Recently, Catalyst announced that only 24 S&P 500 CEOs are women. With women accounting for less than 5-percent of the top leadership roles in the biggest corporations, what must women do to break through corporate America’s glass ceiling?
While not an S&P 500 company, Buffalo Wild Wings is a major American corporation that has experienced significant growth in recent years. In the fourth quarter of 2014, the company’s total revenue increased by 19.7-percent to $408.9 million. Today, there are 1,070 Buffalo Wild Wings locations spread across the United States, Canada and Mexico. When Sally Smith became Buffalo Wild Wings’ first female CEO in 1996, though, these impressive numbers weren’t what she saw.
As a female taking over the helm of a company focused on wings, football and sports that had only 35 restaurant locations, Smith had her work cut out for her. However, through the development of a clear vision for the brand and implementation of strategies centered around that vision, Smith and Buffalo Wild Wings built a successful business by staying true to their roots.
“As televised sports and competitive youth sports grew, we were always aware of and tried to anticipate what guests would want from a great audio visual experience. After that, we thought about what goes great with watching sports, and knew that it was wings and beer. What we looked like 20 years ago when I got here and what we look like today is still the same in terms of our core of wings, beer and sports,” Smith explained.
As Smith continues to help Buffalo Wild Wings grow in terms of revenue and locations, the question becomes, how can other women follow her lead to the CEO’s chair? For women desiring to become a CEO, Smith provides three important pieces of advice: Be curious, gain exposure and be patient.
When asked what the best path is for a woman to take to become a CEO, Smith noted, “Be curious.” Smith further explained, “Ask why things work. Figure out what customers focus on or desire. These things will serve you well.” In this regard, Smith believes that there is value in a woman — or anyone — learning all they can about not only the business they seek to enter, but other business models.
Along the way, Smith doesn’t believe that women should be working with the sole intention of becoming a CEO, but rather, with the goal of soaking up as much knowledge as possible: “I’m not sure when you’re young that becoming a CEO should be your number one goal. I think if you have that goal, you may have such a nose to the grindstone approach that you may miss some experiences along the way. ou may not know that you are going to need these experiences or exposure to these things,” Smith noted.
Similarly, gaining exposure is another critical component Smith points to for those desiring to become a CEO. “It’s hard getting on a board unless you have board experience. Start with a nonprofit or volunteer opportunity and get some experience. That way you’ll maybe then be asked to serve on the board of a small family business. Over time, these things develop,” Smith explained.
However, Smith noted that the type of exposure one needs may differ based upon what type of corporation one wants to lead as CEO. If someone absolutely desires to become a Fortune 500 company’s CEO, then they likely need exposure to the inner-workings of a Fortune 500 company. Thus, for these people, gaining work experience at a Fortune 500 company is critical. “I’d have trouble getting a job as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I haven’t had experience in a large company that a lot of boards are looking for. Don’t be afraid to take lateral moves. Get exposed to as much as you can,” Smith said.
Finally, Smith believes that patience is a critical attribute of anyone seeking to become a CEO: “Sometimes, I think people want the process to happen so fast,” she noted. Yet, for other reasons, Smith believes that patience is critical for women seeking to climb the corporate ladder:
I was talking to someone not too long ago about board leadership and why so few women are on boards of Fortune 500 companies. Part of it is that men have been going to business school longer than women. I think sometimes it takes some time to turn over CEOs, just like it does with boards. We just added a female director to our board, and it wasn’t that we weren’t pursuing one, but it was that we couldn’t work to add one until there was turnover.
Smith’s advice should encourage those seeking to become CEOs to continue chasing their dreams and goals. It should do so, because Smith’s advice rings like the old adages of “hard work pays off” and “patience is a virtue.” With these things at hand, arguably the sky — and not the glass ceiling — is the limit for any woman desiring to become a CEO.
By Alicia Jessop