.

“I’m actually very grateful to AT&T; that is where I learned how to run a business,” Hopkins said. “We started the company in my old bedroom in my mother’s house and last summer we moved into an office.”

For those who stay in large companies, one obstacle they often cite is that they become isolated because there are fewer women at the top – and because the need to balance work and family leaves less time to network, said Shaun Budnik, a partner in the audit practice of Deloitte and Touche who has sent women to Rutgers .

“The program really is a confidence builder,” she said. “The women concentrate on their talents, on why they made partner in the first place. As you enter into leadership, you have to think about what you bring to the table.”

Sookdeo, the Verizon executive, isn’t shy about discussing her own abilities: “One of my greatest gifts is to bring people together and get the team to realize its potential,” she said.

But it was at a French restaurant in Midtown Manhattan last week that the program’s take-away lessons could be seen making a crucial leap from theory to practice. As Sookdeo and three classmates met for dinner, they were engaging in the informal networking that experts say has long contributed to men’s success at getting ahead.

“It’s not often that I can sit around and talk to women who have careers like mine, and it made me realize that I should find time for this,” said Penelope Przekop, a director of global quality management at Johnson & Johnson.

She described her hyper-organized strategy for balancing work and home: “I’m a very hard worker, but I’ve always let it be known that I can’t be at the office until 8 or 9 at night. I pick up my kids, and I bring a lot of work home from the office at night.”

A mother of two daughters, 17 and 6, she’s found time to get a master’s in business online; to write a book, “Six Sigma for Business Excellence,” published by McGraw Hill, and to write two novels she’s trying to publish.

She said the Rutgers program, “talked about the different kinds of leadership, and the different kinds of success – that maybe being successful is not about just getting the next promotion, but looking inside yourself to find your passion. It gave me a lot to think about.”