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How to Reach the C-Suite: A Gender Parity Discussion

Bain Partner Jennifer Hayes sits down with former Coca-Cola CFO Kathy Waller for a wide-ranging discussion on what inspires women to pursue senior leadership roles.


How to Reach the C-Suite: A Gender Parity Discussion

Jennifer Hayes, chair of Bain’s Global Women’s Leadership Council, talks with former Coca-Cola executive Kathy Waller about the opportunities and obstacles she faced on her path to becoming the first female and first African American CFO of a Fortune 100 company. 

Read the report: Inspiring Women to Reach for the C-Suite

Read the transcript below:

JENNIFER HAYES: I'm Jen Hayes, a partner at Bain & Company and chair of our Global Women's Leadership Council. Here with me today is Kathy Waller, who is just recently retired after over three decades with Coca-Cola, where most recently you served as the chief financial officer. And notably, the first female and the first African American to serve as a CFO of a Fortune 100 company. You now serve on several boards, including Delta Air Lines, Beyond Meat, Spelman College and the Girl Scouts. Welcome.

KATHY WALLER: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

HAYES: Our recent work has focused on the impact of inspiration on women's ability to get to senior leadership roles. And so, as someone who's reached the C-suite and has been incredibly successful, we'd love to chat more about or talk to you a little bit about your experience and how that impacted you and your various roles.

WALLER: I guess I can give you some examples that would demonstrate that.

In the late '90s, I was supporting the Africa Group, financial services manager for the Africa Group. And I would take these trips to Africa, you know, two weeks out and come back for two weeks in. And one afternoon I was preparing to go on a trip.

Now let me give you the back story. At the same time, a job was coming open at headquarters that was the director of financial reporting. Now this is a job that would be responsible for the consolidation of all the global volume and financial data. So consolidate that information, prepare the reports, and then report it to senior management and then to external parties, SEC reporting.

So I thought this job would be, given my background, would be great for me. It was a job I was very interested in. By the time I heard about it, however, there were at least half a dozen people who were already in the pipeline.  And the rumor mill said that these people were going to get this job. So I kind of put it on the back burner and didn't really think about it. So again, I'm preparing for this trip to Africa, about to go out for two weeks. And the controller, who was my manager, stopped by my office and said, "Hey, let's go to lunch." Well, he's my manager, so I said, "OK. Let's go to lunch." So we did.

And at lunch, since he opened the door for this, I decided to have a conversation with him about this job that I thought was great for me. So I asked him, what did I need to do to be considered the next time around for this job? So, how did I need to improve my skills? What did I need to demonstrate to be considered for this job?

And he literally put his fork down and said, "I would have never thought about you for that role." Now here I thought the role was perfect for me. And I've got my manager, who's also the manager of that job, saying I would have never thought about you for that role. So clearly I would never have been in consideration for it going forward.

So then we spent the rest of that lunch talking about why I was interested in the role, what I had done in the past and how I'd demonstrated the skills needed for that role already. So lunch is over. I leave. I go on my trip to Africa. I get back to Atlanta.

He literally walks into my office that morning and says, "Congratulations, you're the director of financial reporting." So, understand, had he not stopped by and asked me to go to lunch, had I not taken that opportunity to talk to him about that role, I would have never had that job which I believed to be perfect for me. And, in fact, I think it was perfect for me. I truly enjoyed that role.

HAYES: Great story, and I think some of what we've seen in the research would say, and per your story, the skill set actually isn't enough.

WALLER: Yes. That's correct.

HAYES: You actually need the inspiration and confidence and to be willing to advocate for yourself. To ask for that next job and to know that you can do it. All of that actually matters.

WALLER: So let me explain why I even had the inspiration and how that felt, that came into that particular story. I had been trying to develop a relationship with the controller. He was my manager. But because my job was with the Africa Group, I spent more time with my group president for Africa and the teams than I did with the controller.

And my job, I was a finance person. So clearly the controller was a very important person in my life. And so I was trying to build this relationship with him. And so him coming by my office and saying, "Hey, let's go to lunch" was kind of validation that the relationship was on its way.

So that was kind of my motivation, if you will, for then having the courage to say to him, "Hey, what about this job? And I'm interested in this role." And so, again, you know, we see what happened when I did have that conversation.

But there's actually another story that I think also demonstrates that example. And that would be when I was in the role of director of financial reporting. Another job I heard about was coming open, and that was the chief of internal audit. Now I was not thinking about that role at all for me. I had no desires on that particular role at that time.

And one afternoon, the current chief of internal audit and the current controller, a woman at that point, came by to my office to see me and said that they thought that I would be great in that role as chief of internal audit. Again, I hadn't thought about it. But that got me to thinking about it, obviously. And frankly, I was so flattered by the fact that they thought I would be good for it that I really wanted to do well in the interviews for that particular role.

So I went home. Thought about it. Thought about the things I had done. It made sense to me then that I could be impactful in that role. So I interviewed for it. But I prepared, seriously prepared, for that role.

Now at the same time, there were five people who were interviewing for that role. And one of them, one of the people interviewing for the role, believed she'd been promised the job. And to some extent, I think she had been promised the job. So I knew I was going in kind of as an underdog, if you will.

But you know, I did not want to disappoint the two people that came to me and said that they thought I'd be good for the job. So I worked hard on it. We had the interviews, and I got the job. Again, you know, first of all, those two people coming to me, saying to me that they thought I would be great for that role was so inspiring, so motivating that I really worked hard to try to get the job. And again, their trust in me helped me to believe in myself.  It helped my boost of confidence that then allowed me to go after the job.

HAYES: That's a great story.

WALLER: And I successfully got it.

HAYES: The other thing that we've seen, which was kind of surprising to us, was the role of prestige and wealth and influence in inspiring women, especially in the US, to want to attain these senior leader roles. And I'm just curious, does that resonate? And did you feel that in your own career with other women that you've worked with in senior roles?

WALLER: Yes. It does resonate. Now I know it doesn't sound great. People don't go out and say, "Hey, I'm going to get this job for all the prestige and wealth and influence that I can get." That's not why they go after the jobs. But these jobs are hard jobs. I mean, they are challenging roles. You give up some other things to take these roles. You know, you're trying to balance all the things in your life, and it's very, very challenging. And so if there was not a promise of more money—you know, there's your wealth—then you wouldn't take it.

HAYES: Right.

WALLER: Nobody would take it. The men wouldn't take it. Nobody would take the role. So it makes sense that these jobs come with more opportunities for financial gain. Right? And the jobs are prestigious because they're senior roles. And many of them are officers of the company. So that makes it a prestigious role.

And then the influence is unquestionable. Because now you are a senior leader in your company. And you therefore have more influence internally as well as externally.

And I will give you an example of my alma mater. When I became an officer of the company, I was on the board of my alma mater. Now on school boards and things like that, you give to the university. And frankly, the job, having more money, financial gain, allowed me to then give more to the university. Which then improved my level of influence, not only on that board, but also within the university community. And that influence allowed me to help them with their diversity initiatives, and to explain why certain things were important, and to try to push certain things forward. Which I would not have had several roles previous to that.

So you cannot deny that the influence is there. Certainly one would say the role of a CFO is a prestigious role, particularly of the Coca-Cola Company. People seek you out. They seek your opinion.

So it does have prestige. And it does have certainly more wealth than other jobs. And it does have influence. And so I don't think people necessarily think about it that way because it sounds

HAYES: There is always a sense that that feels more materialistic, or not the way I want to be portrayed. But in a lot of the interviews that we had with women in corporate America, as you point out, we wouldn't do these jobs unless we attain some more wealth.

WALLER: And frankly, the influence is as important as anything.

HAYES: Exactly.

WALLER: Of those three, I think it's the influence that matters the most.

HAYES: That's what popped more in the conversations. It was about either there's an impact on just me being able to provide for the future of my family. But even beyond that, the influence on people, and influence on the causes that I care about, and being able to forward them. So a combination of both.

The other thing that we've spent a lot of time looking at is the impact of the front-line manager. And so a lot of work has been done to look in the classroom and a lot of work to look at the board room. But where we lose the vast majority of women is in the middle. It's in the conference room.

And what happens with your day-to-day manager. And so you know, as you think about your supervisory roles at Coke, how did you think about managing that front line? Either front-line tactics you would use, or how you would manage that front-line group? Actually, they have a huge amount of influence on whether women stay inspired and empowered.

WALLER: Well, they absolutely do. And actually, the research would tell you people leave managers, they don't leave jobs. So they stay or they leave based upon that direct manager of theirs. And I've always said that the middle manager or the front-line manager can ruin any initiative any company has if you're not watching that. And if you're not incentivizing them, motivating them to support the goals of the company and initiatives of the company. So yes, I think the front-line manager is probably one of the more important roles in any of these initiatives being successful.

The front-line manager has two aspects to it. The first one is if a front-line manager has a person working for them, or people working for them, and they're making their goals, they are less likely to want to give up those people.

HAYES: You're only as good as your team.

WALLER: Right. And then the other side of that is the front-line manager is just as worried about their career. Right? And they're worried that if they promote people above them or ahead of them, then they're not going to get the opportunities as well.

So you have to make sure that that front-line manager is first of all very aware of the initiatives and how important they are to the company. You have to make sure that they understand that it's in their best interests to develop their people so that they can continue to motivate and reward people and move them towards other roles. And that they get rewarded for doing that. So it really is in their interests. They get motivated, incentivized to do it.

If you don't, they won't. Trust me, they will absolutely not do it. And they can do it under the radar screen. Because as you said, you're focused on the boardroom. You're focused on senior leaders. Right? And those senior leaders are not only focused on the initiatives that they're working on, they're putting out fires every day, they're doing their jobs. And they're not focused on that level of the organization that is making or breaking your initiative.

HAYES: Right. Where your leaders need to come through.

WALLER: That's right.

HAYES: Speaking of the initiative, so one of the things we've also seen is that it's not one size fits all. When you think about the right gender parity initiatives, and when you think about what actually inspires and empowers women, and how you actually drive that to full potential in your company. And so we know organizations really have to personalize those initiatives and then prioritize them. I mean, obviously, Coke's extraordinarily global. How did you think about really tailoring your gender parity initiatives to make them have the most impact?

WALLER: Well, in 2007, we started a Women's Leadership Council. The purpose of the council was to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions. And that was a global council. And it had to be global because of the nature of the Coca-Cola Company. Therefore we had representatives—there were 17 of us—we had representatives from each of the regions of the company on this council.

And we focused on working with senior leaders, the senior leaders of the company, to make sure that they understood what the issues were around the world, and how issues were the same or different in different regions of the world. And we focused on working with each of them individually. So we were aligned to, I was aligned to corporate leaders. Others were aligned to their regional leaders to help them understand what they could do, what initiatives they could actually do to make a significant difference for the women that were in their line of sight.

Now we've had a lot of success with this. When we started, we defined a senior leadership role as a director and above. When we started we were at 21%. That was in 2007. This is globally. When I rolled off that council in 2014, we were at 35% globally. So we had success.

But we did it by actually visiting as a council each of the regions and talking to the women in those regions. Having not only a reception, but inviting others, external people, in to talk, do a panel discussion, and to talk about how they were successful. Hopefully to motivate and inspire the women within that particular region to want something different from their careers.

We also talked to the leadership there to help them understand what it looked like to start to advance women. And how when you have some diversity, that helps you create more diversity. So that you really needed to get started. And we gave them ideas about how to do that. And things we asked them to go do to help to promote the initiative and to make it successful. So between all of that, we were able to have some success.

HAYES: How do you think about the role of the very senior leaders, who are most always men, in helping make sure gender initiatives are successful?

WALLER: Well, they have to help the rest of the organization understand that it is not acceptable to not participate in a positive way.

HAYES: It's not optional.

WALLER: Exactly. And they have to then sometimes take—and I hate the word—risks. But they have to have people that they put into roles and give opportunities to demonstrate that the initiatives are successful, these people are successful. And you know, whether men or women, people promote people that they believe to be ready based upon their experiences and based upon how they perceive their readiness to take on a particular role.

And we found that certainly men—people will take more of a chance on men. Because they don't have to necessarily be all the way ready for the role. Neither from the man's perspective does he have to be ready, nor from the senior leader's perspective do they have to be totally ready for the role. They're willing to believe that they can step up and develop themselves to be ready for the role.

So for the woman, however, she has to have demonstrated more for herself, generally speaking, that's a generalization. But also for the senior leader. They like to see that they have demonstrated more to show them that they can be successful. Well, if you haven't given them the right opportunities to demonstrate that, haven't developed them in the right way, then you're not going to get there.

So the senior leader's role, frankly, is to make sure that their organization is doing the right things to put women into those types of roles that demonstrate that they can succeed, for themselves and for the organization. And that give them a certain level of confidence because it helps them understand that somebody trusts them. And believes in them, which also then makes them want to step up more. And gives them a little bit more confidence that they can step up. That's the very senior leadership, that's what their roles really are.

Read the Bain Report

Gender Parity: Inspiring Women to Reach for the C-Suite

Women benefit from more open conversations about prestige, wealth and influence.



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