by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Southwest & Midwest
Sarah Alter took over as president of the Network of Executive Women (NEW) on June 5. She may be new to the organization, but not to its ideals. She has had a penchant for helping women and diverse leaders advance throughout her career, which fits perfectly with NEW’s vision to create a workplace without limits.
Alter’s roles prior to taking the helm of the 16-year-old organization include VP for digital sales and marketing at Quill.com and VP of Discover Financial Services. Most recently, Alter was with General Growth Properties, where she developed and executed business and consumer marketing strategies for 200 shopping mall properties and their top retailers.
Alter has been selective in choosing roles that afforded her the opportunity to grow and build channels, divisions and brands. She will draw from past achievements, such as increasing digital sales at Quill.com from 9 percent to 65 percent of revenue and earning Discover Financial Services a J.D. Power Award for its digital experience, to help grow and scale the value of NEW. She will leverage her business skills and experiences to create social value.
“I’m well versed in helping a company navigate through both change and growth, and that clearly is the need and the opportunity for this organization as well,” Alter told The Shelby Report. “To me, it’s just that perfect job. I get to exercise the EQ (emotional intelligence) and the IQ.”
The three-year plan
Alter will help bring technology and financial firms into the NEW community to join the retail and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies that have been the organization’s core partners since its inception. The organization currently partners with more than 100 companies, like Procter & Gamble, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., PepsiCo Inc., Coca-Cola Co., Target and Mondelēz International, and has more than 10,000 members from 950 companies in 21 regions across North America.
Candidates for the top position at NEW were asked to develop a three-year growth plan for the organization. What Alter developed obviously impressed the NEW search committee, and the process left her intrigued and wanting the role even more.
She brought the committee a plan that included scaling the digital experience NEW delivers, pursuing new markets—the aforementioned technology and financial sectors—and increasing awareness of its role as an advocate to build alliances with other groups with similar goals.
When Alter came on board, NEW already was investing in its online presence and had relaunched its website (newonline.org) on July 17. The site features members’ stories, blogs, news, research and other shareable content and now is mobile-friendly so that members can access the online NEW Member Community anytime, anywhere.
“My goal will be to guide our team and all of our members on how to better leverage these digital channels so that we can reach the masses in a much more frequent and more effective way,” Alter said.
Pursuing sectors outside CPG and retail made sense to Alter, who said “technology has reshaped how people shop and buy. You see not only retail transforming but CPG transforming. They’re pivoting; we need to pivot as well.
“Within CPG and retail, NEW has a tremendous reputation,” she said. “Outside of CPG and retail, it’s a well-kept secret.”
A strong voice as an advocate for women’s leadership and gender equality will help raise awareness of NEW’s mission and what it offers members and partner organizations. Alter wants NEW to be an advocate not only internally—with its corporate partners, their CEOs and executive teams—but externally, as the organization aligns with others that also promote women and diversity.
“And from what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard from our partners, there are a plethora of (women’s leadership) organizations, but they need the organizations to partner together,” Alter said. “They can’t afford redundancy.”
NEW partnered with the Center for Creative Learning to develop its proprietary Career Accelerator Model, which outlines 13 traits that can accelerate or derail a career in retail and consumer goods. The Career Accelerator Model serves as a platform for all of NEW’s learning programs. Alter says the model works “from the bottom up,” focusing on the person’s leadership skills and career goals.
But gender equality will not happen in the workplace without a “top-down” approach, too, Alter said. The entire executive team—not just the CEO—must embrace organizational changes that will help women and diverse leaders advance their careers. That means providing the right culture, environment, organizational design, job descriptions, opportunities and policies. It also means figuring out how women and diverse leaders can keep climbing the career ladder when “pivot points,” like childbirth, caring for an aging parent or following a spouse who has been transferred to a new city, arise.
“Our research and programs will focus on these pivot points, and help guide executive leaders and companies to provide the policies, the culture and the programs needed to really help women and diverse leaders more successfully tackle these pivot points,” Alter said. “We’ll be providing a more complete set of research insights and action-based solutions that both the leader and the company can utilize.”
One challenge to gender equality: Conscious and unconscious biases that hold women and diverse leaders back.
“Stereotypical thinking and ideas about what women can and cannot do or whether they negotiate as well as men or even a tendency to ‘hire in my image’ are all powerful obstacles,” Alter said. “NEW wants to change these paradigms.”
More gender-diverse leadership brings solid results, Alter noted. The Harvard alum cited a 2013 study of 1,800 professionals in the Harvard Business Review that found companies with diverse leadership are 45 percent likelier to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70 percent likelier to report that the firm captured a new market.
“Now more than ever, companies, especially in retail where women make and influence the vast majority of the purchases, have realized they will deliver better business results when they are led by a more diverse, more gender-equal team.
“Our message is simple,” Alter said. “It’s about diversity and inclusion, and gender diversity in particular, and it’s proven to benefit business. Closing the gender leadership gap is not only the right thing to do, but it’s the smart thing to do.”