A recent Harvard Business Review article authored by three leaders in the executive staffing firm Egon Zehnder addressed the critical question of why women are still underrepresented at the corporate leadership level. The authors went into their database and found that while women scored less than men when it came to the competencies of business leaders, including in strategic orientation and market understanding, they scored higher than men when it came to hallmarks of potential—curiosity, engagement and determination. Why do women have higher potential but less competence than men? The authors concluded it was because women were not given the roles and responsibilities to hone those very competencies.
This reveals a significant reason for why The Junior League is so important. The leadership positions and opportunities we offer our members provide the platform to strengthen their capabilities so they can better compete (and get) those leadership jobs in the business world.
We spoke with Rebekah Henry Murphy, the president and self-described “volunteer CEO” of the Junior League of Atlanta. Having started her Junior League membership in Augusta, and having worked in executive positions, including as executive director of the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, she discussed how her League journey and professional journey coincided.
RH: I was really fortunate that, working in the non-profit field, there was this real reciprocal and synergetic relationship between what I was doing within my League work and what I was doing within my career. So, I think that my development in the League naturally supported my career advancement and development, and gave me even more opportunities.
We have a saying in Atlanta within The Junior League: “It’s the place to fail forward.” So, if you slip up, it’s not as much of a mistake as if you slipped up in your job, or it is a way for you to test and try new things. And I think that is one of the greatest benefits of League membership for those who are in roles that don’t align with their careers. That this is a safe space to try something out and try something new.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the specific skills that you must employ from day 1 of being a volunteer CEO?
RH: Your competencies have to be so well rounded. You must understand non-profit governance, which is a critical part of the role because as CEO, you are the chief governance officer for the organization. You are leading the board of directors. You are ensuring that the organization adheres to its policies, adheres to its bylaws. You have to understand non-profit financials and the current funding landscape because you are the point person for whomever is in the management level roles that handle various function areas. They are going to refer to you for guidance when decisions need to be made. How are we going to secure our income sources? How do we ensure our fundraising and development efforts are financially sound and sustainable? Having that well-rounded knowledge within many different areas is the biggest piece of the job.
Q: You came in with a specific experience set in terms of being an executive director. Talk about how The Junior League can be an environment for business skills development for someone who doesn’t have that experience set.
RH: I actually joined straight out of college and so as I have grown professionally, I have grown in the League. Joining as a young member, I dabbled in different areas during my League journey, including serving as treasurer of the Junior League of Augusta, gaining crucial financial management skills and understanding along the way, which contributed to my later experiences running a non-profit. For those women who don’t necessarily go down the non-profit leadership route, they have told me their skills development comes up in something as easy as running a meeting more efficiently. They attribute that to their League experiences.
Q: You mention that The Junior League is a place where you can “fail forward.” What are your thoughts on the League providing that opportunity relative to the rest of the world outside of the League?
RH: Unfortunately, we live in a very patriarchal society. We do not have the structures in place to support women in leadership in the business world, women in leadership in our highest non-profit executive roles, women in leadership within the offices of our civic and elected officials. A lot of that is due to the way that our society has developed and the stigmas that exist around women and families. That is what we are working against.
It’s funny because you have the #MeToo campaign going on and you can’t help but think about a young, impressionable woman first starting out in her career. Now, I am realizing in hindsight that the barriers are already there. It doesn’t matter what your work performance is. The barriers naturally just exist. I think we are working against that. And that is one of the beautiful things about The Junior League. It does give women the totally open test ground to be able to figure out; what is it that I want to develop and how can I take the skills I have, the competencies I have gained, and really focus my energy on giving back and seeing some change, seeing some impact happen.
Q: When you look at #MeToo, one of the failures you have seen is in corporate governance. It’s not just that the incidents are happening, as horrific as they are, it’s that you don’t have a strong governing structure to police such behavior. As someone who has been an executive both inside and outside of The Junior League, what are your thoughts on corporate governance constantly failing?
RH: The best thing we can do is to be very transparent in our operations so that members can see and interpret that high standard as being necessary outside of our organization. It is my job to be steward of this $6 million not-for-profit with a 17-member board of directors and 3,500 members. I have to be steward of the organization and ensure that we operate at the highest level. And yet you have the prevalence of societal issues going on and many of those running organizations [and businesses] who don’t have the structure to prevent them, to end them. We as directors have to ensure that we are operating as we should, so that our members are replicating those behaviors in their service outside of the organization.