As chairwoman, president and CEO of Frontier Communications Corp., Maggie Wilderotter heads a $2 billion telecommunications firm. Fortune magazine named her one of 2009's most powerful women in business.
Wilderotter joined Frontier in 2004 as president and CEO after holding senior executive positions at companies including Microsoft Corp. and AT&T Inc. She sits on the boards of Procter & Gamble Co., Xerox Corp. and Tribune Co.
Wilderotter traces her career in business to a first job selling candy on the Asbury Park boardwalk in New Jersey at age 12. After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross in Boston in 1977 with a B.A. in business and economics, she married her junior high school sweetheart, Phillip Jay Wilderotter. They have two sons.
In a recent conversation with the Rochester Business Journal, Wilderotter spoke about her career and her life in business. An edited transcript follows.
ROCHESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL: You've had a number of senior leadership positions at a variety of companies. Starting out, did you feel you had to prove yourself as a woman?
MAGGIE WILDEROTTER: I've always worked in technology and telecommunications and software. These are very male-dominated fields, so I did have to prove myself as a woman. I worked very hard to do that by delivering results.
I've felt that the real differentiator for any person to be successful in business is to deliver value to the business. Early on in my career I decided to use the skills and capabilities I have as a woman, which include listening and learning and being service-oriented to others to help resolve issues and move things forward or negotiate contracts, and to really deliver great results to the businesses I worked for. So that's really how I was able to move forward in the organizations I worked for.
RBJ: How much have things changed for women in business over the years? Is the glass ceiling broken through, or has it just been raised?
WILDEROTTER: It's situational. In some places, there still is a glass ceiling. In other places, there is less of one. I still think to get to the C suite, to get to the CEO, for large companies especially, it's still very difficult to learn to do. This is evidenced by the fact that, I think, there are only 18 women (CEOs) in the Fortune 1000.
RBJ: Is this something to be addressed primarily by women or primarily by men?
WILDEROTTER: I think women should address it, but so should male counterparts. Leaders in organizations have to foster an environment where both men and women can excel and succeed and move up to bigger jobs.
Men do need to take risks with women, to put them in positions where they might not have the experience level and where you might not perceive them as being ready for those jobs. I know I do that in my company.
But I also think that women have a responsibility to take risks and to make sure that they are proactive in pushing for what they want in their careers. You know we all have to make choices. It's still hard for many women because we still predominantly raise the children, take care of the children and have the children.
That makes for hiccups in career continuity. Companies that can accommodate that are the ones that will wind up with great women working for them.
RBJ: That raises the problem of the so-called superwoman, who has to do everything, juggle a career, children and a family. Is there more accommodation than there used to be?
WILDEROTTER: I think there is. I also think that at least personally for me, I had a husband who has been a great partner for me. He stepped up and raised our two boys. He took a primary role, which allowed me to have jobs that were very demanding and had a lot of travel time.
Without having that help at home, it's very difficult for women to make some of the sacrifices you have to make to move up the ladder.
RBJ: You have attributed your own and your sisters' success in business to the treatment and encouragement you got from your parents, particularly your father, whom you described as treating you and your siblings in some ways as if you were boys.
WILDEROTTER: Yes, he did, and he didn't have a choice: He didn't have any boys.
RBJ: So would you advise parents of girls to treat their daughters similarly today, or have gender roles changed enough so that girls can be treated like girls and still be successful?
WILDEROTTER: It's situational. I've talked to a lot of male CEOs who have daughters. They have a very different point of view about what their daughters should be able to do with their careers than the men I talk to who don't have daughters. I think the women in this generation coming up will have more opportunities and will have more support.
Compared to the climate in the '70s and the '60s when I was growing up, I think it's a lot better. I think that it's much better today in terms of opportunities for women across the board.
RBJ: What advice would you give to senior managers in terms of mentoring and guiding and getting the best performance from women they supervise? Would you make the same recommendations to men and women?
WILDEROTTER: Any leader in a company should really look at performance and really reward people who perform well for the company. We all look for high potentials in our organizations in males and females.
What we shouldn't do is make excuses as to why they can't step up to the next level based on stereotypes or what we think they're thinking. We should give them every opportunity. I would encourage managers and leaders to have a dialogue with their employees and to work with them on what makes sense for the next step, to not just say that Sally is not qualified for that job because she's got two young children and she won't be able to travel.
Don't make the decision for the employee. Let the employee be part of the process.
RBJ: What advice do you have for young women who are just starting out today?
WILDEROTTER: I would advise them to work hard, to make sure that they focus on learning and building a set of capabilities, to acquire multi-disciplinary skills that can be employed on a number of different jobs.
Also, I would encourage them to go into line jobs, not just staff jobs, to go into field operations, to learn profit and loss statements, to have small businesses or small-business operations within big businesses where they have opportunities to move the business forward.
RBJ: Essentially, to not get trapped in the traditional route of the HR ghetto?
WILDEROTTER: Exactly, exactly, but if you do enter through a traditional route, move over. That's what I did.
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