Janice Ellig: “If I could empower more women to have a voice, I believe that monumental problems would be greatly mitigated”
…if I could empower more women to have a voice, I believe that monumental problems would be greatly mitigated. I believe the world would be in much better shape if gender equality was a priority and women were at the table: at the kitchen tables, the legislative tables, the boardroom tables. If women weren’t separated from the centers of power in their communities, workplaces, and governments, and their voices were not squelched, I believe the threat of war and terrorism would be diminished, and more children would have an opportunity to be fed, clothed, and educated. All across the world we see that when women have a voice in society there is less strife, less suffering and more education and opportunity. When women are given loans to build a business, they repay the loans and, along with their families, their communities thrive. That’s why I’ve chosen to work to get more women into higher levels of leadership in the corporate world. I believe that if we have more women running companies, and more female representation in the boardroom, that will correlate to more women in our government, and perhaps have a greater impact on other world economies to bring about a greater good.
I had the pleasure to interview Janice Ellig. As the head of the Ellig Group, Janice is dedicated to increasing the placement of women and diverse candidates on corporate boards and in C-suites by 2025. Janice joined the legacy firm in 2000 and became Co-Chief Executive Officer in its transition to Chadick Ellig in 2007; she assumed sole ownership of the company as the Ellig Group in 2017 with a new focus on Reimagining Search. Prior to her career in executive search, Janice spent 20 years in corporate America at Pfizer, Citi and Ambac Financial Group, an IPO from Citibank, where she was responsible for Marketing, Human Resources, and Administration. Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, inclusion, and diversity. She frequently appears at speaking engagements and as a media guest, and she has penned multiple articles for outlets such as Directors & Boards, Directorship, Corporate Director, The Huffington Post, and Forbes.com. Janice also co authored two books: Driving The Career Highway and What Every Successful Woman Knows, acknowledged by Bloomberg Businessweek as “the best of its genre.” A tirelessly active member of the industry and champion of her causes, Janice is Founder of the Women’s Forum of New York’s Corporate Board Initiative and its signature event, Breakfast of Corporate Champions. Since 2011, Janice continues to spearhead this event to honor companies committed to board diversity and to encourage CEOs to sponsor board-ready women for the Women’s Forum database. Janice is personally committed to several NFP organizations: Board Director of the National YMCA and Past Chair of the YMCA Board of Greater New York; Trustee of the Actors Fund and Committee For Economic Development (CED); Incoming Chair, University of Iowa Foundation; Women’s Forum of New York Past President and Chair of the Corporate Board Initiative; member of the Steering Committee, US 30% Club and The Economic Club of New York. In recognition for her many philanthropic activities, Janice received the University of Iowa Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011 and the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) Eleanor Raynolds Award for Volunteerism in 2008. Named one of the “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” by Women’s eNews, she was also a recipient of the Channel 21 Award In Excellence for her contribution to “Excellence in the Economic Development for Women.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us Janice! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
What brought me to the executive search industry is that after a great career in corporate America leading HR, marketing, and real estate, I was ready for a new adventure. I had helped take a company public from Citi and in growing that IPO, I knew I excelled in assessing talent and sealing the deal — my executive colleagues fondly referred to me as “the Closer!”
I had also co-authored a book in 2000, “What Every Successful Woman Knows — 12 Breakthrough Strategies to Get the Power and Ignite Your Career,” and wanted to spend more time speaking with women in corporate America about how they could reach higher levels in the C-suite and get into the boardroom. To do that I had to be out of the corporate bubble, in the market, where I could advise women. Executive Search was a natural path.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I learned a lot about myself in changing careers from corporate to being in my own business. In joining the executive search industry, I interviewed many women in high level positions with the title, but who did not have a voice at the table. One in particular I came to know well and saw her untapped potential. I was able to place her in a more senior position at another company, where she soared, and a few years later, she secured her first public board seat. That woman today has gone on to run her own business as a successful entrepreneur, continues to be on boards, and is helping other women succeed. The power of one and the collective power of women is awesome. What I learned was I could make a significant impact on the lives of women who wanted to move up that proverbial corporate ladder, and by doing so, like throwing a pebble in the water, created a ripple effect to positively impact many other women.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I left corporate America, I initially joined a large search firm but only stayed two months — shocking but true! Ironically, it was a great career mistake and I call it my best lesson in fail fast and move on! In the first month I knew I was in the right pool, but the wrong swim lane. What I learned was that after being an executive of my division in the corporate world and reporting to the CEO, I liked being in charge and running my show.
However, had I gone to the small search firm first, I would always have had a lingering question — what was it like at a large search firm? I satisfied that question and realized I didn’t need the big name behind me. I could make a name in a smaller search firm, and more importantly, serve clients the way I wanted to serve them; personalized and as a true trusted advisor — like being part of their company.
I joined the legacy firm I am at today, coming in as a Partner and running my own business with an established but smaller firm.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Simply put, our deep core values. We always do the right thing for both our client partners and the candidates who entrust us with their careers, as well as our commitment to put more women and diverse leaders into the C-suite and the boardroom — that is what makes Ellig Group stand out. Even four decades after our legacy company was founded in 1977, Ellig Group’s clients and candidates continue to be drawn to the personalized, intentionally-cultivated and exceptional search experience that we provide. Our candidates appreciate our ongoing commitment to their personal journeys; they know that, even if they don’t get that position, we will stay close to them and their careers and come back to them about future opportunities. We champion their long-term success!
And as our business has evolved to meet today’s changing talent demands, our clients value the 24/7 access, thought partnership, and transparency we offer them. Each year, 75% of our work is with repeat clients. I believe this is because we provide partnership beyond the framework of the search — we offer insight into competitive trends in the market, data analytics, and challenges to their business from a talent perspective. It is important to us to invest time in truly getting to know an organization, its culture and its people.
Ultimately, every candidate is unique, and every client need is different. The story is compelling with each of them, but the common thread is the trust, commitment and customized solutions we offer.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working on several very exciting new projects! In 2019 we launched our podcast series, “Leadership Reimagined: Game Changing Conversations.” There are five episodes currently on our website featuring leaders from various sectors who are innovative and true game changers in their industries. These podcasts are released on the third Thursday of every month and are a great way to stay current on topics that impact our lives.
I’m excited to Chair the 5th biennial Breakfast of Corporate Champions that will be held on November 7, 2019, an event I founded when I was President of the Women’s Forum of New York in 2011. The Women’s Forum honors S&P 500 and F1000 companies that are above the national average in terms of women on their boards. In 2019, the threshold is 30% and 245 companies will be honored; nearly 60 of our honorees have over 40%. We convene over 600 CEOs, board directors, and thought leaders in New York City to hear why and how to achieve gender parity, for good corporate governance and as a business imperative. Additionally, CEOs sponsor board-ready women for the Women’s Forum Database which is available at no cost to Nom/Gov Chairs and search firms. This is an awesome opportunity for women to be sponsored and boards to find great women for their openings.
Another major project launched this year with a Women’s Forum colleague and co-author, Carolyn Carter, is interviewing 40 leading CEOs who have achieved 40% or greater women on their boards into a book entitled, “What Makes a Champion” which will be distributed to all CEOS of the S&P 500 and F1000. We believe this will create a call to action where all companies will want to be recognized for having gender parity. Visionary companies know that greater diversity at the table leads to more innovative thinking, less group think, and sends a compelling message to all constituents — employees, consumers, communities, and shareholders — that gender parity as a business imperative.
Through these exciting projects, the Women’s Forum of New York is helping to accelerate the pace of change for women on boards which is currently at 23.4% for the S&P 500 (source: MSCI 2018).
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive? What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
The advice I’d give to female leaders is actually the same I’d give to male leaders: teams have to thrive and to do so, they need to be empowered. No one can do it all and great leaders know they have to leverage themselves through their people. They have to be transparent with their people about what matters, teaching them the art of making good decisions even when you don’t have all the facts, and how to comfortably deal with ambiguity. Confident leaders share their thinking so others will be more knowledgeable, and empowered.
In leading large and small teams the key is to communicate clearly, concisely, and consistently so that all get the same message. And as importantly, people do not remember more than three simple themes — and those need to be repeated.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Nobody gets to where they are without many people helping them, and I am so grateful to those who have helped me along the way. It started with my mother. Growing up in Somers, NY, and the youngest of three girls, when I was 10 years of age, her words were “Make sure you love what you do in life, be financially independent, and stay close to your sisters.” She was ahead of her time.
I took that advice and expanded it to staying close to my fabulous female friends. They have been immensely helpful to me along the way and I’ve tried to reciprocate. And for women in general, I continue to speak out about the need for gender equality in the C-suite and in the boardroom and focusing on societal change. I truly believe women bring a different perspective than men and as we represent 51% of the population, our presence at the table is critical. My mother, my sisters, and my girlfriends have all been, and continue to be, an important part of my life — they are my support system and I hope they know I am always there for them. It is also my great team of Ellig Group women who have been so instrumental in helping me launch Ellig Group in 2017 and continue to always make our company be the best we can be each and every day — they are the “A” team in every way!
And, of course, my husband has been my biggest advocate, promoter, and cheerleader — everyone needs a partner like Bruce!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
There’s an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It is a proverb I follow. For me, helping others along the way started at a very early age with my parents, who believed in giving back. While we did not come from great means, there was always another place at our dining room table.
Giving back to my community has always been an important part of my life, even when I was just beginning my career. Today, I am on several boards including the Actor’s Fund, the National YMCA, and the University of Iowa Foundation. In 1999 I initiated a scholarship in my sister’s name at the University of Iowa where now 20 years later, 20 women have received an annual scholarship to pursue their master’s degrees at the School of Public Health. We’ve created a wonderful community and this August, for the 20th Anniversary, they are all joining me in New York to celebrate.
These fabulous women are highly accomplished and an important network, where they help each other and other women move ahead in the field of public health. Every one of them is still working, some married, and one with five boys — yet they stay connected. They’re all giving back in their own way. The lesson here is that we all stand on the shoulders of others and we leave a legacy by giving back to this planet more than we took. They are my sister’s legacy and I could not be more proud of each and every one of them.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why.
I actually have 10 leadership lessons I have learned from my experiences in corporate America and from interviewing so many great executives. I call them my “10 C’s” and they are all on my website, but I’ll limit them to five. To me, great leadership starts with Character. Integrity is doing the right thing, most importantly, when no one is watching. It’s all about a strong moral compass, your values. It is what builds trust!
Second is Courage. The great leaders who prevail are those who demonstrate actions for the greater good, not for one’s self interest. We can learn from Madeleine Albright who said, “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” Great leadership takes that kind of great courage to stand up and sometimes take the unpopular stand and use the power of your voice.
Third is Commitment. Leaders set a path clearing the way for others to follow. They set goals and communicate those goals to others. This creates a buzz in an organization and rallies people around a vision. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.” When you feel a passion for something, you go out and do it. I see it every day in many who had very little in their life, and perhaps came from nothing, but achieved their goals because they were committed to a cause, to their dream, to their passion — and they made it happen.
Fourth is Collaboration. As Steve Jobs said, “Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.” When I interview executives, I look for people who talk about “we,” not “I.” In my own company, we are highly collaborative. We work as a team. We’re rewarded as a team. We serve our clients as a team. We deliver results as a team.
Fifth is Curiosity. Great leaders have an insatiable intellectual curiosity, a deep and persistent desire to seek answers to the “why” questions. Like children who are constantly asking why, their minds are seeking answers to the world unknown to them. I think that the hungry mind is what keeps us relevant in today’s world. This is really important in leading any organization, large or small. We have to be out there seeking what is around the corner, what’s going to happen tomorrow, how can we innovate, how can we constantly disrupt the way we do things to make the organization and the world we live in better.
There are so many definitions of a great leader, but I believe the bottom line is being an authentic leader, who is committed, courageous, collaborative and curious, and at our core, have great character, with a strong moral compass to stay the course when the winds are shifting in many different directions.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Inspiring a movement to bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people seems to be an impossible undertaking. However, if I could empower more women to have a voice, I believe that monumental problems would be greatly mitigated. I believe the world would be in much better shape if gender equality was a priority and women were at the table: at the kitchen tables, the legislative tables, the boardroom tables. If women weren’t separated from the centers of power in their communities, workplaces, and governments, and their voices were not squelched, I believe the threat of war and terrorism would be diminished, and more children would have an opportunity to be fed, clothed, and educated.
All across the world we see that when women have a voice in society there is less strife, less suffering and more education and opportunity. When women are given loans to build a business, they repay the loans and, along with their families, their communities thrive. That’s why I’ve chosen to work to get more women into higher levels of leadership in the corporate world. I believe that if we have more women running companies, and more female representation in the boardroom, that will correlate to more women in our government, and perhaps have a greater impact on other world economies to bring about a greater good.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In addition to the wise words my mother shared with me as a child, the life lesson quote that is most relevant to me comes from Robert F. Kennedy, “The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better.” Simply said, but a sentiment I have held onto my entire life as a guiding principal to always try to make a difference no matter how small to make the world a better place by positively impacting the lives of others.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I would want to have to have dinner with Melinda Gates — a woman’s woman, who is using her voice to empower women — “Strong women make strong societies. Nothing matters more to our future than the well-being of women and children.” As Melinda also shares, “Strong women empower other women;” — I couldn’t agree more. She is impacting the world of women and thereby making the world a better place for all. Melinda, you are an inspiration to me!