Sunday Sitdown: Chicago exec, mom works to remove glass ceiling

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Michelle Stohlmeyer Russell, senior partner and managing director for the Boston Consulting Group in Chicago. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times

Michelle Stohlmeyer Russell is a managing director for the Boston Consulting Group in Chicago. She spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Sandra Guy about the management consulting firm’s new Center for Knowledge and Analytics and the company’s effort to transform its culture and remove the glass ceiling women have faced. An edited transcript follows.

Question: Chicago wins attention for its technology incubators and accelerators, but big companies are expanding innovation centers here, too. What’s BCG’s expansion about?

Answer: Our Chicago Center for Knowledge & Analytics opens Sept. 19 at 225 W. Wacker Dr. This new hub will employ 75 people initially but expects to grow to almost 200 data scientists and industry experts by 2018. Our main Chicago office employs over 500 people, making Chicago one of our largest offices outside of the Boston global headquarters.

Q: You are the major player in changing workforce policies at BCG to break the glass ceiling for women. How did that happen?

A: The company does an annual “people” survey. In 2012, the results showed a 30-point gap between male and female managers’ views on our efforts to retain women — with men thinking we were doing pretty well and women not so much. This clearly had an effect on how satisfied our women were as employees and the rates at which we retained and promoted them. We’ve completely closed that gap. More than 80 percent of men and women now think we’re making a good effort to satisfy, retain and promote women. Now, the firm’s 17-member executive committee has six women, and the CEO’s leadership team is more than one-third female.

My efforts are focused on partnering with the leaders of BCG’s offices and practice areas to prioritize supporting the women on their teams. This is supported by a program we call “Apprenticeship in Action.” We focus on the way we build relationships, how we deliver feedback and how we coach on communication skills. These are three of the strongest factors in women’s satisfaction with their experience and are also relevant for men.

I’m a working mom, and I talk about the issues women face. My belief is you can’t change the system from the outside. There was a generation of women leaders who felt, to be successful, they had to play by the boys’ rules. That’s not my approach.

Q: You’ve tackled some of Chicago’s bigger issues — crime, education funding equality, health-care access — as a member of the leadership council for the Civic Consulting Alliance, a fellow of Leadership Greater Chicago and through your office’s pro bono efforts. How can Chicago turn things around on these issues?

A: Listen, this is our city. We have to bring together business, government and non-profit leaders. And the next generation of leaders have to tackle these problems. We cannot look to others to solve them.

Q: Talk about how you used a leave to care for your best friend’s newborn.

A: Employees can take up to two months of unpaid leave with full benefits for whatever reason they choose, whether it’s to travel to Europe, learn to horseback ride or extend a parental leave. After three years at BCG, I did that. I acted as nanny for my best friend’s 3-month-old baby in Juneau, Alaska. My best friend was a teacher and was trying to figure out how she could get to the end of the school year without putting her daughter in day care. I took a leave and took care of her daughter every day. At the end of my stay, we went halibut fishing in Hoonah, where her dad was the harbormaster.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: I love hanging out with my kids [Ella, 7, and Hannah, 5] and my husband [Jonathan, a former Chicago Public Schools fourth-grade teacher]. We love traveling. The girls were on their first airline flights at eight weeks old. We get on planes as a family at least six times a year. I love a good glass of wine and a good meal. And I’m a HUGE Blackhawks fan. My 7-year-old likes to say, “What is 9 times 9? — [Marian] Hossa!” He’s our favorite.

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