Written by Jan Turner Tuesday, October 02 2012
The number of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies recently reached an all-time high: 20. Two of the women in that elite corps are Frontier Communications’ Maggie Wilderotter and Campbell Soup’s Denise Morrison, and they just happen to be sisters.
Part of the first wave of women to set their sights on top management, Wilderotter and Morrison also are the first “sister act” to make Fortune’s list of 50 Most Powerful Women in Business.
The two super-achievers are only part of the equation, however. There are four “Sullivan sisters,” as they were known when they were growing up on the Jersey Shore. The two younger sisters also know what is like to reach for – and achieve – excellence: Colleen Sullivan Bastkowski is a regional vice president for tech company Blackboard and Andrea Sullivan Doelling, a former senior vice president of sales at AT&T Wireless, is an internationally-known equestrian competitor. All four sisters remain close today.
What, you may ask, did the Sullivan household have that created and nurtured four strong women leaders? Think Princess phone and Illya Kuryakin.
Excellence Has to be Earned
“I learned the concept of earning based on performance at an early age,” Wilderotter says. “Our parents always told us that we could have anything we wanted, that we could be good at anything we wanted to do. But we were accountable for earning it.”
She adds, “My parents also really stressed education, going to college.” An AT&T executive, dad Dennis Sullivan was the girl’s tutor in all things business, mixing fun and a sense of humor with learning.
Plus, she says with a smile, “He was Irish. He told great stories.”
Mom Connie Sullivan, who arose at 4:30 a.m. each day, was also a force to be reckoned with. When her youngest daughter started school, Connie started sales – real estate sales – and soon graduated to her employer’s Million Dollar Club.
The Confidence to Try
The Sullivan household also had guidelines for how the girls spent their time. Dennis Sullivan required his daughters to read one or more books a week and write reports on them. TV watching was for weekends and then only for a limited time. And each report card was expected to be all A’s.
Another family hallmark: confidence to try…and the ability to fail with grace and get up again.
“Confidence is something that women today need,” Wilderotter asserts, adding, “We weren’t punished if we failed. We were taught to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and move on.”
Those three ingredients – education, earning what you want and confidence – were at the heart of growing up Sullivan, Wilderotter says. Of course, there were also the dinnertime discussions of cost-benefit principles. And there were props, like that Princess phone.
“We were his test cases”
“My dad worked for AT&T for many years, and he brought home models of the new products, like the Princess Trimline phone.” The girls would try out the products' features while their father led a Q&A about the products' profitability, marketing and distribution.
“We were his test cases,” recalls Wilderotter.
This emphasis on business was another distinctive feature of the Sullivan family. While the girls were still in elementary school, they would sit with their father after he arrived home from his daily commute and learn about profit-margin goals, marketing plans and customer sampling.
Wilderotter says it was at home that she first learned to be independent, work hard (the sisters had a “job jar” from which they drew their chores each week) and not give up.
“I learned to be tenacious.”
Maggie and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
“We also learned to be creative in getting what we wanted,” Wilderotter says. For instance, young Maggie, together with her older sister Denise, once created a plan describing the benefits of the two girls getting their ears pierced.
“We presented the plan to our parents. We stressed that piercing was only a nominal alteration to our physical presence, that we could get a two-for-one price if we did it together, that we could share earrings…”
Wilderotter also recalls developing a business plan for her parents on the benefits of her being allowed to watch “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” on Friday nights. Maggie’s motivation? Heartthrob David McCallum, he of the blond Beatle cut and black turtlenecks, who played Russian-born espionage agent Illya Kuryakin.
Once again, Maggie’s efforts were met with success.
“For us, that was normal”
The unusual nature of the Sullivan sisters’ upbringing naturally raises the question, Didn’t you ever roll your eyes and wish you had a normal family with normal dinner conversations?
“I don’t remember any eye-rolling,” Wilderotter responds. “Because for us, what was going on was normal. I didn’t eat with anyone else’s parents, so I didn’t have anything to compare it to.”
But doesn’t it all seem a bit too, uh, Kennedy-esque? The Irish family, the stimulating discussions, the setting of high standards and great goals?
Says Wilderotter, “That question makes me smile. I’ve been called many things, but never Kennedy-esque.” She explains, “Yes, our families were both Irish-Catholic and religious, but the similarities stop there. The Kennedys were more about government, philanthropy and politics. My family was business-oriented.”
“And Kennedy girls were more in the background, with the boys up front. In my family, of course, it was all girls. So the girls were in the foreground,” Wilderotter offers.
Raising Girls Who Reach
“One of the biggest gifts that you can give your daughter is to show her that you love what you do,” Wilderotter says.
Girls and young women also need to know that, “Life is about good choices. Women need to teach their daughters that they have choices...that they can follow the pathways of those choices, whether the choice is to be a working mom, or a teacher, or a stay-at-home mother, even if the choices are not always easy.”
Wilderotter also cites the importance of helping girls open up space in their lives. A recent discussion with a 14-year-old brought home to Wilderotter just how tightly scheduled today’s girls are. Between school, studying, music lessons, sports, social networking and other activities, “I don’t think that kids are allowed to be kids in a lot of ways,” she says.
“Girls,” she believes, “need to be given space to find out who they are.” She points to her own childhood as an example. “We had a neighborhood gang – not like we think of gangs today, but something more like the Little Rascals.” Free time with “the gang” was devoted to such things as bike-riding, hiking and various kid-inspired creative projects.
Wilderotter also is a little dismayed over a growing American emphasis on treating girls like “princesses.”
“It seems a little sad to me. There is a lot of pressure on girls and young women today – the way they dress, look, spend their time – instead of who they are.” As a result, girls need to be encouraged in the direction of self-discovery, she believes.
Dismal Homelife Equals DIY Empowerment
What about the girl who is growing up in a family where never is heard an encouraging word and infrequent “family dinners” (where half the members are absent) are devoted to watching TV? Can a girl make herself great?
She can, according to Wilderotter. “Remember that we get our role models in different places – not just our parents but also teachers and advisors, from church, from the parents of friends, from other relatives who are supportive.”
The challenge, Wilderotter says, is for girls and young women to find the people and networks that will support their aspirations. And, again, to be accountable.
“It is your responsibility as to whether you want to be good or great or not,” she says.
A Legacy of Impacts
Like many top women executives, Wilderotter says that her family has been her greatest reward. “I’ve been married to the same man for 35 years, and we have two wonderful children.”
In addition to her children, what does Wilderotter hope that her legacy will be? Impacts. “I’m not in the Big Bang business of impacting people. I do it one conversation, one activity, one choice at a time. The impacts seem small, but collectively they are big.”
She wants, she says, to be remembered for adding value to society through impacts on individuals. “I’m not out to discover a new galaxy or to be a Steve Jobs and develop a new iPad. I am about impacts on a daily basis on many.”
More excellent role models for women:
When Francine Manilow sees a need for a business, she fills it. She has been a successful serial entrepreneur since 1963, when she started her first of many businesses all while working as a flight attendant for United.
Tired of being overlooked for promotions in favor of men that she trained, Mary Kay Ash took a chance by founding the company she wished she had worked for. You might have heard of it.
Laurel Bellows proved she was a force to be reckoned with as the principal of the Bellows Law Group. Now, as the president of the American Bar Association, she is making women's equality a priority.
Jan Turner lives and writes in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia. For more than 20 years her articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, USA Today Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor as well as on wire services in the United States and abroad. Turner has written on subjects ranging from leadership and business culture to diversity awareness and faith-based organizations, and she has a nonfiction book underway. Turner has an advanced degree in intercultural communication and has traveled solo on many continents, exploring cultures from Ladahk and Sumatra to Malawi and Turkey, seeing first-hand the contributions and resilience of women.