Crashing the Party
When The Council’s board of directors meets, one voice stands out from the rest. It is the lone woman’s voice, though not necessarily a voice representing women.
The voice belongs to Nancy Mellard, the executive vice president and general counsel for the employee services division of CBIZ, a Cleveland-based, $750 million publicly traded company with 5,200 employees, offering insurance, accounting and consulting services.
Mellard, who works in the Leawood, Kan., office of CBIZ, has more than 30 years of insurance industry experience under her belt, so she knows of what she speaks. In her job, she has helped brokers get what they need to do their job while staying on the right side of the law. She has also negotiated contracts with more than 200 carriers and managed the legalities of meshing 20 acquisitions into one unit.
When Eliot Spitzer, then attorney general of New York, provoked a multistate, multiyear investigation of broker compensation practices, Mellard oversaw the review for CBIZ. And she has agent/broker bona fides: Mellard is a corporate lawyer with licenses to sell property-casualty insurance and employee benefits.
So if the 39 other Council directors at the table want to know what Mellard thinks about an issue (and even if they don’t), she will tell them. And she will not mince words. But if they want to know what women think, well, they’d best go out and ask a few. “I have always spoken as a person, not as a woman,” Mellard said during a recent interview. “I have always spoken from my experience and expertise.”
It may sound obvious that someone with Mellard’s authority should be valued for her industry insights. But if you’re the only woman at the table, that’s not always the case. Mellard does not share war stories or cast blame, but suffice it to say that over the course of her career her opinion has sometimes been disregarded for no other reason than because she’s a woman. And there were also times when men looked to her for the woman’s viewpoint, as if she were an oracle professing the opinions of businesswomen everywhere.
Times certainly have changed, but, truth be told, the insurance industry is still largely dominated by white men. And while Nancy Mellard won’t speak for women, she will speak about women and the need for the insurance industry to do a better job when it comes to promoting gender diversity. That means working deliberately to attract, retain and promote talented women into senior positions. The talent crunch has put gender diversity on everyone’s lips, but words alone won’t make it happen. It requires a culture shift.
Not There Yet
“The insurance industry is not there yet,” Mellard says matter-of-factly. “I’m not here to blame anyone. I’m here to say the leadership within this industry owns this issue. That we have to understand the risks that we run when we don’t proactively and aggressively understand the case for gender diversity.”
Risks? Well, yes. “The financial indicators are there that say those companies that have women on their board of directors, those companies that have women in executive positions, that are bringing diverse thought, diverse strategy, diverse opinion to the company’s strategic direction, their bottom-line performance is better,” she says. “So let’s get away from, ‘It’s the right thing to do.’”
As Mellard sees it, if you don’t find a way to nurture the talents of the women you have, they won’t stick around. And you won’t reap the full benefits of their talent.
The case for gender diversity has been well documented in recent years. In its research on the performance of Fortune 500 companies, Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that aims to expand opportunities for women and business, found a 26% difference in return on invested capital between companies with the most women on their boards of directors versus those with the least. The difference in return on sales for companies with three or more female board members versus companies with no female board members was 84%.
Any company attempting to enhance gender diversity should take a good look at its organization to understand why it doesn’t have many women in high places. The reasons can be very complex, but many of them stem directly from the culture of the organization. When McKinsey researchers asked women about the barriers preventing them from getting ahead, common answers included a lack of role models, exclusion from informal networks (golf, anyone?) and the lack of a sponsor in upper management to create opportunities.
The idea of a sponsor is one that speaks directly to Mellard, largely because she’s seen the benefits firsthand. Her mentors have given her valuable advice, but her sponsor gave her the responsibility, resources and visibility to create something big, the CBIZ Women’s Advantage.
CWA, as it’s known, combines professional development, mentoring, business development and community outreach to help CBIZ women get ahead. About 1,000 women in CBIZ have benefitted from its programs. CWA is also directly responsible for generating $1.2 million a year in new business revenue for CBIZ.
“I laugh when I think back,” Mellard says. “I said, we are not calling this an initiative. We are calling this a program with a capital P because I want it to be strong and sustainable and to have the kind of credibility that male or female business unit leaders, our local presidents, are proud of, support and see as a tool to generate business.”
One of the many lessons that Mellard tries to hammer home is the need for women to proactively seek sponsors in addition to any mentoring relationships they may have. Mellard has had plenty of important mentors, people who have dispensed valuable advice. The most significant were Richard Nelson and Rob O’Byrne, leaders, respectively, of the Grant Nelson Group and Robert D. O’Byrne Associates, the benefits brokers Mellard worked for before CBIZ acquired them in 1997. Nelson and O’Byrne encouraged Mellard to get inside the heads of the salespeople who drive the organization, to understand what motivates them and what challenges them. Mellard recalls Nelson telling her, “If you want to be just a really good attorney the rest of your life, you’ll be a really good attorney the rest of your life. But if you want to be able to sit around a boardroom table, if you want to sit around a table with the top executives in the company, then you must broaden your experiences beyond legal.”
Mellard says her mentors helped her position herself “to provide my best advice and counsel but then also to be able to look at the insurance industry from a business perspective, not a legal perspective.”
And Mellard has done just that. Just look at her work with The Council. Her involvement began with the Legal Counsel Working Group, which she eventually chaired. Then she took a seat on the Council of Employee Benefits Executives. And now she’s also on The Council’s board, whose members represent the cream of the insurance broker crop. “When a mentor gives you a piece of advice, it becomes a challenge for your entire career,” Mellard says.
Mentors remain important, but new research shows that for real advancement, women need sponsors. How is a sponsor different? Rather than just offering guidance, sponsors use their power to open doors and advocate on the person’s behalf for high-profile assignments. “A sponsor identifies your talents and matches those with the next set of risks that you need to take for your advancement and development,” Mellard says. “If the status quo is still generally the middle-aged white male, then we need those enlightened middle-aged white males to be those sponsors.”
Meet Steven Gerard, the middle-aged white male whom Mellard describes as her sponsor. The chairman and CEO of CBIZ, Gerard seems reluctant to take credit for any of Mellard’s success, pointing out that she was already quite accomplished, serving as the executive vice president of the CBIZ insurance group and handling carrier relations, legal affairs and compliance issues when he joined CBIZ as CEO in 2000.
That is all very true, but Gerard has used his bully pulpit to ensure that Mellard and the CBIZ Women’s Advantage get the visibility they need and deserve. “Anytime the boss says, ‘This is important to me, so everyone had better pay attention,’ you have more people paying attention,” Gerard says. “And everyone knows CWA is very high on my list.”
He mentions its successes in every speech and presentation, and he makes sure that Mellard presents to the corporate board of directors.
“I think I’ve been able to reinforce her position, not that she needed it,” he says. “I give her exposure and resources.”
He has also given her the opportunity to run an organization. They strategize about the program, laying out three-year goals and setting its operating budget. “To the extent I have helped her, it’s been, how do you manage this; how do you plan for it; how do you find resources?” Gerard says. “It’s no different than what I do with any other business leader I have.”
Gerard is a hard-nosed businessman. He did not adopt the idea of a women’s business initiative at CBIZ because he thought it would be a nice thing to do.
“It was clear both of our major businesses [insurance and accounting] were male-dominated businesses,” he explains. “It was clear our client base was shifting and the new [job] applicant base was shifting. There was a realization that we have an extraordinarily large number of very talented women who weren’t getting the exposure they should get.”
If CBIZ was going to win in the race for talent and clients, it needed a mechanism to attract, develop, retain and advance talented women, many of whom were already doing great things under the radar. It became Mellard’s mission to teach them to bring attention to themselves. Before Gerard handed the reins to Mellard, the program had existed in concept for several years but hadn’t gotten off the ground. Mellard recruited an executive committee of other women who were equally passionate about the effort and set out three basic goals: professional development and the advancement of CBIZ women; business development; and national community outreach. For five years, CBIZ Women’s Advantage has organized companywide fundraisers in support of Dress for Success, an international nonprofit that promotes the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional clothes, a network of support and career development tools.
In some instances, just having the CBIZ Women’s Advantage will generate revenue if a hospital or public entity, for example, wants to do business with a company that has a diversity initiative. But Mellard is clear that CBIZ Women’s Advantage is much more than a program designed to allow CBIZ or other companies to mark a “gender diversity” checkbox. Early on, Mellard hired WFD Consulting, a Massachusetts firm focused on work-life balance and diversity solutions, to help CBIZ Women’s Advantage create a proprietary professional development program that could be used by women at all levels across all CBIZ businesses.
Women from the different businesses who work in the same city meet nine times over the course of the year as they study a curriculum that includes reading materials, homework, follow-up and practice. It addresses the different ways men and women may communicate, how women sell and how to close the deal. And, Mellard says, it provides important lessons on “understanding how to get out in the community and tell your story of who you are and what your talents are.”
CBIZ Women’s Advantage groups in different cities host business networking events to build relationships with potential clients. For example, CBIZ Women’s Advantage in San Diego organized an evening event for 50 senior women in the community, including bank presidents, managing partners of law firms and entrepreneurs.
“Over 50% of our workforce is women, and it has really helped deliver a way to develop these women in ways that wouldn’t have been possible,” says Becky Vidal, the St. Louis business unit president for CBIZ Benefits and Insurance Services and a member of the CBIZ Women’s Advantage executive board. “It’s been a training program for women, but it’s also helped CBIZ become respected as a company that promotes women professionals, and it’s helped us grow our top line.”
Gerard and Mellard both expect CBIZ Women’s Advantage to become a model for a broader diversity program, particularly for racial minorities, who are underrepresented in the industry, let alone in leadership. “She put together a big plan, she found the right people, she got them excited and she drives pretty hard,” Gerard says of Mellard. “She’s aggressive, passionate and smart, and she tackles things with a kind of mother tiger ferocity. Those are the traits you look for in a leader.”
Under Mellard’s leadership, CBIZ Women’s Advantage has been a great success, but its promise is just beginning. The program has served as an important tool for recruiting young women into the company, and it’s a very important selling point in the five to 10 acquisitions CBIZ makes each year, Gerard says. It’s been instrumental in helping women gain positions on nonprofit boards in their communities and for getting their names in the press as experts in their fields. But Gerard says he’s not sure that it has yet to advance significant numbers of women up the corporate ladder. “It’s given senior management at CBIZ greater visibility into who potential leaders are in the company,” he says.
It may require more time for CBIZ Women’s Advantage to really achieve its goals of advancing women, but Gerard can tell it’s having an impact. “Men say, ‘Why don’t you do this for us?’” he says.
Part of the challenge for CBIZ and other companies is how to address the difficulty many female professionals face when they try to maintain some balance between their desire to advance professionally and their family responsibilities. CBIZ Women’s Advantage tackles those issues in its professional development program, but the corporation’s family-friendly policies may not be fully embraced in every local office.
Mellard recalls her own challenges of trying to advance her career while her daughters were young. She can picture her daughters’ embarrassment when she stood poolside during swim meets in heels, hose and a business suit. She’d be stopped for speeding while racing down the Southwest Trafficway in Kansas City to get to a school function on time. “Believe me, that happened more times than I care to tell you,” she says, laughing. “It’s just hilarious, but at the time it wasn’t.”
Mellard says there is growing recognition that the arc of women’s careers may be different than it is for men’s, but they need not be any less successful. “What we have to do is recognize that women may have to stay lateral for some period of time or even take a step back while they’re raising their children.”
That’s what she did. “I didn’t travel. I wasn’t as aggressive in terms of career moves or career successes when I was focused on children’s successes.”
With her daughters now business-school graduates with their own careers—Rachel Sasser, 30, is a brand manager at Pepsico in Chicago, and Michelle Mellard, 27, is a strategic account executive for Nike in New York—Mellard can revel in her workaholic ways while Ken, her husband, makes his own midlife career transition from healthcare consulting to teaching. They celebrate their 35th anniversary this year.
Companies just need to recognize that women live longer and have more stamina, Mellard says, and therefore, they may hit their career peak or end up in the C-suite at a later time than men.
And that’s certainly true for her.
“I would say that in the last six, seven, eight years, personally, spiritually and certainly professionally, with what I’ve been able to do, I feel like I am just peaking,” she says.
Nancy M. Mellard
Home: Leawood, Kansas.
Husband: Ken, married almost 35 years
Children: Daughters: Rachel Sasser, 30, is a brand manager at Pepsico in Chicago, responsible for the juice line. Michelle Mellard, 27, who played on the championship volleyball team at Stanford, is a strategic account executive for Nike in New York. Though they went to different schools for undergraduate studies, both received M.B.A.s at Notre Dame. “Both of them are truly doing what they’ve always wanted to do, and I’m so proud of them,” Mellard says.
Awards: For her leadership of CBIZ Women’s Advantage, last year, Mellard won three Stevie Awards, which recognize positive contributions in the world of business. She won top prize in the category Maverick of the Year, which recognizes the individual who has effected the most positive change in their company or industry during the year. She also took silver for Mentor or Coach of the Year and for Women Helping Women.
Industry boards: Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, Council of Employee Benefits Executives
Good works: Catholic Charities, vice chair of Central Exchange, an organization for advancement of women in Kansas City
Just for fun: Exercise and reading
Education: B.A. in English, University of St. Mary; Juris Doctorate, University of Missouri—Kansas City School of Law
Recent travels: Spain. “Loved Barcelona. Loved the people. Loved the architecture. Just loved the red wine and the food. I’d go back tomorrow if somebody told me I could.”