How to Shatter the Glass Ceiling

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Phoebe Navakovic, Marissa Mayer, Safra Culz, Mary Barra, Irene Rosenfeld. One could go on naming women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies.

You'll even find a few in pharma and biotech: Emma Walmsley at GlaxoSmithKline, Martine Rothblatt at United Therapeutics, Heather Bresch at Mylan, and so on. Although women are still a C-suite minority, one has to wonder if the glass ceiling has cracked, or whether it will soon crumble.

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This trend will likely obliterate whatever novelty was once attached to the idea of a “woman CEO.” It's nothing new. Over the years, we've witnessed scores of women become outstanding leaders, even though they never reached the pinnacle of the Fortune 500. Some of them I was fortunate enough to work with.

This is a fact. The success I had at Robert A. Becker, and later at Euro RSCG Life, was possible mainly because we had an outstanding team of senior managers — most of them women. (I'm sure the men who also held leadership posts at Becker will not begrudge their remaining nameless here. They'll understand why I'm singling out these exceptional women.)

When I was asked to take charge of the Becker advertising agency, we was confronted with departing clients and declining revenues. Our owner, Havas, was planning to shut us down. We had to shake things up and could not afford our staff of congenial good old boys. We needed A+ stars.

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One of our first moves was promoting my administrative assistant, Terry Wachalter, to CFO. In my short time with the agency, I had learned that not only did Wachalter understand our finances better than anyone else, she was also smarter than any of the candidates our recruiter was sending. She was exceptional: First, she helped restore order to our shaky financials; second, she put us on a solid footing for growth.

To address our need to recruit and retain great creative and account people, we got a huge break when Deb Stevens came on board as head of human resources. Not only did Stevens spot and sign outstanding talent, she was also instrumental in transforming our culture from that of a laid-back boutique into a dynamic and cohesive powerhouse.

The key to our success was our ability to provide clients with big ideas and comprehensive programs that touched on all phases of brands' life cycles. This was possible thanks to a pair of remarkable women: Colleen Doyle and Terry Gallo. Doyle helped found and direct our medical education division, Genecom, which became instrumental at creating disease awareness in order to turn molecules into megabrands. Gallo headed up Adrenaline, our Consumer Health Division. Under her leadership, we created breakthrough TV spots, including a Flomax ad featuring a port-a-potty on a trailer hitch.

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We had no agenda other than trying to do the best for our clients. That was always our goal. To be the best that ever was. Pharma's had many great women leaders. I'm sure you have your own list. Some are already in our Hall of Fame. Others deserve to be. They all played a part in the revolution we're seeing today. They were the giants upon whose shoulders today's women CEOs stand.

Let's keep up the pressure until the glass ceiling is, indeed, a thing of the past.



Sander Flaum is a principal at Flaum Navigators. 

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