From Babies to Boardrooms

One Mom's Steep Climb to the Top & The Advice That Got Her There.
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According to the EgonZehnder 2020 Global Board Diversity Tracker only 23% of board seats globally are held by women, with only 6% of those seats being of leadership positions. Overall, only 2% of boards are chaired by women. 

Nichelle Maynard-Elliott is among the 23% of women globally, and currently serves as Board Director of publicly held company Element Solutions Inc (NYSE:ESI). She shares her experience and her journey to board membership as a woman and a mother with Jobs.mom.

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From my very first day as a working mother, I was spoiled.

 My parents retired from suburban New York to North Carolina two years after my husband and I married. I missed them but was happily enjoying the fast-paced young urban professional New York life. As a Big Law corporate lawyer alongside my banker husband, we worked hard, played hard and gave back to our community and fed our spirits serving in our church. Those activities kept us busy and always on the go. Being college sweethearts, we married in our mid-twenties before most of our friends and were not in a hurry to have children. We paid our professional dues working long hours at well-established institutions.

 Seven years into marriage we were finally ready to have children. I became pregnant with our firstborn son while still working the demanding hours of a big corporate law firm’s satellite office in Connecticut. Living in White Plains, NY made the 30-minute reverse commute convenient, but I realized now we would need childcare because I did not intend to stop working after I gave birth. In stepped my mother, from whom I often say I inherited my “superhero complex.”  In consultation with my father, she offered to move back to NY and take care of our son while we worked.  She would live with us for our son’s first year as we sorted out the challenges of “working while parenting.”

 While many working moms experienced agony, anxiety and fear associated with leaving their babies with strangers, I returned to work with little concern about who was raising our child in my absence or how. Looking back, I know I would not be where I am today professionally without the sacrifice of my mother who relocated temporarily, my father who agreed to manage life in North Carolina on his own while my mom was in New York, and my endlessly gracious and patient husband who agreed to share our home space with his mother-in-law.

 People told me how lucky we were, and I hastily agreed.  As fate would have it, I ended up leaving my law firm towards the end of my pregnancy and started a new job in-house at a global industrial gases company when my son was about nine months old. I returned to work after my maternity leave and never looked back.

 Much to our surprise, shortly before our son’s first birthday we were pregnant again. Because conceiving the first time took longer than we expected, we were certain trying for a second child would be the same. At our son’s first birthday party, we announced to our family and friends that we would be blessed with another child. My mom was slated to return to North Carolina when our son turned one. She had already begun the search for childcare that met her extremely high standards! Now we would need to consider childcare for two: a toddler and an infant. It would seem that my mom’s stay with us would be longer than initially planned.

 Meanwhile at work, I enjoyed the gift of an extremely understanding boss. As a Canadian father of two children whose wife left her career to be a stay-at-home mom, he supported my need for space and time to pump at work while breastfeeding, and to leave work at a consistent time every evening to relieve my mom. We worked as a team from the very beginning. He covered me and took the laboring oar of traveling to support the regional businesses in the early years. I picked up the travel responsibility as soon as the children were old enough and my household situation was stable enough to support business travel.  Once again, learning to lean on my support base and not being afraid to voice my need for accommodation positioned me for success. My proven work ethic and reputation for high quality output certainly helped.

 My mom agreed to stay on until our second born daughter turned one. During that time, she continued scoping out acceptable childcare.

 Life does throw curveballs though, and usually when you least expect them. A new General Counsel was brought into my company with the purpose of shaking up our corporate culture. Until his arrival I had viewed my job as just that: a job, a necessary evil and means to support a comfortable lifestyle. I had no specific design or plan to climb to the top of the corporate ladder, to be general counsel or any other higher-level executive, for that matter. The law department was already relatively high on the food chain at our company.

I knew the cost of ambition to a working mother, and I had no intention of sacrificing my life, my family, my outside interests, and commitments to attain a senior executive position.

But this new general counsel challenged me. He awarded my hard-earned company reputation with a promotion. Then he told me that in his discussions with the CEO, the CEO wondered whether I had ambition. I will never know if that was the exact nature of the conversation or just a seed planted at the right time to spark my competitive spirit. At that instant, working a job to support a lifestyle was not enough. I realized I had something valuable to contribute on a scale larger than I previously gave myself credit for. Moreover, I had a wonderful support base at home and a husband who, as my biggest cheerleader, would never let me settle for being less than my best self, personally, professionally, spiritually, or otherwise.

On one occasion, I asked our children how they felt about mommy working and if they would rather that I stayed home. Unprompted, our young son and daughter both told me how proud they were of me and my work and that I should definitely not stay at home.

In retrospect, I believe working a full-time job for as long as I did, provided two meaningful examples for our kids. For my son, the first to tell me how proud was of me, he saw a capable, competent woman taking her place among the seats of corporate power.  He witnessed firsthand the dynamics of a two-income household, a working father and mother who were equal partners in all matters, parental and financial.  My daughter saw a strong female role model who need not depend on a man to attain what she wants in life. To this day, our son has a healthy respect for professional and relational gender equity and our daughter, a boss in her own right having started her own jewelry business at a young age, knows there is nothing she cannot accomplish with hard work and determination. The glass ceiling does not exist anywhere in her future.

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If you had asked me three years ago if I would be “retired” from full time employment at my age and serving on boards of public companies, my answer would have been a resounding negative.  Board service was something to consider when I turned 60. But again, life rarely unfolds how you expect it to.  

4+ years into a 5-year plan with my boss to succeed him as Global Head of M&A, my company began talks to merge with its largest competitor.  Needless to say, our plan for a smooth and peaceful transition was put on hold.  While working on this multi-billion-dollar deal of a lifetime, it would seem divine intervention put on a different path. I was recommended for an independent director position with a publicly traded specialty chemicals company. My emotions ranged from shock and disbelief to trepidation and excitement.  Would I bring value to the company?  Would my schedule allow an additional professional responsibility? Would my family suffer from having less of my time? Would my career ambition to head a global M&A organization be compromised?  Would my CEO grant his permission?

These were questions only the future could answer.  Silencing my own self-doubt, I forged ahead.  This step was not a part of my five-year plan, but I would be remiss to not take advantage of such an opportunity, and opportunity that presented itself because persons deemed me worthy and believed I had something to offer.

I have often said that risk is just opportunity in disguise.

The risk I would take in seeking permission at my company and engaging the process turned out to be just that: opportunity.  And it was one of the best professional decisions of my life.

I was selected for the board and the directors welcomed me with open arms.  Engaging this assignment became the first step in a whole new direction for me professionally.  As a relatively young independent director, people reminded me that doors would more easily open for me on other corporate boards.  I had a seat at the table in the highest position of corporate power.  My fellow directors respected my voice and valued my presence. As if coming out of The Matrix, I better understood my value proposition.  In the world outside of my day job, my experience and expertise had cache.

This new world created space for me to be wiser about my other professional goals.  As the merger wound down the following year, corporate reorganization and leadership positions were announced.  The title and position I thought I wanted so badly were not packaged as I had expected.

But the most exciting part was that being an independent director gave me options. It gave me the freedom to not settle for less and the agility to walk away. And walking away gave me the flexibility to be at home with my family in our children’s latter high school years.

Conversations with professional mothers often went something like this: “You are so lucky to have this opportunity at this time.  So many mothers want to be at home for their children during the formative years.  The reality is that children often need you more in their teenage, high-school years just before they head out into the world.  It’s your last opportunity to influence the adults they will become.”

What looked at first like a sacrifice of time with my family and an additional time burden actually became my exit strategy and my elevation to a new professional level.

Consider the following when confronting questions about next steps in your career:

  • Do not assume you cannot take the next step. Take time to assess your ecosystem and your personal and professional circle of support.  You may have people around you who are willing to help you. 
  • Consider what you can comfortably outsource vs. what is non-negotiable. Once you decide when and how and where you need to show up, whether at work or at home, release yourself from any feelings of guilt.
  • Determine what motivates you professionally. Be willing to take risks and to move into unfamiliar territory.  Do not settle for the comfortable and familiar because it appears to be easy.
  • Have a five-year plan. And then be willing to toss it when an unexpected opportunity presents itself!  Trust the people around you who might see in you more than you see in yourself at any point in time.
  • Your ultimate goal is flexibility. Position yourself so that if you ever need to walk away you can.  So often the walkaway point turns out to be a new frontier. 
 
Today, I celebrate working mothers and all they mean to and for their families.  Whenever we are tempted to question our decisions, to feel guilty about our choices, we should draw strength from each other’s stories.  Take the risk.  Embrace the opportunity.  Identify and lean on your circle of support in family and friends.  Your children will thank you, be proud of you and learn from you.

Nichelle Maynard-Elliott is an accomplished dealmaker and advisor to boards and senior management with over 25 years of extensive financial and legal experience in mergers and acquisitions, business development and strategic alliances. Since 2018, Maynard-Elliott has served as an independent director of Element Solutions Inc. (NYSE: ESI), a $2.8 billion global specialty chemicals company. Maynard-Elliott is the former Executive Director, M&A, for Praxair, Inc. (wholly owned subsidiary of Linde plc), a leading industrial gases/engineering company.  Prior to serving as Executive Director, M&A, Maynard-Elliott served as Senior Counsel and then Assistant General Counsel in Praxair’s law department.  Prior to joining Praxair in 2003, Maynard-Elliott practiced corporate law, specializing in M&A and private equity at large corporate law firms. Maynard-Elliott received a Juris Doctor from Columbia University School of Law and a BA in Economics from Brown University. She and her husband live in Mount Kisco, NY with a daughter who attends Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, NY and a son who is pursuing his BFA at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

 

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