Climbing To The Top


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When a massive restructuring at Sage Software propelled Nina Smith to president of the vendor’s Business Management Division last spring, many men told her she was not the first choice for the job. She was no stranger to leadership, having served as chief marketing officer for Sage, and Xerox before that. But the mindset is one the 50-year-old executive has struggled to overcome her entire career: women are not thought of as having the ability to succeed as much as their male counterparts are.

If two people who have the same qualifications apply for a job and one is a female and one is a male, people will tend to hire the male because it is more accepting, Smith says.

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“I’m a minority and female. There’s always a little bit of doubt when you go for these roles.”

The ousting of CEO Ron Verni and other top-level executives from the $1 billion software company last fall drew even more attention to Smith, who oversees 2,000 people and is responsible for all accounting and CRM products for small and midsize businesses, including Peachtree, MAS 90 and Accpac.

Now, she’s attempting to make the other women at Sage feel included and noticed in a playground dominated by men.

“I’m still trying to knock down the Boys Club and I still have women at Sage coming to me and saying, ‘Nina, that’s the boys’ network and I can’t get in.’ But if we try to have a girls’ network, people get (suspicious) about why we’re all together,” Smith says.

The club can be anything from going to lunch as a group every day, to putting together work projects or attending after-hour events.

Smith talked to managers at Sage about the perception by women in her company who feel left out, acknowledging that the men might not have realized they were excluding women, and says she has started to see some changes.

Things are different now than when Smith graduated in 1980 from the University of Redlands at age 22 and went on to work for Carte Blanche traveling multiple days a week as the only female internal auditor on her team.

“Thirty years ago, the only women who made it had to be tough like a man. Well I’m not a man and I don’t have those characteristics associated with me. I have a soft side,” Smith says. “Then there was little awareness or examples of women in senior roles. Today, there’s awareness that we need to have a diverse workforce, but we still have a lot of the same challenges around fairness.”

Sponsors and Mentors

Fairness and recognition start with those senior leaders who are sitting around the table speaking up on behalf of their potential successors.

Smith plays the role of sponsor at Sage, where she tries to ensure women receive equal consideration for promotions as men.

“To change the culture, I believe in having real true succession planning processes as part of your structure, and also looking at that from a diversity perspective,” Smith says.

Sponsors are different from mentors, and women looking to excel in their careers need both, says Smith, who herself has had several at various stages in her life.

Sponsors are senior business people with credibility, influence and hiring authority willing to share important information, unwritten rules and corporate history and culture. They often select the person they want to sponsor because they are aware of what she has accomplished and what skills she possesses, Smith explains.

Mentors, meanwhile, come from both inside and outside the employee’s organization and the relationships don’t have to be formal, Smith says. They have more of an interpersonal bond with their mentees, provide career guidance and ask tough questions about the next steps necessary for career growth. It is up to the individual to select her mentors rather than waiting for them to choose her. And yes, it’s OK to ask.

“You’d be surprised at the number of young people right out of college who will call me and say ‘I’m looking for a mentor, would you consider it,’” Smith says. “Right away, I say, ‘Absolutely. Let’s talk about it.’ When you’ve gone 30 years in a career, there’s so much to give back that I will find the time.”

Mentoring takes a lot of work, however. So unless a prospective mentee is willing to give it her all, Smith won’t agree to take on this responsibility.

“I have criteria. We need to meet on a quarterly basis, they need to come to that meeting thinking of some of the situations we have to work through and look at the next job they want,” says Smith, who still keeps in touch with some of the people she mentored while working at Xerox and calls her own mentors monthly to ask for recommendations about certain situations. “Nine times out of 10, people will not keep up on their part of it.”

Having mentors throughout various stages in her career was always important to Teresa Mackintosh, vice president of strategic marketing for Thomson Tax and Accounting Professional Software and Services—a team of 22 people.

Mackintosh was promoted to that position in September 2006, giving her more responsibility for the direction of Thomson’s future products and services than she had as the VP of marketing in charge of message management.

She came to Thomson in 1996 after working for three years as a tax consultant for Price Waterhouse and was promoted to a development manager after six months on the job by another woman, UltraTax 1120 development manager Mary Kaye McCann.

She quickly climbed the corporate later and became the only female on an eight-person executive team in nearly a decade.

McCann taught Mackintosh some things that she keeps top of mind today:

First, let people make decisions and don’t remove people’s consequences.

Second, when someone knocks on the door always turn around with a smile. “It will make them not afraid to bring you bad news,” Mackintosh says.

The third piece of advice hits close to home for the 35-year-old mother of two, who just gave birth to her second child last summer: Don’t let other people control your career. “I don’t think there’s a glass ceiling anymore,” Mackintosh says. “Women make choices. They’re tough choices, but they’re their choices. You need to have a vision of what you want to do and go for it. You need to be in control of your own destiny. You’re not a victim.”

Work-life balance?

Mackintosh is referring to the debate about whether women can excel in their careers even after baring children. She had her first child right after earning her VP status, and while the company didn’t fall apart in her absence, her job awaited her return.

“A lot of people think if they decide to have children it’s an off ramp. It’s not. It’s a stabilization ramp when they can coast for a little bit,” Mackintosh says.

Work-life balance is not limited to raising a family, either. It’s making time for anything that’s important: exercise, haircuts or just escaping, says Mini Peiris, vice president of product management for NetSuite responsible for all of the company’s future product offerings, including ERP, CRM and e-commerce.

Her role may become increasingly important since NetSuite filed its initial public offering in December and looked on target to be a $100 million company based on financial statements.

“Technology can be very 24-7,” says Peiris. “I used to hardly take any vacation time. Gradually, I found that’s one thing that preserves my sanity. You need to take at least a solid two-week block to disengage.”

She spends most of that time scuba diving or on a boat, where there’s no temptation to check her emails.

Peiris, 35, who does not have children, joined NetSuite in 2002 and previously managed both the ACT and SalesLogix product lines (both now owned by Sage Software).

When she joined SalesLogix in 1997, the company only had 30 employees, and Peiris, who studied biochemistry in school and whose first job was in pharmaceutical research, transitioned into a new industry, starting out in technical support providing knowledge base content.

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