Women Leading Business: A New Kind of Conversation

For women in business today, there's much more to talk about than gender specific issues like dual career families or the glass ceiling. Women Leading Business, an HBS Executive Forum, brings together executive women—entrepreneurs and corporate leaders alike—for a different kind of conversation about strategy, decision-making and paths to success. In this interview, Professor Myra Hart talks about the program, and how it enhances both the personal and professional lives of senior-level businesswomen.

For high-powered executive women, the HBS program Women Leading Business: An Executive Forum offers a unique opportunity to discuss strategy, examine problems, and explore solutions. Below Professor Myra Hart shares her vision of the program, now in its third year, with a member of the Executive Education staff.

EE: What led you to develop the "Women Leading Business" forum?

Hart: I'd observed in the School's Executive Education programs—AMP, PMD, and OPM, for example—that the women attending them loved meeting each other. Although they enjoyed being part of the larger group, there seemed to be a different kind of conversation going on among the women. I thought it would be worthwhile to bring a group of them together to pursue these conversations further.

In addition, I knew that there were (and are) a lot of programs for women around the country that deal with gender issues—dual career families, the glass ceiling, and so on—and while those issues are certainly worth discussing, they are not what I intended for this program. "Women Leading Business" is about senior executive decision-making, not gender issues or skill-building.

EE: Is this why the program is called a "forum" rather than a "course"?

Hart: Yes. Our focal points are leadership issues and contemporary concerns such as international expansion, or the impact of the Internet. Our participants need to stay abreast of the very latest research, business trends, and models—all of which our faculty provide.

EE: What is the typical profile of the group?

Hart: The single defining characteristic of our participants is that they have achieved a position of extraordinary responsibility and recognition in their industry and firm. More than half are entrepreneurs who founded a company that is recognized as successful, with substantial revenues and profits. Our corporate participants are presidents of their companies or divisions, or they're executive vice presidents—almost always within two strikes of the top. We have also had some extraordinary leaders from the nonprofit arena. In general, 60 percent of our participants are from the United States. We have a large contingent from the United Kingdom and a smaller percentage from other western European countries. We have had women from Africa, the Middle East, South America, and Australia. There is a wonderful international flavor to this program.

EE: Who are some of the HBS faculty and the issues they will be discussing in the 1999 Executive Forum?

Hart: We'll be kicking off with Nancy Koehn discussing revolutions in commerce, particularly in retailing. The introduction and acceptance of e-commerce has been on everyone's mind: What does this mean for traditional business structures, for business leaders, and for consumers?

Regina Herzlinger will address health-care issues in the new millennium. Herminia Ibarra will conduct workshops on professional networks in which participants discover their own networking style. Paul Marshall will address the issues of stimulating growth in companies that have been up and running for a while, because our participants are, by and large, running very large corporations or they are entrepreneurs who started a company some time ago. They need to know how to keep renewing both the firm and their own energy.

Richard Tedlow will present his observations of "why bad things happen to good companies," focusing on the 1982 and 1986 Tylenol crises. Michael Porter will continue to address the latest ideas in strategy and competitive positioning. Linda Hill will lead a discussion about a woman who is taking over a senior executive position from a man who was extremely successful and popular. Cynthia Montgomery will talk about creating advantage through corporate and sector-level strategy.

EE: Any other themes?

Hart: This year we're enhancing our focus on financial planning, recognizing that most of our participants are in their 40s and 50s. Obviously, many of them already have personal financial managers, but we will talk about some broader issues and the implications of recent tax and legal changes.

We'll continue our focus on how women managers can mentor the next generation of women. My colleagues' and my work on women's management styles has revealed significant differences between generations. I hope we'll have some practitioners talking about this as well.

We're also going to look at the models used by highly successful businesswomen to enable themselves to have the time, energy, and devotion necessary to sustain their success. We invite our MBA students to come to this presentation, because they really want to know how to model their lives.

EE: What opportunities for growth exist beyond the classroom?

Hart: I like to think that we provide women with their personal "board of directors." All participants live in small groups of five to eight women. The groups are arranged by industry or by the issues they have indicated in their application that they would like to discuss in more depth. The living groups meet daily for breakfast and sometimes other meals, during which time each person has the opportunity to raise an issue she would like help with from the group.

EE: Can you offer some examples of these issues?

Hart: At one session, we had a woman who was in a partnership with a man approximately ten years younger than she. She was ready to think about moving into the next stage of her life—possibly selling the business or taking it public. Her partner wanted to continue in a leadership role in the company. She was trying to figure out how to structure a deal that would allow her to withdraw, allow him to remain in place, and give them both an equitable financial payoff. She had a number of alternatives and wanted input from the group, which she received. Not all participants' issues are this monumental. Sometimes executives just need to air their concerns about internal issues, such as a potential new hire or a firing situation. Issues may also be more personal, such as how to bridge the enormous gap between the leadership of a company and retirement.

EE: What sort of feedback have you received from past participants?

Hart: They say they feel refreshed and informed on a host of subjects, some of which are highly germane to their business and some that are more personal. We hear repeatedly the words "validating," "broadening," "stimulating," and "powerful." Many of the participants have made plans to return for a second forum so that they can renew ties with their "classmates" and get another update. We are constantly changing the program to incorporate the latest issues of interest in the business world.

Thank you for your time. We wish you and the Forum a fabulous third season.