The Most Powerful and Influential Women in Ohio: Realities and Rewards of Rising to the Top

There is no single social indicator that guarantees success or failure. The women we honor here as some of Ohio’s most powerful and influential reveal that differences can be a source of strength. Both adversity and accomplishment can propel people’s careers. What matters is that despite challenges or past successes, achievers continuously demand excellence, integrity and results—from others, but above all, from themselves.

These women share a passion for creating richly diverse organizations. They are committed to developing others and helping their companies survive and thrive. In the interviews that follow, you’ll learn their secrets for success.

Making a Positive Difference

Amy_ChronisSUSAN AFAN, Senior Regional Vice President, Robert Half International

In today’s mobile culture, it’s no longer common to meet someone who has spent their entire career with the same company. But for Susan Afan, senior regional vice president of Robert Half International, staying the course with the staffing firm made sense. She’s been with the company for 26 years, and has worked on both the east and west coasts, as well as in Hawaii. “The grass isn’t always greener somewhere else,” she says. “You have to be bright enough to realize the good that’s in front of you and you have to stick by it.”

“The good” experienced by Afan at Robert Half has included the opportunity to excel in a variety of positions and to be impacted by a number of strong female mentors. Through them, she says she’s learned, “You can be a strong, powerful female without compromising being a woman. You can succeed and show emotion, compassion—be genuine.

“Women in powerful positions have a great opportunity to make a positive difference,” Afan says. And she is committed to using her success to benefit others – whether  by influencing them to do their best or by promoting charitable causes, including her organization’s support of the Boys and Girls Club and Dress for Success. As a result of her work with Robert Half and her involvement with non-profit organizations both in the United States and the Philippines, she was named one of the nation’s 100 Most Influential Filipinas in 2007.

Afan notes there are no shortcuts to success. “It takes hard work, perseverance and flexibility,” she says. “Success is a moving target. And you cannot do it alone. It requires a great support system, so be nice to people you meet on your way to the top.”

Persistence and transparency are traits that have served Afan well throughout her career. And though she wouldn’t classify herself as a risk-taker, she’s moved from the Philippines to the United States and from one side of the United States to another. “I’m willing to stretch myself and to do my best whatever the role or challenge,” she says. She’s learned not to be fearful in difficult times, but instead to prepare and break challenges down into manageable steps. “Educate yourself and don’t be afraid of making mistakes,” Afan says. “Failure is part of life. Picking yourself up and moving forward is what makes you a success.”

Afan believes integrity, vision, great communication skills and adaptability are also essential elements of success. Each trait, she says, helps leaders keep their people on the right track, even when challenging times arise. “Remember that as a leader you are expected to bring results that matter. So take your career seriously and find ways to constantly improve yourself and your team.”

Improvement can and should include broadening the diversity of thought on your team, Afan adds. “Surround yourself with great people. Hire people who are better than you and be open to the ideas and thoughts of others. Even if you disagree with them, you’ll have a greater understanding why people do what they do. If you want to be an effective leader, you need to find ways to be inclusive and bring people together.” In doing so, Afan says, leaders can create the synergy needed for success.

Adding Value as a Strategic Partner


KATHLEEN E. BORNEMAN, Corporate Vice President of Worldwide Human Resources, Xilinx, Inc.

In Kathy Borneman’s mind, human resources has never been solely about simple staffing or personnel matters. Taking a broader approach, she views HR as a critical element to a company’s strategic plan for success. That belief, combined with a willingness to tackle projects typically outside the realm of an HR executive, has helped Borneman build a varied and highly rewarding career. “When I am free to do interesting work with a breadth of responsibilities, the happier I am, and the better I do,” Borneman says.

With more than 25 years as a human resources leader, Borneman has proven herself in male-dominated industries—in more than one company as the only female executive on staff. Through acquisitions, mergers and rapid growth, she’s learned how to handle everything from how to buy and sell corporate real estate, to devising plans for the successful social integration of multinational employees. And through economic ups and downs, she’s learned that the best way to handle difficult times is to stick to the company’s priorities and speak to employees in an honest and straightforward manner.

“The business realities are going to be what they are,” Borneman says. “Be truthful with your people. You can’t hide behind the economy. Instead, you have to be able to communicate your plan for not only getting through the downtimes but emerging stronger when the upturn happens.”

Creating an environment in which people can grow is among Borneman’s chief priorities. She recognizes economic downturns may necessitate reductions in some areas, but she says it’s critical to ensure that your top performers are supported and challenged. “Now’s not the time to stop training your people,” she says. “We have to continue to make the right investments—in the right people.”

In addition to honesty and personal development, Borneman says self-confidence is a key to success—a lesson she learned the hard way. While working for Tri-Valley Growers, Borneman was offered the role of vice president of human resources. The executive title made the young manager pause. “I told the CEO I wasn’t sure I was ready,” she says. The CEO simply said “OK” and didn’t press the matter. “Eight months later he stopped by my office and asked, ‘Now that you’ve been doing the job of a VP for eight months, do you want a raise?’” The experience taught her that by facing challenges with integrity and a solution-oriented mindset, there’s no need to fear the consequences of well-informed risks or decisions. “I’ve learned to trust my gut and be willing to offer my opinion—in an appropriate way—when I know I can add value.”

In February 2008, Borneman was appointed vice president of worldwide human resources for Xilinx, Inc. As a leader, she knows she is accountable to the priorities and mission of the organization. “It’s important that as leaders we act with integrity for the organization,” she says. “You can’t let yourself get clouded by personal interests or endeavors. Particularly during times like these, the question should be, what does the company need? If you do a good job, it will pay off.”

Shifting Gears


SOYEON (KAREN) PAK LAUB, Patent Attorney, McDermott Will & Emery LLP

In today’s tough marketplace, being visible is critical. For Korean-born attorney Karen Laub, sharing the credit for a job well done comes naturally, but promoting herself is a skill she’s still honing. “Your capabilities and dedication need to be made known at appropriate times,” she says. “It was enlightening to hear an evaluator’s observation that women don’t always get the credit they deserve, in part because in self-evaluations and performance reviews, they’ll say ‘we did’—giving credit to the team.” Laub’s female mentors challenged her on this habit, explaining that there’s a time for modesty, but a personal evaluation isn’t it. Taking that lesson to heart, it’s one she tries to pass on to those she leads.

Laub grew up in Korea and Japan and says her parents continually challenged her to be her best. “They allowed me to make my own decisions,” she says. “They really empowered me to become independent and responsible… those traits have carried on throughout my life.”

A love for math and engineering led Laub to the University of California, where she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical engineering. She worked, quite successfully, in that field for several years before discovering a new calling.

Laub’s father, who owned five gas station franchises, was notified that his corporation was divesting of 500 stations. All of his locations were in that count, as were a number of other Korean-owned stations. “I was able to help them by being there at meetings and translating,” she says. In listening to their problems and helping to solve them, she learned she had skills that could impact people’s lives. “It was a wake-up call for me. I was thirsty for that and found it quite exciting.” The revelation led to her decision to attend law school.  “Problem solving has always been my drive,” Laub says. “Law and engineering are similar in that both are about problem solving and making things better. But now, it’s a human problem rather than a mechanical problem.”

Making the shift was a risk, but like others she’s taken with her career, the decision has paid off. She’s acquired extensive experience in high-technology fields, intellectual property law, patents, copyrights and corporate counseling. Being successful, Laub notes, requires that a person become an expert in his or her field—something that can be time-intensive. Early in her law career, it was not uncommon for Laub to work 100 hours a week. It was a tough sacrifice for a young mother to make, and something she says she couldn’t have done without her husband’s support.

Today Laub is a partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP, where she practices intellectual property law. As a leader, Laub’s vision is to provide outstanding service for her firm’s clients and to create an efficient and friendly work environment for her team. A commitment to hard work is essential to accomplishing those goals, as are respect and open, honest communication channels. Laub, who speaks Korean and Japanese, explains that learning different communication styles is also critical. Above all, she remembers that being a leader makes her accountable—to her clients, to her community, to her family, to the women and minorities of the next generation, and to the members of the Sunday school class she teaches. “If I can do something that makes a positive change in children’s lives, that would be a great joy for me,” Laub says.

Willing to Take Risks

winnell_herronVILMA MARTINEZ, Attorney and U.S. Ambassador to Argentina

When Vilma Martinez took the reins of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) in 1973, it wasn’t without opposition. “People told me a woman couldn’t lead the organization,” she remembers. But as MALDEF’s first female leader, her efforts helped protect Latino voters’ rights, and in a case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court, secured bilingual education for non-English speaking students in public schools. For the then 30-year-old woman, taking the position of president and general counsel for MALDEF was a risk, but one she considered vital.

“If you want to accomplish anything important… it’s not easy,” she says. “But if it is something that matters desperately to you, you’re willing to take the risk.”

That attitude and strong work ethic have served Martinez well. After receiving her law degree from Columbia Law School in New York, Martinez built a career defending the rights of people of color, first with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and later with the New York State Division of Human Rights and MALDEF. Under her leadership, the financially fledgling MALDEF grew to a $5 million organization that was largely supported by corporate sponsors and grants. In 1982, she accepted a position at the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, where she specialized in labor disputes. The attorney also developed a notable speaking career and since the 1990s has served as a consultant to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

When considering whether to take on a new challenge, Martinez says she evaluates the possible outcomes and asks, “Are you prepared to live with the consequences?” Applying that same test to her most recent career decision, Martinez was pleased to accept the role of U.S Ambassador to Argentina—once again the first female in that position.

Just as Martinez evaluates the consequences when considering a risk, she says those who desire leadership should evaluate whether or not they’re prepared to accept responsibility. A leader’s role is “to advance the goals of the organization and to share their experiences with others,” she says.

Sharing the wisdom she’s gained is something Martinez does intentionally. “I like to mentor people who are the first in their family to go to college,” Martinez says. Martinez was raised in San Antonio, Texas. Despite being an honor student in high school, Martinez was counseled to forego attending a major college in favor of trade school. Instead, she chose to be the first in her family to go to college. “I did not grow up in a time where there were mentorship programs. But as I look back, I realize mentors are everywhere.” From the undergraduate professor who encouraged her to further her education to Vernon Jordan, who impressed her with his communication style—Martinez discovered mentors need not be of the same ethnicity or gender.

Leaders, she says, also share the responsibility to stay focused on their role within their organization. “The peril of leadership is that the potential exists to start thinking about the power and forget to do the job you’re there to do,” Martinez says. “You’re there to do a job, focus on that.” And as she takes on the role of ambassador to Argentina, she says, “What I’m going to be focused on is the work I’m there to do.”

Leading with a Collaborative Spirit

elsa_muranoREBECCA RANNINGER, Executive Vice President, Chief Human Resources Officer, Symantec Corporation

When Rebecca Ranninger joined Symantec Corporation’s legal department in 1991, she expected it to be a continuation of her career in law. And for six years, she served the company as a business litigator. As she was asked to handle various legal personnel matters, Ranninger proved herself capable of handling sensitive or tense situations. In 1997, her career took a turn when she was named vice president of human resources.

It wasn’t a career change she expected or even wanted. “It was a risk for me,” Ranninger says. “I’d been a trial lawyer and had never had an HR job before.” But over time she came to appreciate the fact that the executive position gave her the ability to deal with problems before litigation became necessary.

Since 1997, Symantec has gone through several phases of acquisition and expansion. When she took the HR role, the company had approximately 1,500 employees. Today Ranninger is responsible for the HR function supporting almost 18,000 Symantec employees in over 40 countries. Ranninger says a commitment to focusing on the task at hand continues to help her deal with uncertainties and grow through challenging times.

That same philosophy is the advice she shares with those who want to move into leadership roles. “Whatever you’re charged with doing,” she says, “keep that task in front of you. Do your best, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Another area of focus—for everyone, but especially for business leaders—should be one’s values, Ranninger says. While it’s necessary to be adept at handling ambiguity or uncertainty in the marketplace, she says one’s core values should never be in question. As a leader, Ranninger is devoted to building a culture that reflects Symantec’s defined core values of innovation, customer-driven action and trust. “When you keep those things central, how you deal with challenges is different because you’re operating within your values—regardless of the situation,” she says.

Ranninger notes that people have different leadership styles, but says she doesn’t believe one style is exclusively male or female. “Every person leads differently,” she says. “I’ve seen men and women use the whole gamut of leadership styles.” For herself, she says, “My own style tends to be collaborative. I have a lot of direct reports who have deep knowledge in different areas. We benefit as a company and as a team when we draw on all of those areas of expertise.” That collaborative spirit melds with her commitment to creating an environment that embraces a diversity of cultures, life experiences, beliefs and management styles. “Diversity is at the center of getting done what we need to on a day-to-day basis.”

As far as leadership is concerned, being at the top has given Ranninger a clear perspective on accountability and perceived power. To create a culture of meaningful accountability, she recommends that leaders examine why they reward their staff. “People often look at effort, but we should reward results,” Ranninger says. “We each need to be accountable for a given result, because you can put in all the effort you want, but outcome is what really matters.” She recognizes that leaders carry the burden of accountability in any organization. “People mistakenly believe power is something one person exercises over another,” Ranninger says. “But as you become more senior, you realize that leadership is truly responsibility. It only looks like power to people on the outside.”

Your Success is Up to You

karen_taylor BETH SPRINGER, Executive Vice President, The Clorox Company

As an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College, Beth Springer received valuable advice from her professors: “Your career should play to your interests and strengths. Stay true to your objective,” Springer recalls. She has applied that wisdom to her life, and as a trustee of her alma mater and a leader at The Clorox Company, she makes a point of passing it on to others.

Springer joined The Clorox Company in 1990 as an assistant marketing manager. Her experience of almost 20 years with the company has provided her with opportunities to take on a variety of roles. Each new challenge carried with it new risks and benefits that pushed her to increase her skills. “Clorox takes developing people seriously,” Springer says. “I’ve had the good fortune to work with people who have encouraged me to grow.”

For this executive who also balances the roles of wife, mother and daughter, the willingness to embrace risks, deliver results and capitalize on luck—all while staying true to her personal goals—have been the keys to success. She notes that companies can’t grow without leaders who are willing to take the risk of stepping into new or different roles. In her own career, she says, “I’ve asked or been asked to work in challenging situations. It’s always a chance to learn and make an impact, but also carries a risk of failure.” By stepping out of her comfort zone and proactively seeking out new opportunities, Springer has achieved the rank of executive vice president with The Clorox Company.

“A lot of people—women in particular—entrust their career to their organization,” she says. “But you need to know what your strengths are and have a conscious plan on how to learn and move to the next level.”

Another critical skill for those in leadership positions or seeking to move up is agility, Springer says. That skill is particularly important in today’s volatile economic climate. The ability to adapt and seek out new and better solutions benefits not only the individual, but the company as well. “Watch for things that need to change and view change as positive,” Springer says. To keep their companies on track, leaders are faced with tough decisions when it comes to resource allocation, she says, especially as it relates to the workforce. Her advice to leaders is to realize that change is inevitable and to be able to clearly define and articulate their organization’s goals as well as their plan for achieving those goals. Be clear about your point of difference as a company and about your unique purpose as a leader, she says.

Just as she has benefited from the mentoring she’s received from her supervisors, Springer attempts to lead in such a way that inspires others to be their best. Though she’s achieved an executive title, her perspective is that she is equally as accountable to her team and the organization as she is to herself, her family and her community. “Leadership teaches you that it’s much more about the team than you,” she says. “There is the power that comes with a role such as formal decision-making authority and access to resources. There is also power that others give you because they trust you and want to follow your lead. Leaders who earn both types are able to accomplish more.”

By Erin Casey
November 2009

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