Meet 5 of the Women Who Are Part of Caleres’ Majority-Female Board

Caleres Inc. stands apart for being one of the only publicly traded footwear and fashion companies with a female CEO.

Last year, the St. Louis-based firm — which has been led by Diane Sullivan since 2011 — broke another major boundary, achieving 55 percent female representation on its board of directors. With the 2017 appointments of Magic Leap chief marketing officer Brenda Freeman and MediaLink vice chairman Wenda Harris Millard, Caleres’ board is now composed of six women (including Sullivan) and five men.

“We knew that as board positions opened, we wanted to make a conscious effort to build our board to better reflect our customers’ needs and expectations,” Sullivan explained. “A diverse board means diverse perspectives, experiences and approaches, and it just makes good business sense.”

The corporate world is taking notice: In November, the company was honored at the Women’s Forum of New York’s biennial Breakfast of Corporate Champions for its trailblazing strides toward gender parity in the boardroom. In fact, Caleres’ 55 percent representation far outpaced most of the other companies being recognized that day. “It was the first moment I realized that we had set a standard for others to strive for,” Sullivan recalled. “And it’s become something our associates point to as a reason to be proud to work for Caleres. When we started this, it was because it was simply the right thing to do.”

Here, the company’s five female board members talk about the importance of women’s voices and viewpoints in the boardroom and why more companies need to embrace diversity.

Brenda Freeman, chief marketing officer, Magic Leap
Member since: 2017

CREDIT: Courtesy of Caleres Inc.

What are companies’ biggest obstacles to increasing diversity on their boards?
“The fairly myopic approach of limiting recruitment to executives that have held CEO or CFO positions. As the global economy continues to become disrupted by digitization, the customer is clearly in control of purchasing decisions, creating a seismic ripple effect of change throughout a company’s ecosystem. Boards now grapple with knotty issues like customer data and privacy policies, ERP and CRM software investment decisions and multinational supply chain logistics. They need directors who are thought leaders in these areas.”

What is one unexpected thing you’ve learned about the shoe business?
“What surprises me is the male dominance in the senior executive positions across the industry, particularly for a product that is so dominated by female decision-makers and customers.”

Carla Hendra, global chairman, OgilvyRed
Member since: 2005

CREDIT: Courtesy of Caleres Inc.

Why is it important for corporate boards to have gender parity?
“There is a huge untapped talent and skills base in women, and boards need to access this. The challenges of a board today are dramatically different — whether you consider the changes wrought by the internet, cybersecurity, the massive shift in consumer and shopping patterns — and these challenges are not best-served by boards with a nondiverse composition. Gender parity is not just the right thing to do ethically, but it will help businesses grow faster and be more profitable.”

How can companies move toward greater diversification?
“As Caleres has done, companies need to make it an absolute priority — not a nice-to-have but a must-do. They need to instruct nominating and governance committees to make sure that board director recruiting opportunities are clearly focused on increasing gender parity. Board education is important, and companies like Ernst & Young have done some great things in creating practices around gender diversity for companies.”

Lori Greeley, CEO, Serena & Lily
Member since: 2015

CREDIT: Courtesy of Caleres Inc.

What are companies’ biggest obstacles to increasing diversity on their boards?
“The only thing standing in the way of gender-balanced boards is getting comfortable with change. There is certainly no shortage of capable female leaders available to join boards. Even though retail and apparel boards have stronger female representation (approximately 25 percent) compared with the S&P 500 (22 percent), this is still shockingly low when one considers that more than 80 percent of retail decisions are made by females.”

How has Diane Sullivan been an agent of change at Caleres?
“I recently read an article touting the importance of CEOs’ being ‘gender bilingual.’ Diane is a leader who embodies this term. She brings a balance of tough-mindedness, decisiveness and accountability with an openness to listen to alternative perspectives. She makes sure that all voices are heard and considered when we are involved in strategic discussions. Her approachability and candor make every member of the board feel valued regardless of gender. Bottom-line, the gender balance of the Caleres board is because of Diane’s vision and drive to make it a reality.”

Wenda Harris Millard, vice chairman, MediaLink
Member since: 2017

CREDIT: Courtesy of Caleres Inc.

What are the advantages of a diverse corporate board?
“As business issues grow increasingly complex, the best solutions are often the result of disparate perspectives and healthy debate. The true value of diversity comes in bringing new ideas, experiences and cultural fluencies to the boardroom and executive suite. Diversity, however, is a broader requirement than simply slotting someone of a different gender, race or sexual orientation into a leadership role. In fact, approaching diversity as a box to be checked risks tokenizing the effort and people involved.”

How can companies move toward greater diversification?
“First, make the commitment from an executive and a board level and help educate others. Board diversity is part of your responsibility in protecting shareholder value, and it is top executives’ responsibility to provide an environment at all levels that attracts, develops and retains its employees. Also, require search consultants to present a qualified, diverse slate of candidates every time.”

Patricia McGuinness, distinguished professor of practice, Trachtenberg School of Public Policy & Public Administration, George Washington University
Member since: 1999

CREDIT: Courtesy of Caleres Inc.

What are companies’ biggest obstacles to increasing diversity on their boards?
“Men who serve on boards tend to recruit directors from their networks — usually men who look like them and have similar experiences. To disrupt this practice, directors must look beyond the usual suspects and make a concerted effort to find qualified women and minorities. Search firms can be helpful, and it makes sense to benchmark other companies that have significantly increased the number of women on their boards and in top executive positions.”

How has Diane Sullivan been an agent of change?
“Recruiting Diane to become CEO was the best example of excellent succession planning I have seen. She is not only analytical and a tough manager, but she deftly uses soft power skills to attract and motivate the top talent that has taken the company to a new level of success. It’s not surprising that she has added three women to our board and has recruited many women to leadership positions, including Molly Adams, the new president of Famous Footwear.”

Want more?

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