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Q&A: NEW CEO on where women’s leadership is heading in retail and CPG

7 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

NEW President and CEO Joan Toth

The state of women’s leadership is always changing, including in the food retail and consumer packaged goods industry, and while there has been a lot of advancement made in this category, there is still work to be done. Joan Toth is president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, the largest learning and leadership community serving the retail and consumer goods and services sector that represents nearly 9,000 members, 750 companies, 100 corporate partners and 20 regions in the United States and Canada. SmartBrief talked with Toth about what women’s leadership looks like in the retail and consumer goods industry today, where it is heading and how NEW is playing a role.

Can you start off by talking a little bit about the state of women’s leadership in the retail and consumer goods industry?

There’s a widespread perception that women are advancing, but the numbers tell a different story. While women make up half the retail industry’s workforce, they still account for less than one in five corporate officers and one in 20 CEOs in retail.

Women continue to face deep-rooted barriers in our society and our corporate cultures. Conscious and unconscious bias, together with institutional bias in hiring, training, promotion and talent management, still tilt the playing field in favor of men.

Advancing women leaders is not just the right thing, it’s the smart thing. Women in the U.S. are more likely than men to have college degrees, including post-graduate degrees. And, according to a Pew survey, Americans think women are more likely to exhibit key leadership traits like intelligence, compassion and creativity.

How can you undervalue the skills, experience and leadership traits of half your workforce and still expect to compete?

Women control 70% of household spending. They make or influence 93% of all food purchases and take 63% of all trips to the grocery store. But 59% of women say food marketers do not understand them.

NEW continues to grow rapidly, so we know this movement is getting traction. But companies need to do more. We need a more focused, cross-function, up-and-down-the-pipeline effort to leverage the talents of high-potential women. Right now the retail and consumer goods and services industry continues to lose women leaders. Dissatisfied with their career experience, they are moving to other industries or starting their own firms.

What types of changes do you think the industry could benefit from when it comes to workplace diversity?

The hardest thing we have to do is change the way we look at leadership — and the way we look at women. Women leaders are caught in a double-bind: If they are aggressive, they are seen as “bossy.” If they are not aggressive they are seen as “too nice.” Recognizing unconscious bias is a critical first step in creating workplaces where women’s leadership is as valued as men’s.

Eliminating bias against mothers and instituting family-friendly benefits and work arrangements is a win-win-win. It will help retain parents of both genders, attract millennials, widen the talent pool, boost family income and create economic growth for everyone.

We also need to change how our companies — the organizations themselves — work. To advance women, we must broaden the experience and exposure of high-potential women, encourage sponsorship, stretch assignments and create more flexible career paths.

Change within our companies won’t happen without engaging men in our diversity and inclusion efforts, many of which treat men — especially white men — as problems to be fixed instead of partners to be engaged. We need to enroll men as mentors, sponsors and supporters of women.

We need to engage senior leadership, especially. Companies making progress in women’s leadership have one thing in common: Committed executives driving change.

Let me add this: Too many organizations advance a few high-profile women and rest on their laurels. To achieve the benefits of women’s leadership — and make these gains sustainable — organizations must have targets in place that advance women. What gets measured gets done, and what gets done must be tied to executive reviews and compensation to ensure change.

How important are the wants and needs of industry members to making these changes happen?

Creating a better work experience is key. Look at millennials — workers in their 20s and 30s. They will become the majority of our workforce this year. Their wants and needs are critical to companies who want to attract and keep the best talent.

Millennials — 43% are non-white — share the same workplace priorities as women. They want balance between work and life. They want a flexible work environment. They want to make a difference. So when you create a workplace that meets the wants and needs of women, you create a workplace that attracts and retains millennials, too.

Women’s leadership is in the best interest of everyone — men as well as women, millennials, Gen Xers and boomers, and most important, the company’s bottom line.

With a wide network of women working in the retail and consumer goods industry as its member base, NEW has a direct viewpoint into what the workforce is like for the industry’s professional women. What have NEW members communicated to the organization about what they want and need when it comes to creating a diverse workforce in the industry? And how has NEW used that information?

A few years back the Network celebrated our 10th anniversary. Afterwards, we did some soul-searching. We had built a powerful organization but the number of women leaders hadn’t changed.

We asked ourselves, what would it take to create a workplace where women had the same leadership opportunities as men and everyone could be their best? We interviewed our stakeholders and industry leaders, both women and men, and conducted focus groups and surveys. We engaged more than 1,500 people in all.

Women told us they needed to develop better leadership skills, reconcile their careers and lives and be accepted — as they are — at work. Senior leaders told us they were under enormous competitive pressures, that they needed to prove ROI, do more with less and find and keep talent.

Our stakeholders said we needed to change from being an association that develops individuals into a “movement” that transforms the industry’s workplace. Our vision is a workplace with no limits. Our rallying cry is “It’s Time.”

We’re making major investments in this “movement.” We’ve established a leadership-level Diversity and Inclusion Committee to increase engagement with men, millennials, the LGBT community and women of color. We’ve increased our staff to meet the needs of our fast-growing community.

We’re offering new learning programs to help companies expand their pipeline of qualified women leaders. We’re tripling our online learning and launching the NEW Executive Institute, an intensive 12-month learning course for officer-bound women in our industry.

We’ve also partnered with the Center for Creative Leadership to create a powerful new tool unique to our industry — the NEW Career Accelerator. It features assessments and workshops designed to benchmark and increase performance of high-potential women.

Transforming the industry is a tall order. But it’s not only doable, it’s necessary. There’s an African proverb I like: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I think the industry is ready to change and to quote our rallying cry, “It’s Time.”


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