Living Their

By Rachel Reynolds


Several hundred Notre Dame women alumni took part this spring in an executive self-assessment survey to identify their leadership strengths and weaknesses and to reflect on and navigate their career development. They learned a few things about themselves. Perhaps we can learn from them.

In an effort to better understand the career and life paths that female graduates of Notre Dame have chosen since women were first admitted to the University more than 30 years ago, the Mendoza College of Business teamed up with Korn/Ferry International, an executive human capital consulting firm, to conduct an in-depth survey and analysis of select undergraduate and graduate alumnae from several Notre Dame colleges. The results reveal a rich array of leadership paths, career motives, position and salary levels, independent choices, and inspiring stories.

In all, 896 women were invited to complete the assessment and 432 participated as of the cut-off date in April 2005.

“I had more a-ha moments looking at that [Korn/Ferry survey] than some of the other standard instruments that I’ve taken,” says Michelle Ferguson (’80–accounting), senior vice president at McGraw-Hill in Manhattan, who oversees 292 facilities in 38 countries worldwide. “Just from leadership style, I guess, it made me think quite a bit about myself. So, I thought it was very helpful.”

Respondents ranged from senior corporate executives to Ph.D. engineers to environmentalists to doctors to homemakers returning to the workforce after being home for a decade raising children.

Of the 237 indicating their level of compensation, 32 earned more than $200,001 annually; 78 earned between $100,001 and $200,000; and 127 earned $100,000 or less.

“Part of the process of using the information is to determine, to the best of your ability, do you have the right fit,” says Bill Westwood, managing director at Korn/Ferry in Chicago. The CEO of Korn/Ferry International is Paul Reilly (MBA ’78, ’76).

Westwood adds, “Could you see yourself becoming a more collaborative leader? Would you be comfortable becoming more data-intensive than you might be today or more action-focused that you are today? Can you envision yourself becoming more comfortable going with your gut than having to have the last Excel spreadsheet delivered to you at the eleventh hour?”

Twelve women who took the assessment were interviewed after the process. The women were chosen because of their wide diversity in age, occupation, background, and content of personal stories that they submitted in e-mails; they are not intended to be representative of the entire alumnae group.

All said the Korn/Ferry instrument was enlightening and useful for self-reflection.

“It was different from what I had heard before, but I think that the assessment done on the (leadership) style was exactly right on the money,” says Pat Tennant (’77–finance), group senior vice president at the North American arm of large Dutch bank ABN AMRO in Chicago. Tennant oversees a $200 million annual budget for global and technology projects and manages 135 project managers. She is guiding an 18-month off-shoring and outsourcing transition designed to save roughly fifty million Euros, adding that it requires a leader with adaptability and persuasiveness.

“What I am dealing with is people’s uncertainty about their own future. And so in order...to incent them to participate in the project and to help us move through this transition, I have to be very flexible in how I am dealing with them and...I have to listen to them, I have to think it through...”

At the same time, various women questioned the instrument’s definition of “career success.” The survey measures success based on tenure, compensation, and promotions, says Karen Coplan, Ph.D. of Korn/Ferry.

Assistant Vice President of Product Marketing at ChoicePoint in Boca Raton, Fla., Joan Sparks (’78–industrial design) says she defines her career as successful “because I still have my family. I’m still married to my first husband and I like my first husband.” ChoicePoint is a nearly $1 billion data broker serving large banks and the federal government among others.

Adaptive Women

Overall survey results of the Notre Dame women show that “the population seems to be a pretty adaptive group,” Coplan says.

Korn/Ferry’s Westwood adds, “some of you are very passionate around personal mastery, which would be the expert perspective...But almost as many of you displayed the competitive motivation as your primary motivation, which is more of a power achievement, move up the ladder, succeed in a vertical organizational structure.

“[There are] a very large number with the learning motivation as we’ve indicated, creativity and personal growth. But also, a good number are entrepreneurs...

“And so that was just an interesting comment on the diversity of this population from a motivational standpoint and how equally balanced you were among those four categories.”

Thought-Provoking Results

At least two women interviewed report that their individual survey results caused them to think about making some adjustments. Cindy Lupica (’80–government & international studies), a 48-year-old attorney and area vice president of Arthur J. Gallagher and Company, an insurance brokerage firm in Glendale, Calif., says she enjoys her job as a workers’ compensation defense attorney but learned through the survey that she may benefit from more creativity, perhaps in other areas of her life.

Lauren McLean (’97–liberal studies), an environmental and legislative activist in Boise, Idaho, learned that she’s more of an entrepreneur than an expert, and some of the restlessness she’s been feeling lately may be because she prefers the building stage of a non-profit rather than the operational stage.

These interviews revealed that all of the women had significant goals but took varying routes to get there. Their paths were not always apparent, but they walked into the unknown with chin-out unconventionality. Several of the women expressed deep gratitude for the support of their husbands. The women confessed to being infinitely imperfect, yet often spoke with calm satisfaction about their choices—career and otherwise.

Defining Success

“I think it’s easy to either accept what other people think is good for you or what society thinks you should be doing,” says Cheryl Ann Blain (’87, ’94–civil engineering), a Ph.D. engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory located at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. “But I think it’s important for the individual to figure out what this is for themselves. And then don’t be ashamed, just pursue it.”

McGraw Hill’s Ferguson, age 47, says she passed up career opportunities because they did not fit with her personal life.

“You make decisions based on your entire life, not just on one part or the other,” says Ferguson. “At one point, an international assignment while they (children) were in high school just wouldn’t have worked.”

Interviewees reported that family and community were important and central to their lives and often drove career decisions.

“For almost six years, I was 100 percent traveling for work,” says 30-year-old Denise Phillips (’98–MIS), formerly a consultant. “So I was never home. I didn’t really have a home. I lived in San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago...wherever I was working was more like home than where I paid rent and had my stuff. I do think I sacrificed some of my social life and was slow to put roots down somewhere and find where I belonged.”

After six years, Phillips left her high-travel job and accepted a position at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE). She shortly thereafter became engaged to her boyfriend and got married last summer. “(I) just decided, okay, at this point in my life, that’s got to come first.”

Personal Health

While these women value their families, some report that they don’t necessarily take care of themselves.

ABN AMRO’s Tennant and McGraw-Hill’s Ferguson say their health takes a back seat to their careers.

“In the last year,” Ferguson says, “I just ran myself ragged and my body finally said, enough!” Respiratory problems kept her from flying on planes; so she stayed home for two weeks and conducted global conference calls from there and kept up with e-mails.

Tennant says that she manages to make doctor and dentist appointments for her kids but lets hers slide.

“So for a long time there I tended to let myself go,” Tennant says. “They were going to the dentist on a regular basis, but my appointments just kind of got lost in the shuffle.”


Mara Georges (’85–government & international studies), corporation counsel for the City of Chicago, says that she has learned the wisdom of being smart rather than acting tough. Appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, she is the Chief Legal Officer of the nation’s third largest city and oversees a department of 300 attorneys.

“I believe a lot of female lawyers face the issue of wanting to appear to be as tough as the men and as aggressive as the men; so, a lot of women tend to come out really swinging and really competitive and really in for the fight,” Georges says. “And I know I did as well. That’s where my mentor was key to me, when he said to me, ‘no, step back, just give them a smile, don’t rise to the bait, don’t get involved in the fight, just remember—let your smarts work for you instead of your emotions.’

“And it’s something that I do end up seeing a lot among young female attorneys who want to be, who want to portray themselves as very, very tough...And consequently, they’re really hard to deal with, and you can’t negotiate with them on a case, you can’t reach a settlement; in fact, it’s not a very pleasant situation to be in and it pains me to see...”

U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Blain, who is 40 and single, says that she eventually made peace with competition, discovering over time that adopting two infant girls from Guatemala was more important to her than climbing to the top of her profession as an oceanographer.

“I sort of removed myself from the rat race as far as always feeling like I was competing or having to get ahead, and I felt like things would take care of themselves,” Blain says.

Life Balance

The women interviewed in their 40s and 50s seem to have figured out that some things have to go, no woman can do everything. However, some women in their 30s still struggle with being everything to everybody.

“All of life is a series of trade-offs,” says Chicago corporation counsel Georges.

“I get up very, very early in the morning. I’m someone who gets up at 4:30 in the morning, and I don’t go to bed real early at night. So, I sacrifice on the sleep. And I am very selective about the things I commit to...I very often say ‘no, I can’t do that.’”

ABN AMRO’s Tennant puts it this way: “You almost have to ask yourself what is important every day. And today it may be going to my kid’s kindergarten play that’s most important. And tomorrow it may be that we’re buying another bank.”

Diane Diehl (’94–chemistry), age 33, a Ph.D. chemist in Massachusetts who supervises five others at Waters Corporation, says she sometimes feels guilt and lacks peace of mind.

“I have a 14-month-old and I think trying to be the perfect career woman and the perfect mother and the perfect wife, I think all of it comes at the price of a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety over am

I doing everything right, and am I doing everything that I can to support all three of those aspects—my husband, my son and my career?” she says.

Obstacles In Careers

ChoicePoint’s Sparks says the biggest obstacles have been “my own weaknesses...Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness.

“I used to think in the younger part of my career that I was just so smart. And that’s a horrible strength and a horrible weakness. Because that’s really off-putting. And you’re not really that smart. Nobody is. And you don’t listen enough to other people...When you get older, you listen. And so, your own weaknesses are always what catch you. Not necessarily that you find yourself in bad company or in a bad situation or whatever. Those things happen to everybody. But did your own weaknesses trip you up?”

Chicago Board Options Exchange’s Phillips agrees with Sparks, saying the biggest obstacle in her career was “probably mostly just myself.”

McGraw Hill’s Ferguson says one of her biggest surprises early on was “political shenanigans. I’m a pretty straightforward person...it happens in any organization, the political games. It is not something that comes easy to me. I guess maybe I was naïve in a way—the thinking it didn’t exist.”

Ferguson says that over time she learned what to do. “I would seek out guidance from people who I thought handled it well and were also people of substance.”

Thirty-one-year-old Idaho activist McLean said that her age has often been an obstacle when working with older men in the legislature. “I’m called ‘kid’ or ‘sweetie,’ those types of things. But so much of it is just a culture that still remains.”

Working Part Time

The women who want part-time work are experiencing mixed results in finding positions that meet their needs and make use of their skills.

Rita Miller (’80–accounting) worked for Bendix Corporation in South Bend, Indiana, for 10 years, ultimately as director of finance. Miller, age 47, left the workforce 14 years ago to raise her children, and rejoined it in October as an accountant at a local firm after her youngest started first grade. She took her Korn/Ferry survey results with her when she interviewed for the job and showed them to the human resources director.

Her new job has a flexible schedule that is 20 hours a week during the fall, 40 hours a week during the busy spring tax season, and summers off with her children.

Pat Brown (’85–accounting), age 42, works part time as a finance manager handling charitable contributions at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, going into the office two days a week and working from home one day. She says Disney is accommodating and values her work.

Adrienne Quill (’89–accounting), an attorney who married at age 37 and had a baby 10 months later, has struggled in her part-time job search. Located in Indianapolis, she says she did not anticipate the strong urge she would feel to spend time at home with her child until she got pregnant. She is looking for a part-time job that is 25 to 30 hours a week. She thought she’d found one with a law firm, but soon realized there was a disconnect.

“I believe they honestly thought I was going to work more like forty hours a week,” Quill says. “I guess you could say we both decided to part ways as a result of that.”

Pioneers Who Led The Way

ABN AMRO’s Tennant, age 50, says that being among the first women in the professional workforce has worn some women down.

“When I was in high school, taking business courses meant you were taking typing and stenography,” Tennant says. “Constantly being a pioneer takes its toll after a while because you just get tired of breaking new ground.”

McGraw Hill’s Ferguson says the early days would be unrecognizable to many of today’s young women. When she had her first child, she was only the second woman in a professional staff of 1,000 at her New York City accounting firm to come back after giving birth.

“Back then they had no clue what to do with us. Just no idea,” she says. “(They) just couldn’t provide any kind of flexibility.”


The alumnae often talk about the need to live their faith rather than simply profess it. And they have chosen different ways to do that.

“It was the values that I built at Notre Dame working as a volunteer student at the Center for Social Concerns and taking advantage of the different social justice programs that they had that brought me to this work here,” says Idaho activist McLean. “And when I dig deep, that’s what I find. It’s that piece of it that I think has probably given me the values that make me keep up with this work rather than flipping over, taking three times as much money and possibly having an easier job.”

She says she may run for local office—city council or state legislature—in the future.

The City of Chicago’s Georges says that her faith life “keeps me strong. I think it makes me realize that even though sometimes work seems like the beat-all/end-all, it isn’t. And there is kind of a higher power out there and a more important thing and someone governing life and death and none of this in that big picture really matters.”

U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Blain said she views her career success as a vehicle for achieving other goals and living her faith.

“My job has provided me with more resources than I need, and sure I can buy more things and go more places, but that really wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she says. “So I have a 3-1/2-year-old daughter, and I just returned about three weeks ago (from Guatemala) from getting my second daughter, who’s eight months old.”

Blain said she is “living out the ideals of the University in terms of service...(by) providing homes for children that wouldn’t normally have homes.”

Workers’ compensation attorney Lupica took six years off at midcareer to spend time with her four children and then returned to work. Not long after returning, her 15-year-old daughter Marisa died of natural causes in December 2004 while watching television in the living room. Lupica says faith sustains her and her family.

“One of my most cherished memories of this whole awfulness has been the fact that a picture of my daughter was sent to Notre Dame right after she died,” Lupica says, and someone “took her picture to the Grotto and put her at the feet (of Bernadette).”

Passing It On

The alumnae collectively shared the wisdom they had gathered throughout decades of careers and life.

ABN AMRO’s Tennant says tomorrow’s leaders will have to live with constant change.

“I think managing change and effective management of change is probably the most important skill that you can have right now,” she says. “I don’t see how you could succeed without it.”

Disney’s Brown adds “never burn your bridges. Just always keep an open mind to everybody...”

Ph.D. chemist Diehl says to watch out for perfectionism. “I think that it is important to remember that even the dandelion in your lawn is one of God’s creations and serves its purpose and is perfect in its own right.”

And ChoicePoint’s Sparks encourages young people to pursue what really matters to them and not get caught up in believing that every decision is their last.

“There are a lot of second chances. There are second, and third, and fourth, and fifth, and tenth chances.”

—Rachel Reynolds is the Director of Feature Writing at the Mendoza College of Business and managing editor of Notre Dame Business.

To read more e-mails related to the Notre Dame Women's Leadership Initiative or to contribute your own thoughts, go to bizchat.nd.edu


Copyright © 2006 University of Notre Dame All Rights Reserved Last Updated on: December 6, 2005