Being a Hero for Women at Work

SAP SE’s chief learning officer, Jenny Dearborn, has a Wonder Woman poster hanging in her office.

The star-spangled amazon reflects the superhero endurance she brings to her work as the learning leader for 76,000 employees at the international software development company. But as a woman in a C-suite position, she also acts as a motivator for fellow women aiming for a top spot in a world where women are still an oddity in the corner office.  

Facebook Chief Operations Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer have become household names as women who have gotten to C-suite positions at top companies, but there’s still a gap in the number of women taking on chief executive positions. This year, the Fortune 100 includes only 16 companies with a female CEO. jenny dearborn

Dearborn talked with Diversity Executive about how women can blast through the glass ceiling to get to the corner office, as well as what she and her fellow female C-suite members can do to help propel female employees to higher positions. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Where do you see glass ceilings existing, and how should women break through them?

I think that the glass ceiling is often at the top of executive management and before that C-level. You’ll see executive VPs, like Sandberg is COO, and you will often see women in support functions, and it is rare that a support function head then becomes a chief executive.

My recommendation to women who want to be that CEO is gravitate toward functions that typically transition into the CEO. If you’re in a very technical company, it’s engineering or product development, occasionally it’s marketing, but more often it’s someone in sales or finance who transitions from a functional lead to being the overall executive.

How does that reflect in your experiences?

I’m a C-level executive, the highest of my function. In a way you could say I’m only 45, but I’m kind of tapped out because I don’t want to be the chief human resources officer. I really like what I do, so in a way I’ve created a glass ceiling for myself because of the path I chose.

But being a CEO is something I’m very interested in, so sometime ago I started my own company, and my long-term goal is then to transition into being the chief executive. I think that’s something you see a lot for women who are quite ambitious if they can’t make it up the ladder at a large, traditional company. You’ll see a lot of women as the chief executive of midsize or small-size companies. It’s because women in order to get that CEO experience sometimes have to go lateral from being an executive vice president at a large company into being a president at a midsize or small-size company.

How should women who have made it that far help other women make the same progress?

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is a huge inspiration to me, and she said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” So I think as a female C-level executive, it’s really my job to tap women on the shoulder and look for young talent that’s amazing and develop them. Most women who are executives at my company do the same thing.  An easy thing to do is to introduce women to each other and lend your credibility to them in that introduction.  When you introduce a woman to a new group, don’t just say, “This is Karen.”  Sing her praises and say, “This is Karen.  She’s a program manager with a deep expertize in technical integrations, I’ve never worked with anyone more competent.  She’ll be a great asset to your new project team.”

But also, I think most women know they need to create their own path. We have been told over and over that no one’s going to come and tap you on the shoulder, no one’s going to notice you unless you blow your own horn and you let them know. You have to really let people know what you want. I think we’ve been told that so often that women know they need to forge their own path. If women don’t know that by now, then they really have not been reading any books or listening to any TED talks.

Your work as SAP’s CLO means you’re at the front lines of developing its workforce. What kind of initiatives do you have to get women more confident in their ability to climb that ladder, be it vertically or laterally?

We have a very active Business Women’s Network that is a wonderful development program for up and coming leaders and mid-level and executive development programs for women to reach the senior executive level. So we have a nice balance of programs that support women at all stages of their advancement.  But sponsorship and creating opportunities for talented women is key.

I’ll tell the story of Grainne Wafer. I met her when I was at HP. She was incredibly brilliant but really tucked under a bunch of layers. We created a role that was a second-hat role, and it was as my chief of staff. So 5 to 10 percent of her time, she would manage my staff meetings, manage the agenda and organize. I wanted her to hear the level of conversation, understand how decisions get made at a certain level and hear that dialogue. It was a great experience and exposure for her and since then she’s earned a promotion every few years or so and is now a senior director, successful and doing well.