When The Council’s board of directors meets, one voice stands out from the rest. It is the lone woman’s voice, though not necessarily a voice representing women.

FAST FOCUS

  • The talent crunch has put gender diversity on everyone’s lips, but real change will require a culture shift.
  • The CBIZ Women’s Advantage, which Mellard created, has helped 1,000 women with professional development programs.
  • Just having the CBIZ Women’s Advantage can generate revenue if a hospital or public entity wants to do business with a company that has a diversity initiative

The voice belongs to Nancy Mellard, the executive vice president and general counsel for the employee services division of CBIZ, a Cleveland-based, $750 million publicly traded company with 5,200 employees, offering insurance, accounting and consulting services.

Mellard, who works in the Leawood, Kan., office of CBIZ, has more than 30 years of insurance industry experience under her belt, so she knows of what she speaks. In her job, she has helped brokers get what they need to do their job while staying on the right side of the law. She has also negotiated contracts with more than 200 carriers and managed the legalities of meshing 20 acquisitions into one unit.

When Eliot Spitzer, then attorney general of New York, provoked a multistate, multiyear investigation of broker compensation practices, Mellard oversaw the review for CBIZ. And she has agent/broker bona fides: Mellard is a corporate lawyer with licenses to sell property-casualty insurance and employee benefits.

So if the 39 other Council directors at the table want to know what Mellard thinks about an issue (and even if they don’t), she will tell them. And she will not mince words. But if they want to know what women think, well, they’d best go out and ask a few. “I have always spoken as a person, not as a woman,” Mellard said during a recent interview. “I have always spoken from my experience and expertise.”

It may sound obvious that someone with Mellard’s authority should be valued for her industry insights. But if you’re the only woman at the table, that’s not always the case. Mellard does not share war stories or cast blame, but suffice it to say that over the course of her career her opinion has sometimes been disregarded for no other reason than because she’s a woman. And there were also times when men looked to her for the woman’s viewpoint, as if she were an oracle professing the opinions of businesswomen everywhere.

Times certainly have changed, but, truth be told, the insurance industry is still largely dominated by white men. And while Nancy Mellard won’t speak for women, she will speak about women and the need for the insurance industry to do a better job when it comes to promoting gender diversity. That means working deliberately to attract, retain and promote talented women into senior positions. The talent crunch has put gender diversity on everyone’s lips, but words alone won’t make it happen. It requires a culture shift.

Not There Yet

“The insurance industry is not there yet,” Mellard says matter-of-factly. “I’m not here to blame anyone. I’m here to say the leadership within this industry owns this issue. That we have to understand the risks that we run when we don’t proactively and aggressively understand the case for gender diversity.”

Risks? Well, yes. “The financial indicators are there that say those companies that have women on their board of directors, those companies that have women in executive positions, that are bringing diverse thought, diverse strategy, diverse opinion to the company’s strategic direction, their bottom-line performance is better,” she says. “So let’s get away from, ‘It’s the right thing to do.’”

As Mellard sees it, if you don’t find a way to nurture the talents of the women you have, they won’t stick around. And you won’t reap the full benefits of their talent.

"I have always spoken as a person, not as a woman."

Nancy M. Mellard

The case for gender diversity has been well documented in recent years. In its research on the performance of Fortune 500 companies, Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that aims to expand opportunities for women and business, found a 26% difference in return on invested capital between companies with the most women on their boards of directors versus those with the least. The difference in return on sales for companies with three or more female board members versus companies with no female board members was 84%.

Any company attempting to enhance gender diversity should take a good look at its organization to understand why it doesn’t have many women in high places. The reasons can be very complex, but many of them stem directly from the culture of the organization. When McKinsey researchers asked women about the barriers preventing them from getting ahead, common answers included a lack of role models, exclusion from informal networks (golf, anyone?) and the lack of a sponsor in upper management to create opportunities.

The idea of a sponsor is one that speaks directly to Mellard, largely because she’s seen the benefits firsthand. Her mentors have given her valuable advice, but her sponsor gave her the responsibility, resources and visibility to create something big, the CBIZ Women’s Advantage.

CWA, as it’s known, combines professional development, mentoring, business development and community outreach to help CBIZ women get ahead. About 1,000 women in CBIZ have benefitted from its programs. CWA is also directly responsible for generating $1.2 million a year in new business revenue for CBIZ.

“I laugh when I think back,” Mellard says. “I said, we are not calling this an initiative. We are calling this a program with a capital P because I want it to be strong and sustainable and to have the kind of credibility that male or female business unit leaders, our local presidents, are proud of, support and see as a tool to generate business.”

One of the many lessons that Mellard tries to hammer home is the need for women to proactively seek sponsors in addition to any mentoring relationships they may have. Mellard has had plenty of important mentors, people who have dispensed valuable advice. The most significant were Richard Nelson and Rob O’Byrne, leaders, respectively, of the Grant Nelson Group and Robert D. O’Byrne Associates, the benefits brokers Mellard worked for before CBIZ acquired them in 1997. Nelson and O’Byrne encouraged Mellard to get inside the heads of the salespeople who drive the organization, to understand what motivates them and what challenges them. Mellard recalls Nelson telling her, “If you want to be just a really good attorney the rest of your life, you’ll be a really good attorney the rest of your life. But if you want to be able to sit around a boardroom table, if you want to sit around a table with the top executives in the company, then you must broaden your experiences beyond legal.”

Mellard says her mentors helped her position herself “to provide my best advice and counsel but then also to be able to look at the insurance industry from a business perspective, not a legal perspective.”

And Mellard has done just that. Just look at her work with The Council. Her involvement began with the Legal Counsel Working Group, which she eventually chaired. Then she took a seat on the Council of Employee Benefits Executives. And now she’s also on The Council’s board, whose members represent the cream of the insurance broker crop. “When a mentor gives you a piece of advice, it becomes a challenge for your entire career,” Mellard says.

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