Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
– Bob Dylan
I can remember a time when CEOs, like the monochromatic neckties they seemingly wore around the clock, came in a “one size fits all” model. In the not-so-distant past the standard model CEO was inevitably male, Caucasian, ivy-league educated, somewhere beginning in his mid-50’s, married, church-going and, by all accounts, “living the American dream.” I remember it was a VERY big deal back in 1999 when Carly Fiorina was appointed CEO of Hewlett Packard, effectively becoming the first woman ever to lead a Fortune 20 Company. And I also remember that the media was on her like white on rice. She was vilified by some, deified by others and stereotyped by just about everyone. In the end, when she was forced out after a contentious merger with Compaq and the resulting diminution of HP stock by more than half, the media even referred to her as “the token bimbo.”
Fast forward a mere 13 years later and the story of the day is the appointment of Marissa Mayer as the CEO of Yahoo. And while she joins the ranks of other women CEOs that have filled the gap between her tenure and that of Ms. Fiorina (think Meg Whitman of eBay, Anne Mulcahy of Xerox, Indra Nooyi of Pepsico, and Lynn Elsenhans of Sunoco to name just a few) the new twist on the issue is that she is pregnant with her first child! The debate now shifts once more from whether a woman is as capable as a man of leading a company (of course she is) to whether women can truly have it all (juggling the responsibilities of both high-powered career and raising a family.)
The issue was debated recently in a June 26 New York Times article about Anne-Marie Slaughter, a well-known Princeton professor and former top aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the State Department who after only 18 months of trying to “have it all” quit her job to return to her Princeton-based family and tend to her husband and troubled teenage son. In a cover story that she subsequently wrote for The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” she cited an imbalanced work/life split and a realization that she was shortchanging her family by throwing her all into her foreign-policy dream job.
The resulting uproar was thunderous. Chief among the voices of dissent was Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook whose out-of-the-box experience with her own atypical CEO (a 28-year-old prodigy by the name of Mark Zuckerberg) is further proof of how far we have strayed from the traditional CEO paradigm. According to Ms. Sandberg the trick in having it all is (among several more obvious prerequisites) to “pick a partner who will support you in that endeavor.” Very wise, Ms. Sandberg.
From where I stand, our changing CEO landscape makes perfect sense. It is a microcosm that accurately reflects where we are as a society. In an era that has hotly debated the issue of “gay marriage” it makes perfect sense that we will have seen the appointment of the first openly gay CEO, Apple’s Tim Cook, now arguably the most powerful gay man in the world.
Similarly, in an era where the United States has its first black chief executive it makes sense that Don Thompson, a black man, was appointed as the CEO of a Fortune 500 American institution like McDonald’s on July 1. As Bob Dylan pointed out, The Times they are a-Changin’. I add one caveat to that which is the fact that the times are indeed changing but we still have a long way to go.
Of all the parliaments around the world, only 13 percent of those seats are held by women. With regard to Corporate America’s top jobs, 15 percent are held by women, and only 13 black executives have ever made it to the Chairman or CEO position of a “Fortune 500” company. Still, for minorities and those who fall outside the typically “acceptable” mold, the future is brighter than it’s ever been.
With regard to Ms. Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, I have the following to offer: I, myself, albeit a man, am also a CEO with 5 young children at home. I can tell you that it’s a challenging endeavor to try and do your job well both on the workfront and on the homefront. But from where I stand it’s not so much an issue of gender as it is one of time. We are all so time crunched these days that it’s hard to find the time to devote to everything to the extent needed. That’s why I wholeheartedly endorse the advice of Ms. Sandberg. You can’t do it alone but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
The old saying used to be that “behind every great man there’s a great woman.” It may just be that the time has come to modify that saying so that it reads “behind every great person there’s a great partner.”