Mentors remain important, but new research shows that for real advancement, women need sponsors. How is a sponsor different? Rather than just offering guidance, sponsors use their power to open doors and advocate on the person’s behalf for high-profile assignments. “A sponsor identifies your talents and matches those with the next set of risks that you need to take for your advancement and development,” Mellard says. “If the status quo is still generally the middle-aged white male, then we need those enlightened middle-aged white males to be those sponsors.”

Meet Steven Gerard, the middle-aged white male whom Mellard describes as her sponsor. The chairman and CEO of CBIZ, Gerard seems reluctant to take credit for any of Mellard’s success, pointing out that she was already quite accomplished, serving as the executive vice president of the CBIZ insurance group and handling carrier relations, legal affairs and compliance issues when he joined CBIZ as CEO in 2000.

That is all very true, but Gerard has used his bully pulpit to ensure that Mellard and the CBIZ Women’s Advantage get the visibility they need and deserve. “Anytime the boss says, ‘This is important to me, so everyone had better pay attention,’ you have more people paying attention,” Gerard says. “And everyone knows CWA is very high on my list.”

He mentions its successes in every speech and presentation, and he makes sure that Mellard presents to the corporate board of directors.

“I think I’ve been able to reinforce her position, not that she needed it,” he says. “I give her exposure and resources.”

He has also given her the opportunity to run an organization. They strategize about the program, laying out three-year goals and setting its operating budget. “To the extent I have helped her, it’s been, how do you manage this; how do you plan for it; how do you find resources?” Gerard says. “It’s no different than what I do with any other business leader I have.”

Gerard is a hard-nosed businessman. He did not adopt the idea of a women’s business initiative at CBIZ because he thought it would be a nice thing to do.

"We have to understand the risks that we run when we don’t proactively and aggressively understand the case for gender diversity."

Nancy M. Mellard

“It was clear both of our major businesses [insurance and accounting] were male-dominated businesses,” he explains. “It was clear our client base was shifting and the new [job] applicant base was shifting. There was a realization that we have an extraordinarily large number of very talented women who weren’t getting the exposure they should get.”

If CBIZ was going to win in the race for talent and clients, it needed a mechanism to attract, develop, retain and advance talented women, many of whom were already doing great things under the radar. It became Mellard’s mission to teach them to bring attention to themselves. Before Gerard handed the reins to Mellard, the program had existed in concept for several years but hadn’t gotten off the ground. Mellard recruited an executive committee of other women who were equally passionate about the effort and set out three basic goals: professional development and the advancement of CBIZ women; business development; and national community outreach. For five years, CBIZ Women’s Advantage has organized companywide fundraisers in support of Dress for Success, an international nonprofit that promotes the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional clothes, a network of support and career development tools.

In some instances, just having the CBIZ Women’s Advantage will generate revenue if a hospital or public entity, for example, wants to do business with a company that has a diversity initiative. But Mellard is clear that CBIZ Women’s Advantage is much more than a program designed to allow CBIZ or other companies to mark a “gender diversity” checkbox. Early on, Mellard hired WFD Consulting, a Massachusetts firm focused on work-life balance and diversity solutions, to help CBIZ Women’s Advantage create a proprietary professional development program that could be used by women at all levels across all CBIZ businesses.

Women from the different businesses who work in the same city meet nine times over the course of the year as they study a curriculum that includes reading materials, homework, follow-up and practice. It addresses the different ways men and women may communicate, how women sell and how to close the deal. And, Mellard says, it provides important lessons on “understanding how to get out in the community and tell your story of who you are and what your talents are.”

CBIZ Women’s Advantage groups in different cities host business networking events to build relationships with potential clients. For example, CBIZ Women’s Advantage in San Diego organized an evening event for 50 senior women in the community, including bank presidents, managing partners of law firms and entrepreneurs.

“Over 50% of our workforce is women, and it has really helped deliver a way to develop these women in ways that wouldn’t have been possible,” says Becky Vidal, the St. Louis business unit president for CBIZ Benefits and Insurance Services and a member of the CBIZ Women’s Advantage executive board. “It’s been a training program for women, but it’s also helped CBIZ become respected as a company that promotes women professionals, and it’s helped us grow our top line.”

Gerard and Mellard both expect CBIZ Women’s Advantage to become a model for a broader diversity program, particularly for racial minorities, who are underrepresented in the industry, let alone in leadership. “She put together a big plan, she found the right people, she got them excited and she drives pretty hard,” Gerard says of Mellard. “She’s aggressive, passionate and smart, and she tackles things with a kind of mother tiger ferocity. Those are the traits you look for in a leader.”

She’s aggressive, passionate and smart, and she tackles things with a kind of mother tiger ferocity.

Under Mellard’s leadership, CBIZ Women’s Advantage has been a great success, but its promise is just beginning. The program has served as an important tool for recruiting young women into the company, and it’s a very important selling point in the five to 10 acquisitions CBIZ makes each year, Gerard says. It’s been instrumental in helping women gain positions on nonprofit boards in their communities and for getting their names in the press as experts in their fields. But Gerard says he’s not sure that it has yet to advance significant numbers of women up the corporate ladder. “It’s given senior management at CBIZ greater visibility into who potential leaders are in the company,” he says.

Equal Time

It may require more time for CBIZ Women’s Advantage to really achieve its goals of advancing women, but Gerard can tell it’s having an impact. “Men say, ‘Why don’t you do this for us?’” he says.

Part of the challenge for CBIZ and other companies is how to address the difficulty many female professionals face when they try to maintain some balance between their desire to advance professionally and their family responsibilities. CBIZ Women’s Advantage tackles those issues in its professional development program, but the corporation’s family-friendly policies may not be fully embraced in every local office.

Mellard recalls her own challenges of trying to advance her career while her daughters were young. She can picture her daughters’ embarrassment when she stood poolside during swim meets in heels, hose and a business suit. She’d be stopped for speeding while racing down the Southwest Trafficway in Kansas City to get to a school function on time. “Believe me, that happened more times than I care to tell you,” she says, laughing. “It’s just hilarious, but at the time it wasn’t.”

Mellard says there is growing recognition that the arc of women’s careers may be different than it is for men’s, but they need not be any less successful. “What we have to do is recognize that women may have to stay lateral for some period of time or even take a step back while they’re raising their children.”

That’s what she did. “I didn’t travel. I wasn’t as aggressive in terms of career moves or career successes when I was focused on children’s successes.”

With her daughters now business-school graduates with their own careers—Rachel Sasser, 30, is a brand manager at Pepsico in Chicago, and Michelle Mellard, 27, is a strategic account executive for Nike in New York—Mellard can revel in her workaholic ways while Ken, her husband, makes his own midlife career transition from healthcare consulting to teaching. They celebrate their 35th anniversary this year.

Companies just need to recognize that women live longer and have more stamina, Mellard says, and therefore, they may hit their career peak or end up in the C-suite at a later time than men.

And that’s certainly true for her.

“I would say that in the last six, seven, eight years, personally, spiritually and certainly professionally, with what I’ve been able to do, I feel like I am just peaking,” she says.

Nancy M. Mellard

Home: Leawood, Kan.

Husband: Ken, married almost 35 years

Children: Daughters: Rachel Sasser, 30, is a brand manager at Pepsico in Chicago, responsible for the juice line. Michelle Mellard, 27, who played on the championship volleyball team at Stanford, is a strategic account executive for Nike in New York. Though they went to different schools for undergraduate studies, both received M.B.A.s at Notre Dame. “Both of them are truly doing what they’ve always wanted to do, and I’m so proud of them,” Mellard says.

Awards: For her leadership of CBIZ Women’s Advantage, last year, Mellard won three Stevie Awards, which recognize positive contributions in the world of business. She won top prize in the category Maverick of the Year, which recognizes the individual who has effected the most positive change in their company or industry during the year. She also took silver for Mentor or Coach of the Year and for Women Helping Women.

Industry boards: Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, Council of Employee Benefits Executives

Good works: Catholic Charities, vice chair of Central Exchange, an organization for advancement of women in Kansas City

Just for fun: Exercise and reading

Education: B.A. in English, University of St. Mary; Juris Doctorate, University of Missouri—Kansas City School of Law

Recent travels: Spain. “Loved Barcelona. Loved the people. Loved the architecture. Just loved the red wine and the food. I’d go back tomorrow if somebody told me I could.”

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