Toni Wolfman Executive Advisor, Center for Woman and Business Bentley University

Toni Wolfman has spent most of her life standing up for and supporting women--in education, in law, in business and on corporate boards. In this interview, Toni discusses her long involvement with The Boston Club, how she came to co-found two other women’s leadership organizations, and gives valuable advice to young women just starting out in their careers.

Q: You are currently the Executive Advisor at Bentley University's Center for Women and Business. How did you end up there, and what kinds of initiatives or projects are you currently working on?

A: I’ve been at Bentley since the Spring of 2005. Before coming here, I practiced law for nearly 30 years, mostly at Foley Hoag where I was a partner in its litigation department and led its pro bono program for many years. When I was thinking about the next stage of life, Pat Flynn [Former Dean of the McCallum School of Business at Bentley and fellow Boston Club member] put me in touch with two Bentley professors who were starting a women’s leadership program and who offered me an office and an opportunity to get involved in their work. From the beginning, I served as a liaison to the business community and, over time, began putting together programming to help women in business to advance to leadership positions.

We are currently working on our fourth Best Practices Forum, a series that explores critical issues facing businesses searching for ways to better retain and advance women. Participants interact with and learn from both thought leaders and executives addressing the issue. Our next Forum, on May 6, will explore ways in which organizations are dealing with steadily increasing time demands and pervasive overwork--and resulting stress, burnout and attrition.

We also are actively planning our ninth annual Gearing Up Conference for women in the first decade of their careers. It’s a one-day conference that includes interactive skill-building workshops, as well as a keynote and panel comprised of of senior and mid-level women in different industries. Gearing Up also provides a great networking experience and morale booster for these younger women, who don’t often get these opportunities. 

In addition, I’m doing outreach to current and potential business partners for our Center and assisting colleagues on survey research and student programming.  We’ve recently started a women's leadership program for junior and senior undergraduates, and I’ve found mentors (many of them Boston Club members) for all of them in the areas in which they’ve expressed an interest.

Finally, our Center does the research and writing of The Boston Club’s annual Census of women directors and executive officers of the 100 largest public companies in Massachusetts. I am currently following up on some of that research to see if we can’t identify more effective ways that The Boston Club’s Corporate Board Committee can reach some of our perennial “zero-zero” companies.

Q: You spearheaded The Boston Club's corporate board searches for many years. How have things changed over time? What advice would you give women looking for a seat on a corporate board? What advice would you give a company looking to place a woman on their board?

A: I joined the Corporate Board Committee in the mid-1990s because of my interest in corporate governance. I was chair of the Committee from 2000-2004. Today, my role is focused on the Census and on board searches. The CBC is expanding our search capacity so although I continue to play a leadership role in this effort, it’s now much more of a group endeavor. As we continue to recruit new committee members who are well-connected with potential board candidates and find better ways of memorializing and sharing the knowledge and relationships that a few of us have built up over the years, I think that the CBC will become even more effective--as well as fun.   

I have worked informally with many women looking for their first seat on a corporate board. Typically, I work with them to identify the particular skills and experience that can add value to a board. I always advise them to mine the many useful relationships they’ve developed over the length of their careers. Many women don't look back over their careers and think about the people they've worked with--the people who know how good they are--and make efforts to reconnect with them. It's about relationships. You have to show your value and interest through networking and calling on those who know you. You want people to have you in mind when they hear of opportunities. I also refer them to The Boston Club’s Board Education Series that the CBC and New Directions have put together for the past several years..

When I work with a company to help them identify great board candidates who happen to be women, I start by exploring with them their specific needs. The same is true when developing a relationship with executive recruiters.  In order to be respectful of their time and interest, we have to figure out as closely as possible exactly what they want -- and to create a dialogue that will inform us if and when those needs change. In certain circumstances, I have been able to help nominating committees go beyond titles and paper and to avoid setting higher bars for women than for men. I have also helped nominating committee members, CEOs and other directors start building a pipeline of qualified women, so when that 74-year old director reaches mandatory retirement age, there will be a significant number of women who are “known” to the company to whom they can look to fill that seat.

Lastly, women already serving on boards have been (and ought to be) the best avenue into companies. They know there’s an upcoming vacancy and they know what the company needs. They need to refer those opportunities to us! In fact, over the years that I’ve been involved in the CBC, most of our searches have come from sitting directors who are women. But we need those who don’t try to build the pipeline of women candidates, and who don’t speak up when the nominating committee is given an all-male slate, to become part of the solution too. While it’s often difficult to be the only woman on a board, if she fails to speak up or make some effort to assure a diverse pool of candidates, her male colleagues may well feel it’s OK to continue to ignore the many talented women who can add value to their board. So while we should not place undue burdens on these sole women directors, it remains the case that it is the first woman director who more often than not is responsible for opening the boardroom door to the second and third.   

Q: What do you feel is the most rewarding part of serving on boards?

A: I actually have not served on a corporate board. I’ve always thought that one of the things that makes me effective in this role is that I was never a candidate, and I was never advocating for a particular candidate. I never had a conflict of interest in that regard. 

I've served on many nonprofit boards, however, and have found the learning experience and the opportunity to serve to be particularly gratifying. Whether its the board of a small nonprofit organization, a large legal services entity or the Board of Trustees of Smith College, the work can be challenging as well as interesting. I especially enjoyed my experiences on several audit committees and as chair of several governance committees. I found that I had the ability to use my knowledge as well as my legal skills for the benefit of organizations whose missions remain dear to my heart and what could be more satisfying than that?

Q: You have co-founded and/or led several women's board leadership organizations, including ION, Women Corporate Directors-Boston and the Thirty Percent Coalition. Tell us how your interest in and advocacy for women and business evolved.

A: Having gone to a women's college and been surrounded by bright, interesting women, I always knew what women could do. And so, I felt fortunate that my move to the Boston area and my entry into the very male-dominated legal environment coincided with the establishment of the Women's Bar Association of MA in the late 1970s.  Joining the WBA and becoming a member of its board allowed me to find wonderful colleagues with whom I shared the goals of advancing more women to judicial positions, eliminating gender bias in the court system, making law firms more accommodating of the needs of parents of young children, among others. It was very energizing, especially when some of our efforts met with success (we had far more success with the judiciary than with law firms, however, and the WBA continues to grapple with some of the same issues that we were addressing 35 years ago).

I did not join another women’s organization until around 1990 when I became a member of The Boston Club.  That was a way to meet women who were not lawyers because in my law practice most of my colleagues, clients and opponents were men. Corporate board diversity as an issue attracted me, which is why I became active on the CBC several years later. ION, the Boston Chapter of Women Corporate Directors and The Thirty Percent Coalition all grew out of my work on the CBC.  It was “organic” in a way.

The Boston Club joined with similar organizations in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago who were tracking women on the boards of public companies in their areas just as we were with our Census.  We decided to adopt a common methodology so that we could compare results. The next step was to start sharing best practices and seeing whether there might be other ways to cooperate.  Out of those initial meetings came ION, the InterOrganization Network, which now has 18 members.  

The Thirty Percent Coalition was formed by a few of us who were directors of ION. Discouraged by the glacial rate of progress in diversifying corporate boards--despite the efforts of so many organizations across the US--we organized a meeting in 2011 to which we invited the heads of every organization we could think of that was working on some aspect of gender diversity, as well as a number of socially responsible institutional investors, CEOs and experienced directors who had an interest. Out of that meeting came the Coalition. The Boston Club, ION and WCD are all members, and Steve Grossman is one of the seven state treasurers who are members.

Q: What advice would you give a women first starting out in her career?

A: I think it’s critical for them to understand what is most important to them, both personally and professionally. Whether it’s a career, an employer, a partner that you’re choosing, you need to make sure that he/she/it is supportive of or at least consistent with your core values.

One thing I learned early on is to never compromise in matters of ethics. In the long run, your integrity and credibility are more important than your skills or your knowledge. I also think it's very important to give back and to pay it forward. Whoever and wherever you are, you have benefitted from what others have done for you--from people who have supported you, opened doors for you, or otherwise made life better for you, often in indirect ways. We need to recognize that, be a little humble about it, and as we succeed, we need to do the same for others. It doesn’t hurt to be nice -- it feels good and it makes other people feel good too!

Q: What are your interests outside of work?

A: My family--mother, children and grandchildren from two marriages. Smith College is a major commitment. I was a Trustee for five years and continue to work to assure that women of promise from around the world have the benefit of an exceptional education. And last year I finally joined a book club -- a Boston Club book club!

Q: What do you hope to be doing in five years?

A: I'm not sure. Right now, I'm pretty happy doing what I'm doing.