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Women in Business Q&A: Sheila Ronning, CEO & Founder, Women in the Boardroom

01/14/2016 04:32 pm 16:32:40 | Updated 14 January 2016

Long before women on boards was a hot topic, Sheila Ronning believed in women's ability to serve on corporate boards strongly enough to become the Founder & CEO of Women in the Boardroom. Today, as one of the nation's top leadership and board service experts, Sheila excels at connecting influential women executives and professionals with the people and tools they need to succeed in business and the boardroom by organizing executive and board coaching sessions, seminars and webinars.

Sheila has built a strong track record over the years. Before founding Women in the Boardroom in 2002, she garnered more than 10 years of strategic marketing, sales management, and operations leadership experience with companies that range from Fortune 500 leaders to visionary start-ups. Today, Sheila has thousands of powerful connections nationwide, which she uses to help other women achieve their goals. When asked her secret to networking, Sheila says, "Be fearless, sincere, honest, and frank."

Sheila is part of Fortune's Most Powerful Women Insider network, received the Enterprising Woman of the Year Award from Enterprising Women magazine. She has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, ForbesWoman, Star Tribune, The Pioneer Press, and Chicago Sun-Times. The Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal named Sheila in their prestigious "40 Under Forty" list for her entrepreneurial dynamism and reputation as a networking expert.

Sheila, who is also a faculty member of the GLG Institute, a membership-based learning community for leading executives, is a regular speaker on topics ranging from women on boards to excelling as a female leader. Sheila has recently participated in speaking engagements at NewsCorp, LPL Financial, Time Warner and L'oreal.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I think that having the most important woman in my life teach me how to go out and get the life I want, no matter what the challenge, in many ways defines me.

My Father died when I was 2. I grew up with a single Mom raising 3 children. As you can imagine my Mom wore many hats and also had many jobs. I watched my Mom work several jobs and I thought it was the norm so when I was 12, I started babysitting and had several jobs throughout High School and most of the time more than one. While attending college I started working at Best Buy as a receptionist and in customer service, after a few years I was promoted to management and stopped going to college since the pay I was receiving was more than what I would make as a school teacher. I stayed at Best Buy for 8 years and then started working at a very small start up. While working at this start up I learned a lot about what it took to run a small business. Everyone working there wore many hats. My responsibilities included marketing, sales and public relations. I secured several speaking engagements and local and national press for the company. After just working there for a year I started my own marketing, sales and PR company. I soon found out what a struggle it was to keep potential clients in the pipeline. I then created a networking event for small business owners. It eventually became the largest business-to-business networking event in the Minneapolis area. A mentor suggested to me that I start having an annual event that focused on educating women about serving on corporate boards. After a few years of having these events in Minneapolis, I started expanding to new cities and within 4 years we were in 15 cities across the U.S.

I think that growing up with a Mom who never complained about her situation but rather went after what she needed, taught me that instead of talking about how unfair life can be that you need to make the life you want happen for yourself.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at WIB?
It is always beneficial to have diverse experiences and knowledge in various areas, especially when being an entrepreneur. Having the eclectic work history that I've had has helped give me insight into the many facets of being a business owner and broaden the resources I can draw from to bring more value to what WIB offers executive women who are looking to step into board service.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at WIB?
The highlights have definitely been the opportunity to meet so many amazing women and men. Whether they have been the experienced corporate board directors who have been leading the way and want to help other women get there or the aspiring directors who are qualified and ready to take their seat at the table. Each and every one of them have inspired me in some way. I learn from them every day. I feel truly blessed that I get to talk with them, work with them, help guide them on their path.

The challenges. The financial crisis took a few years to affect us but in 2011 it hit pretty hard and to make things worse, I wasn't paying close enough attention. It seemed like I woke up one day and our event sponsors were gone and our event attendance dropped significantly. On top of everything I had relocated from Minneapolis to NYC for a personal relationship that also ended 3 months after moving away from everyone I knew. It was pretty devastating. I went back to doing what I knew best - networking. I met a few women who started connecting me to the right people. I consistently kept meeting women who wanted to help. I also formed an advisory council of women corporate directors from across the U.S. and would hold monthly calls with them. I had to make some tough decisions during that time. I ended up turning the organization from an event company that focused on the masses to a membership organization that only focused on senior level executive women. The first few years with the new platform was very lean. As for staff, I was left with only a few virtual assistants who I could only afford for 5 to 10 hours a week. I was working day and night. Thankfully things started moving in the right direction mid 2013.

What advice can you offer women who want a leadership role?
You should never assume people know you want a leadership role so you need to let people know. You also need to make sure that you are always on your "A" game because people are always watching you. If you want that next step up, act like you already have it. Dress like it, act like it, perform like it. I also highly recommend making a list of people in your life who are those influencers and connectors. Keep track of these people and keep in touch with these people. These are the people who can help you get to the next step in your career or into the boardroom.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have not been consistent about maintaining a 'work/life' balance in the past but I am getting there. I now know that it is vital to take time off to re-charge. It is not only good for my physical and mental health but it helps give me clarity on what I should be focusing on at the office.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
There is a lot of research that shows that companies need to change their environments from "getting ahead" to "getting along". The research shows that companies who adapt to this are seeing a better bottom line. However, a few things need to change: Men need to look outside their inner circle for women to add to their teams, and women need to do a better job of seeking out these positions through their networks as well as promoting their readiness for leadership positions.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I met one of my mentors when I was in my 20s. She had a huge impact on my life both professionally and personally. I know I would not be who I am today or where I am at today if I had not met her. In my work I am fortunate to come across mentors all of the time, there are so many people out there who really want to help others. And when I am the mentor vs mentee I find that I am also receiving huge value from those relationships.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Madeline Albright, Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelou. They have all helped pave the way for others. They have all shown us how important it is to be comfortable in our own skin and help other women along the way.

What do you want WIB to accomplish in the next year?
We will continue to work on raising our brand as a thought leader in the execution of advancing women into the boardroom. A large part of that will be to continue to get the message out to corporate boards that we have an arsenal of qualified board-ready women.

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