Ellen Taaffe is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Leadership at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She leverages more than 30 years of leadership, marketing and management experience as the Director of Women’s Leadership Programs. Ellen oversees the strategy development, operational plans, and implementation of this critical initiative and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of John B. Sanfilippo & Son, Inc., and Hooker Furniture Corporation, where she serves on their Audit, Compensation, and Governance Committees. Since 2015, she has been an independent marketing and business strategy consultant and executive leadership coach. Ellen received her MBA from the Kellogg School of Management in 1997. She also holds a BS from the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business.
Christopher P. Skroupa: As someone who has held top positions at companies and positions across multiple boards, what were some of the most pivotal moments in your career that contributed toward your success?
Ellen Taaffe: My first big pivotal moment was in the early 1990s, when I moved from sales to brand management at Quaker Oats. I ended up spending decades in that function, and loved it. It was a strong personal fit for several reasons: I had P&L responsibility and led cross-functional teams to develop and execute on brand strategy. The transition showed me how much we thrive when we’re passionate about what we do every day.
I grew significantly as an influencer, working across company units to understand perspectives and align efforts on the initiative.
Then, in 1996, I earned my MBA at Kellogg while working full-time. This was pivotal on multiple levels, as well. I learned so much from the program, including how corporations “think” at a higher level, and how to put together the perspectives of all functional areas into a greater whole. I was gaining finance skills I’d never had, understanding that critical component of corporate decision-making. And I was taking on the challenge of juggling work, school, and personal life, enhancing my time-management and prioritization skills.
In 2003 I made yet another big change: taking a senior strategy position with PepsiCo on a high-profile health and wellness initiative with strong CEO support. This was a great opportunity to gain new functional skills, including assessing company risk and shaping advertising practices in a fast-changing environment. I grew significantly as an influencer, working across company units to understand perspectives and align efforts on the initiative.
Leaving PepsiCo in the mid-2000s marked the end of my time as an executive in consumer packaged goods, a sector I’d come to love. But I felt the world was changing quickly, especially with regard to digital channels and opportunities—marketing had become less about traditional advertising and more about CRM, loyalty and digital programming. To accelerate my learning in this environment, I moved from PepsiCo to Royal Caribbean. I shifted literally from marketing chips to marketing ships. As hoped, I learned a lot from the transition, including how best to apply knowledge gained in one sector to another. This ability came in very handy when I made my next move: I joined Whirlpool and had to navigate yet another new industry.
Six years ago I ventured into governance, joining the board of John B. Sanfilippo & Son, one of the largest nut processors and distributors. It has been great to advise on a range of consumer packaged goods issues again, and I’ve gained new skills and perspective as a strategic partner to the company.
Skroupa: Where does the path for women board members and executives begin? How can companies ensure a consistent pipeline of women leaders?
Taaffe: My biggest advice for women looking to move up as executives and board members is to seek the right opportunities to gain P&L responsibility, whether at the division or company level. The reality is that women often don’t take such opportunities, and P&L experience is something that companies and boards want in their executives and directors. So try to position yourself for these opportunities, and take full advantage of them.
Not surprisingly, the majority of board positions, including those occupied by women, are filled through one’s network, rather than recruiters.
With regard to finding board work, it’s really important to assess your value proposition as a director. What skills and perspective do you bring? How will these help a given business in its current and likely future environment? In my case, I’ve been able to bring capabilities related to branding and consumer insights to director roles at Sanfilippo and Hooker Furniture.
Not surprisingly, the majority of board positions, including those occupied by women, are filled through one’s network, rather than recruiters. Boards looking for new directors may not know many rising women, so look for opportunities to expand your network—to both women and men—and let people know you’re interested in board work, along with sharing your value proposition.
Ensuring a strong pipeline of women leaders means providing junior female professionals good role models and growth opportunities.
There are also ways to gain director skills. I did Kellogg’s Women’s Director Development Program in 2010, and gained practical insights about how to assess companies for possible board membership on financial and other dimensions, and how to present myself to them. It’s very different from the recruiting process for executive roles. Everything I learned in the program helped a lot when I joined my first board in 2011.
Ensuring a strong pipeline of women leaders means providing junior female professionals good role models and growth opportunities. The more inspiring senior-level women they see, the more they think, “I can do that too.” Specific things that enhance the pipeline include offering formal and informal mentoring programs, sharing stories of women’s wide-ranging paths to senior levels, and diversifying leadership and board slates with well-qualified women.
Skroupa: In your experience, what makes for a fulfilling and effective mentorship experience? What advice would you give to a senior leader who would like to increase his or her mentorship of women?
Taaffe: I was in a women’s mentoring circle at Quaker Oats for many years—starting before I had children and continuing into motherhood. The value of that experience was tremendous. It was structured by the company and started with a senior leader as facilitator. But we continued after that person left, and I remain friends with many fellow members today.
As a mentor, I’ve always worked not to advise people to “be like me.” I share my own experiences, in part to help them see we’re all human, no matter our titles.
What made it work? First, we were careful not to make it a “whining circle.” We all faced challenges, of course, but we brought these forward objectively, offered advice, and sometimes just listened. The confidentiality and mutual support promoted great trust. We weren’t all at the same level, but it felt very much like a peer group where we could talk about anything, such as our challenges as new working mothers. Hearing similar stories of what others had gone through or were going through meant a lot. We also had guest speakers including more senior women leaders, and hearing their stories and advice was inspiring.
I had many other mentee experiences, including through Menttium—I was paired with a woman mentor outside my company—and with mentors at the different businesses where I worked. Some of these relationships were formal; some were informal. All offered value.
My advice for those who want to mentor more: Just do it.
As a mentor, I’ve always worked not to advise people to “be like me.” I share my own experiences, in part to help them see we’re all human, no matter our titles. I also try to help them understand what’s important to them and how they can be their best selves within and outside the workplace. I do this in part by asking powerful questions such as “What’s the worst thing that can happen (if you take a riskier job or ask for a raise and don’t get it or…)?” That helps my mentees gain self-awareness and open themselves to growth opportunities.
My advice for those who want to mentor more: Just do it. Find people or groups who could benefit and offer to help. We had minimal structure when we started our mentorship group at Quaker—just 10 members and a leader—but it was such a rewarding experience, even after the leader left.
Importantly, as social media’s influence grows, many senior executives could benefit from cross-mentoring, where the senior person provides career guidance and the junior one advises on social media trends and use for a growing number of consumers. Cross-mentoring lowers the stakes for both sides while providing mutually beneficial learning.
Christopher P. Skroupa is the founder and CEO of Skytop Strategies, a global organizer of conferences.