One Woman’s Experience

A senior executive and board member reflects on the value of diversity in corporate leadership.

Lois Martin

Lois M. Martin, Capella Education Company’s senior vice president and chief financial officer, serves on the board of directors for ADC Telecommunications, Inc. and MTS Systems Corporation. Martin also serves on the board of trustees for her alma mater, Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

What was the most valuable piece of advice that a mentor offered you?

Nothing is ever as bad or as good as it seems in the moment. If you keep things in perspective, you remain in a creative problem-solving mode. By the same token, when things seem to be going perfectly, the adage serves as a caution to remain humble and focused.

Is there a “women’s leadership style” and, if so, how does it benefit companies?

I try not to stereotype women’s leadership styles. However, I do believe men and women can bring different perspectives. Neither one is better than the other, but it’s in the difference that one usually finds the right answer.

Women tend to factor qualitative and intangible factors into their decision making and judgments. Women I’ve worked with tend to take into account subtle “relational” factors — such as interpersonal dynamics or non-verbal cues — in addition to factual or quantitative information.

How should companies communicate that women are welcome in leadership roles?

The tone is set at the top of an organization, and actions speak louder than words. A welcoming environment must be demonstrated by the leaders, including the board.

How does one evaluate whether that is happening?

Ask key questions: Do you have a diverse executive team? Are women given challenges, responsibilities, and the critical visibility their counterparts are given? Are their voices heard at the table or are they talked over? Does the company respect their contributions?

“Walking the talk” also includes providing venues and support for minority groups. At Capella, we have a women’s leadership team. We pull together female managers and leaders every month to discuss issues and learn from guest speakers.

What are other ways in which diversity is valuable in corporate leadership?

Diversity takes more effort, but you get a better outcome when you challenge yourselves to debate and discuss perspectives in order to reach a conclusion. Most corporate issues exist in gray zones, not black or white.

How can women position themselves to be named to corporate boards?

Take the time to be visible: Volunteer, give speeches, become known as an expert in a certain area, whether it’s international, finance, or operations. Most executives and board members are looking for confident, solid individuals. Women in staff positions should obtain front-line or profit-and-loss experience. You need experience delivering results.

How are you helping the boards on which you serve to utilize more women leaders?

I’m a member of Women Corporate Directors, a global corporate governance organization that helps women build relationships with female executives outside of their companies. When I come across a board opening I connect with women I’ve met and with Women Corporate Directors to ask if they know anyone who is a good fit.

What advice do you have for aspiring directors?

Before you come to a board meeting, you must have studied the materials in depth and be ready to offer opinions and solutions. You also need to take advantage of educational opportunities about board governance. Because a company’s reputation is your reputation, too, it’s critical that you associate with companies that hold your same values.