Maria is the President and CEO of The Chicago Network, a group of women business leaders in the Chicago area whose purpose is to empower women to lead. In this episode we talk about The Chicago Network, its history, their work on getting more women on boards and important aspects of board diversity
Thanks for listening!
We love our listeners! Drop us a line or give us guest suggestions here.
Maria’s Background – “My parents, who are two of the smartest people I know, have very little formal education. For them it was all about opportunity, and education for them was the door that open those opportunities, so they really made it their mission and purpose to provide my sister and I as much opportunity on the educational front as we could have.”
Becoming President & CEO of The Chicago Network – “I met with the search committee on numerous occasions. The more I learned about the organization, I just felt like this was the place for me to be. It was definitely a switch because I went from being a corporate lawyer and a strategist and an advocate and all these pieces to actually shifting into the nonprofit sector, but I knew it was exactly where I should be because this role in particular allows me to help amplify the voices of our members to really live into our purpose and to our mission.”
Broader Impact of TCN – “Our women [members] lead global organizations, the question is how are they using their power and influence within their organization as well as amplifying the platforms that they are on. How are they using their power and influence to be able to really change the numbers in the gender equity space.”
Increasing Women on Boards – We’ve always had a focus on increasing the number of women on boards, but we’ve really amplified it over the last three years. About 30% of our members are serving on for-profit boards.
One of the requirements of our organization is you must be civically engaged, so every one of our members at some point has served on a nonprofit board or is currently serving on a nonprofit board. That board service is really part of our DNA.
Growing the Next Level of Leaders – One of the things that we talk about a lot is, , it’s really important if you want to be a CEO to own a P&L and most women aren’t told that they need to pivot into a P&L role. It’s one thing that we feel very strongly about – that women in particular need to be told and recognize and given support to pivot into that space to take on some of these bigger roles.
Non-profit Board Service Leading to For-Profit Boards – Nonprofit board service is a wonderful way to prepare people for for-profit board service. If you pick a nonprofit board, I encourage people to pick one that has a very strong governance. They have a nom/gov committee, they have a finance and audit committee, a board development committee.
Joe: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to On Boards, a deep dive at what drives business success. I’m Joe Ayoub, and I’m here with my co-host Raza Shaikh. On Boards is about boards of directors and advisors in all aspects of board governance. Twice a month, this is the place to learn about one of the most critically important aspects of any company or organization; its board of directors or advisors, as well as the important issues that are facing boards, company leadership, and stakeholders.
Raza: Joe and I speak with a wide range of guests and talk about what makes a board successful or unsuccessful, what it means to be an effective board member, the challenges boards are facing and how they’re addressing those challenges, and how to make your board one of the most valuable assets of your organization.
Joe: Our guest today is Maria Doughty. Maria is the president and CEO of The Chicago Network, a group of women business leaders in the Chicago area whose purpose is [00:01:00] to empower women to lead.
Raza: Prior to The Chicago Network, Maria was director of Public Policy and Regulatory Examinations and Corporate Counsel for Allstate Insurance Company where she held leadership positions for over 20 years. Prior to working at Allstate, Maria practiced law and counseled senior executives on a broad range of strategic issues, including business planning, risk reduction, litigation prevention, and crisis management.
Joe: Maria is the board president of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a board member and past board president of the Latino Policy Forum and is the co-chair of the State of Illinois Employment and Economic Opportunity for Persons with Disabilities Task Force.
Welcome, Maria. Thank you so much for joining us today on On Boards.
Maria: Thank you, Joe and Raza. It really truly is a privilege and pleasure to have this [00:02:00]conversation with you and have the opportunity to talk about The Chicago Network and the important critical aspects of board diversity.
Joe: We are looking forward to this conversation. Before we start to talk about The Chicago Network, I think it’d be great if you would just talk a little bit about your background and how it led you to this position because it really feels like you’ve been on a trajectory to get you to do this, and I think the backstory is just really, really inspiring.
Maria: Thank you. Well, I am the daughter of Italian immigrants who came here in the early sixties. I think my story is like many others in that I am a daughter of immigrants and I have this sense of tremendous privilege of being part of the American dream. I did not speak any English until I went to kindergarten.
My parents, who are two of the smartest people I know, have very little formal education. For them it was all about opportunity, and education for them was the door that [00:03:00] open those opportunities, so they really made it their mission and purpose to provide my sister and I as much opportunity and the educational front as we could have.
I kind of seized that opportunity and I realized very early on I was so privileged because I had tremendous mentors and teachers and coaches throughout my life who basically supported me at every turn. Very early on I knew that I wanted to give back, so I had this idea that at some point in my life I would be taking this path of being involved really professionally in the civic leadership side.
However, my real passion when I was younger was advocacy, and I learned very quickly at a very young age to use my voice to make things happen. I knew very early on that I was going to go towards the legal profession. Not sure exactly what I was going to do. I knew litigation was actually where my heart was calling to me, because what I love is when you can talk [00:04:00] about two sides of an issue and then use your voice, use your powers of persuasion, research, whatever the foundation is, to be able to convince and persuade someone to see your side of the story.
I think that’s kind of what led me to initially to the law and to actually specifically being a litigator, because I think litigation is just a fascinating way to bring issues to the forefront, settle disputes. Many times, as you know, things get negotiated, but it really is the opportunity for two sides to come together, giving their perspective and then having some compromise at some point, whether it’s by a jury or a judge, or even in settlement.
Joe: Let’s talk about the mission and goals of The Chicago Network. First of all, how did it come to pass that you became connected with, and ultimately, President and CEO of The Chicago Network?
Maria: My predecessor was set to retire and they started doing a national search for the position. At the time, I had a number of women, and let me just preface this by saying that I was not actually a [00:05:00] network member at the time before I joined the organization.
Our requirements are very strict. The organization was founded in a way, and we’ll talk about that in a second, but it is really the CEO is the most senior woman in the organization, depending on the sector of the organization that the organization falls within.
When the job opportunity came available, I had a number of women who I knew in the network, I knew about 20% of the women in the network through other types of organizations, and a few of them reached out to me and said, “You need to look at this opportunity.”
I have been very vocal over the course of my professional career in terms of women’s issues and mentoring women. I led the women’s employee resource group at Allstate, and that was a global organization, so I felt very passionately about how can we bring women together to amplify their voices, but also to be able to help women live into the purpose and mission that they had themselves, which oftentimes was about paying it forward.
The [00:06:00] more I learned about the organization, I met with the search committee on numerous occasions, I just felt like this was the place for me to be. It was definitely a switch because I went from being a corporate lawyer and a strategist and an advocate and all these pieces to actually shifting into the nonprofit sector, but I knew it was exactly where I should be because this role in particular allows me to help amplify the voices of our members to really live into our purpose and to our mission.
Joe: Since you mentioned purpose, the purpose, as I said in the introduction, is to empower women to lead. That’s a pretty lofty goal, so how did that come into being and how do you interpret that in how The Chicago Network helps its members?
Maria: There was a lot of intentionality that went into our purpose, mission, vision and value statements, and I came into [00:07:00] that. That was not something that I was part of creating, but when I look at empowering women to lead, it is a very broad purpose. I think it’s intentionally broad, and it’s at every turn.
When you look at the trajectory of women in terms of their professional careers, there are different stages of that career that at every turn can lead into this purpose of empowering women to lead.
The women who are serving in our membership, I could help them in their professional and personal careers to be able to empower them to lead. But what I love about the organization is that all these women that are sitting in these roles and are members of our organization understand the importance about giving back.
There is this focus on emerging leaders within the pipeline of a workforce, and there is a lot of emphasis on how do we help emerging leaders who are sitting in those kind of mid-management; VP, director roles, [00:08:00] find their way to the C-suite, and that’s an area where I think is really an important part of the work that we do, and we could talk about this a little bit later about our Launchpad initiative and how to help really that segment find their way into the C-suite.
Joe: Since you mentioned it, I’m going to just let everyone know what your vision is: gender equity for women of all colors at all levels everywhere. One of the things that it obviously suggests is that you’re looking to have impact way beyond just the Chicago area. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Maria: Yes, so our women lead global organizations, many of them lead global organizations, and so as they’re sitting in these global chairs, the question is how are they using their power and influence within their organization as well as amplifying the platforms that they are on, whether they’re serving on boards; for-profit boards, nonprofit boards. Many [00:09:00] of them may be serving in government commissions. How are they using that power and influence to be able to really change the numbers on the gender equity and gender equity space.
We talk about succession. What does the succession pipeline look like? Are you bringing in women? Are you bringing in people of color? How are you encouraging colleagues in other organizations to do the same?
This is unequivocal. I think there are lots of research to support the fact that when you have diversity in any organization, it creates efficiencies, you’re more effective, you’re more profitable, you’re more innovative, and so it’s an easy lift, it’s an easy sell. It really is not even a sell it, it’s just fact. That’s the kind of things that we’re doing on that global perspective.
It brings me such joy. I have to tell you, when I talk to our members and they’ll reach out and say, “I just created my succession plan and we made sure that in that plan, because of the work that we’re doing in the network, we really are [00:10:00] living into what we see our vision to be.”
We all have to row in the same direction, right? I mean, incremental steps, of course, it’s never going to happen overnight, but everybody has to be rowing in the same direction for us to really see the significant change that we all want to see.
Again, it creates more successful organizations overall. It’s not about doing the right thing. It is the right thing to do without question, but it does lead to success on all different levels. Whether it’s profitability, whether it’s culture of the organization, that sense of belonging, that sense of purpose, all of that feeds into having diversity at every level of the organization and at every aspect of someone’s career.
Raza: Well, well said Maria. Maybe going back, introduce The Chicago Network to us, the history, the organization, and what does The Chicago Network actually do?
Maria: The organization was started in [00:11:00] 1979 by nine extraordinary women executives, who’s mostly CEOs, who realized that as they continue to climb the corporate ladder, that it was very lonely at the top. That loneliness, I think, continues to exist amongst most senior executive, men and women. I don’t think it’s unique to women.
They found each other as a support system, and they realized as they came together to support each other professionally, whether it was issues of human capital or supply chain or how to manage leadership, whatever it was, that was their support group.
They found that within that professional support system, as they got to know each other, they became personal friends as well, and they realized very quickly that this incredible relationship that they had was so valuable that they wanted to extend it out to other women across Chicagoland.
They sent out about over a hundred letters to women [00:12:00] across the city. What I think is amazing about the organization is that they weren’t just focused on corporate roles. They realized that in order to really create this beautiful cultural tapestry that is the network, they needed to cover all the sectors of Chicagoland.
They went to arts and culture and government and law and entrepreneurs and scientists and doctors and authors, and they invited this incredible group of women to come together to join the organization.
The story is that I think everybody accepted except for one, because they were going out of the country or leaving their job while this was all pre zoom, so it was a different environment at the time, but they started this organization.
What I love about this as a governance expert myself, I love that there’s documentation in our historical files that says they wanted no rules, no bylaws, no committees. They really believed that everything could be solved in three phone calls, and there was one rule in the [00:13:00] organization, that if somebody from the network reached out to you, you did your best as humanly possible, is the language, to get back to them within 24 hours, and that rule exists to date.
We do have incredible governance. I laugh when I think about where it started with no rules, no governance, no bylaws. We are probably one of the best governed nonprofits that I’ve ever been a part of, but that sense of connection and support is what we’re about. These women, they support each other both professionally and personally.
We have a very specific strategic plan in terms of what our initiatives are. We have initiatives about supporting each other, increasing the number of women on for-profit boards, and really supporting the emerging leaders, which is our Launchpad initiative.
Raza: Maria, that sounds like a terrific history and evolution of the organization. Can you tell us how the membership has grown and what areas and sectors is The [00:14:00] Chicago Network, TCN, now covering?
Maria: We are a by-invitation organization, and that is really deliberate in the sense of we want to make sure that the people that come into the organization are truly peers. This is a peer-to-peer organization, and a lot of it is about making sure that people understand and are experiencing some of the same issues and can support each other at that level.
We have grown. We’re about 550 members currently. What’s amazing about our organization is we have about a 95% retention rate, so once you’re in the network, you can remain in the network really for life, and we do have some life members who have been their age and the years of the network are a hundred or equal to a hundred.
We have women from various points of their careers, and that’s what I think makes it extraordinarily special. The sectors we cover, we have presidents of universities. We have presidents of museums. We have true entrepreneurs. We have a woman who runs one of the largest fund equities. We have the Chief [00:15:00] Risk Officer of one of the largest hedge fund in the United States. I mean, these are the women that make up our organization; Fortune 100 CEOs. That’s who we are.
Raza: That does sound like a really broad and deep coverage. Going back to what you just alluded to earlier, one of the programs and initiative that you mentioned is about getting more women on boards. Can you talk a little more about that and what is that initiative and how is the TCN helping more women get on boards?
Maria: Yes. Thank you so much. We’ve always had a focus on increasing the number of women on boards, but we’ve really amplified it over the last three years. About 30% of our members are serving on for-profit boards.
One of the requirements of our organization in terms of being a member is you must have specifically engaged, so every one of our members at some point has served on a nonprofit board or is currently serving on a nonprofit board. That board service is really part of our DNA.
When I [00:16:00] came into the role, I realized that we had a curated group of extraordinary women leaders who really are board ready, and I use every opportunity to encourage recruiters, nom-gov chairs, CEOs and others to come to TCN when they are searching for board directors.
Since that kind of focus, we always had a woman on board’s committee, but we really amplified that through right now, and we have about 20 women serving on that committee. They are all serving on for-profit boards , they feel very passionately about this work.
We do a lot of different things with that group. Overall, for the organization, we do programming. We know that there are so many credible organizations that offer board programming, training, readiness, all that. We’re not trying to step into that space at all. We want to support our members by doing targeted programming, by doing targeted training.
We do a lot of partnerships with other organizations that are [00:17:00] solely focused on board work and we love partnerships, so we are always ready to create additional partnerships because ultimately the goal is about increasing the number of women on for-profit boards.
We really don’t care how we get there in the sense of it doesn’t have to be because we put those women there. It’s really about working together in collaboration with changing that number and increasing that number overall.
Raza: Sounds like a terrific initiative.
Maria: Raza, can I just share one last thing. Last year we started working on a database. So many organizations have these very robust databases where director candidates are kind of captured. Equilar has a wonderful database. We’ve worked with them on it at one point. All the major universities, for the most part, have also these types of databases.
We realized that we really wanted to make it easy for people when they were looking for women from the network, but they didn’t necessarily have to reach out to me because I’m only one person, so we [00:18:00] created the database in-house.
The database is WomenLead.io. It is a searchable database. We have about 500 tags, so you go into the search bar and you say you want someone, a CFO in manufacturing who may have SEC financial expertise. You put in all those words, you press search and all the women that fit those or they have that tag somewhere in their bio will pop up. There’s contact information for that person and it gives you their board bio.
We really want to focus people there. It’s free. We’re going to continue to build it as members get their board bios prepared. There’s going to be constant refresh of the site. But again, the ultimate goal really is to make sure women are board ready, that they continue to have training.
I love this podcast because this is exactly where people should go as they’re trying to hear what are the cutting edge things that our boards are experiencing, and so this is it. We need to make sure [00:19:00]everybody is properly trained and ready to serve and up to date and staying relevant on what’s happening.
Raza: Maria, I’ll repeat it for everybody. It’s WomenLead.io. It’s free and you can do tag searching for finding women’s that are board ready for anything that you need. Terrific resource.
You mentioned Equilar. David Chun was a guest of the podcast and we tremendously admire the work they’re doing as well in aggregating all these databases to create a database of databases to just make it more available to anybody who is searching for boards for what they need.
Joe: Maria, one of the things that The Chicago Network does is to help develop the next generation of leaders. I think that’s just a great perspective that you have, and my understanding it is called the Launchpad program. Could you talk a little bit about Launch Pad and how it views the work it needs to do to [00:20:00] have to develop the next generation of board leaders and leaders in the community.
Maria: Yeah. Thank you Joe. Launchpad started in 2014. Our members realized that they had these incredible emerging leaders within their organization and they wanted to expose those emerging leaders to the women of The Chicago Network, and part of it is, it’s all about role modeling too, and it’s always easier to see yourself in a CEO role or a CFO role or a C-suite role if you see someone that looks like you and that has your experience in those seats.
It was a 90-minute program that happened the morning of our Women in the Forefront Luncheon, which is our big luncheon celebration, and these women came together and we had very targeted program for these women as really helping them, what getting into the C-suite looks like and what they needed to do to pivot into those roles.
We realized that this was such an incredibly well-received program [00:21:00] that last year we decided to make it a standalone summit. What I love about this summit itself, it’s more than a half-day program. Women come together, you can buy a ticket to come. Last year we had a hybrid, so partly you could join virtually or also be in the room, but I can just tell you being in that room was key.
It’s all about creating your own network. The first premise of Launchpad is kind of connecting with other women at your same level, at different sectors will help propel you into roles that you may not even realize are available to you.
You create this sense of camaraderie amongst each other and support, and that is what will really help you, and as we know, so many women that are sitting in these roles have a hard time trying to figure out how do they get into the C-suite.
One of the things that we talk about a lot is, , it’s really important if you want to be a CEO to own a [00:22:00] P&L and most women aren’t told that they need to pivot into a P&L role. That sometimes is very scary for some people because they may not feel like they have that experience, but it’s one thing that we feel very strongly that women particularly need to be told and recognize and given support to pivot into that space to take on some of these bigger roles.
We have very targeted programming and we bring these women together so they connect with some of our members and build those relationships so that they can then move in these C-suite roles.
Now, another thing that we do, and we did this last year, and we’re going to really continue doing it this year. Our program iis in September of this year is really reminding some of these women that it’s not too early to start thinking about for-profit board service.
I think we’re all seeing this and I’m sure you’ve seen this too in some of the people that you brought onto the podcast. It is that we’re seeing [00:23:00] that directors are younger in terms of their tenure in their professional experience. No longer is this something that you do as the second professional career, board service that is, that they’re really looking for relevancy, and even some of these emerging leaders are being considered now for board director positions.
We want women to start thinking about board service and figuring out what skills they need to be able to really serve as really effective board directors really at all points of their professional career.
Raza: Maria, as you have joined the leadership for TCN, can you talk about the initiatives and things that you have really focused on or brought about for the organization?
Maria: The Women on Boards one is probably the key initiative right now, and really we’ve been focusing on it . We’ve talked a little bit about that already. Launchpad, I think, would be number two. The third piece is really [00:24:00] increasing member engagement and helping women within the organization connect with each other so that they can continue to support each other, both professionally and personally.
Joe: Maria, I want to go back to something you said a little earlier, which is that is a fact that diversity really does improve performance, and I couldn’t agree more. Raza, I know agrees as well. We’ve talked a lot about it on this show over the years. Diversity of perspective is absolutely critical in driving great board performance. Can you talk a little about how you’ve seen that and other organizations that are working towards that end that maybe you’ve come into contact with?
Maria: Yeah, I can just share from my personal experience when I’m sitting on a board and I’ve sat on boards. When you have individuals who are coming to the table who have diverse perspectives,[00:25:00] they often make you think differently than you would’ve thought.
I think what’s really important at the board level is that people feel free to share their perspectives, and sometimes the perspective may not be a popular perspective at the table, but it’s really important that those perspectives are shared and that board members feel comfortable taking potentially a different position on something.
It makes people think more broadly. Sometimes it gets you out of your comfort zone and people feed off of each other.
I’ve watched this where someone will say something that is totally like something that I would never have thought of, but then it makes you really think differently. I’ve watched the leap to creating innovation.
We know that it’s true. We’ve seen it happen. I [00:26:00] think that’s what’s happening with more boards now, and part of the reason why we’re seeing this push for diversity on boards is they recognize that our society is changing and unless you really have an appreciation for different parts of what’s happening in our society, you as an organization, if you’re actually supporting and advising an organization, you do a disservice to that organization if you don’t understand and accept and want to hear the different perspectives.
We know that organizations and consumers want it to be purpose driven, and that’s a big piece of what I think is new to the equation.
Joe: One of the things we’ve talked about a lot in terms of diversity is that a critical role for boards is the identification and management of risk and advising management about how much risk it could take or not to take. There’s no [00:27:00] question that diversity of perspective, an obvious one is men and women. Men and women see things differently. But the more diversity of perspective that is on a board, the more likely it is that organizations will have the benefit of not missing a potential risk or a potential opportunity where they thought maybe it was too much risk, but this organization can take it.
One of our favorite guests that we’ve had on this show is David Koenig, who founded the DCRO, which offers board members training in risk management. It actually gives a Director of Risk Certificate…
Raza: Risk Director.
Joe: Of which Raza is one. In talking to him, the diversity of who’s on the board really comes through. One of the groups also that we’ve talked to, as we’ve talked before, is Extraordinary Women on Boards who is similar, not the same as what The Chicago Network does, but again, [00:28:00] a group of women, in their case, they’re all on for-profit boards, but like you, the focus for them is helping to make their members better board members, because at the end of the day, that is the most important thing.
That’s one of the things I think Raza and I both really appreciate about The Chicago Network, you’re focused on helping people, first understand what they need to do to get on a board, but, more importantly maybe, to always just improving their skills so that there is a board or a next board for them, and that the impact they have when they get that first or second board opportunity will really be significant.
Speaking of an impact, I’d like to ask you a little bit about your board work. I talked a little bit at the introduction about some of the work you’re doing, but could you talk about the nonprofit work that you are doing because I really think folks would like to hear about that.
Maria: Thank you. It’s really about knowing your why, Um, and I think that applies to for-profit and nonprofit [00:29:00] roles, and I think it goes to your question of diversity too. I know my why. My personal purpose is servant leadership, and I use my skills as a trained lawyer to be able to bring to the table my experience to the nonprofit roles.
I’m currently serving as president of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. That is an extraordinary organization that really serves people who have been victims of domestic violence. It’s comprised of hundreds of shelters that we support from a training perspective as well as serve as a pass-through for government funding.
That organization, it’s part of good governance, and I think for me it’s about giving back and using my business experience to be able to help the CEO, the entire staff and the rest of the board to be able to navigate some of the issues that we have to deal with.
When you were talking about diversity, I think it’s really important for boards to have [00:30:00]different perspectives in terms of experience too. You don’t want a board of 10 lawyers. That’s not going to give you that diversity of perspective.
It’s helpful to have somebody maybe in technology, in marketing and human resources, in law. Having that is what I think what I’ve been working on with our boards, when I was the president of the Latino Policy Forum as well as the Illinois Coalition, is about increasing the diversity of viewpoints on that board because I know that we are more effective when we’re bringing skills to the board.
To me, I feel very strongly that nonprofit board service is a wonderful way to prepare people for for-profit board service. Governance is similar. If you pick a nonprofit board, I would encourage people to pick one that has a very strong similar governance. They have a nom-gov committee. They have a finance and audit committee. They have a governance committee, a board development committee.
You get experience in the committee structure, so you understand what that looks like when you come on to a for-profit. That experience, I [00:31:00] think, is really fundamental and it is a way to give back in a way that you’re really using your skills and your gifts to really make the world a better place.
Joe: Yeah, no question. It’s a great thing to do, and I think most important, as you were saying, is to find an organization whose mission really, really moves you so that you’re really doing it for that reason, but also getting the training potentially to be on a for-profit board. Maria, it’s been great speaking with you today. Thank you so much for joining us,
Maria: Thank you so much. It’s been really a pleasure. I appreciate your time.
Joe: And thank you all for listening to On Boards with our guest, Maria Doughty.
Raza: Please visit our website at OnBoardsPodcast.com. That’s OnBoardsPodcast.com. We’d love to hear your comments, suggestions, and feedback. And if you’re not already a subscriber, please be sure to subscribe at Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast, [00:32:00] and remember to leave us a five-star review.
Joe: Please stay safe. Take care of yourselves, your families, and your communities as best you can, and we hope you’ll tune in for the next episode of On Boards. Thank you.