Servant Leadership & Nurturing the Pipeline: a conversation with Maria Doughty

Evolve Giving Group
March 24, 2021

Welcome to the final interview in our series in celebration of Black History Month and Women’s History Month. We are highlighting and celebrating the contributions of leaders in the nonprofit sector. If you missed any of our interviews, you can find them here.

This week, we spoke to Maria Doughty, President and CEO of The Chicago Network.

Tell us about your current role at The Chicago Network (TCN). 

I am the President and CEO so I lead the organization in its mission, purpose, vision, and values. We are about empowering women to lead, so everything that we do is filtered through that lens. The things that I strive to do in this role, particularly during the pandemic, are making sure we keep our members engaged and inspire them to use their power and influence towards empowering women. 

TCN is all about gender equity. It was started by eight women who realized it was lonely at the top. Even now, the vast majority of corporations and boards are led by men. Being part of an organization of your peers, women that you can turn to for support, whether it’s professional or personal, that’s what TCN is about. So as a leader, I try to cultivate that environment so that our members feel connected to each other. 

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, especially women of color. I am on a bandwagon to make sure people are aware of the “she-cession” and the issues facing women in the workforce. Currently, I am working with our members to lead from within - encouraging them to consider policies and changes in their organizations that result in women remaining in their jobs. 

Now that everything is virtual, there are some silver linings and new challenges. Our members enjoy being together in person, so I look forward to the time when we can safely do so.  

After a successful career in law and at Allstate, why did you choose to make the professional switch into the nonprofit sector?

My personal purpose has always been servant leadership. It really stems from my childhood because I am the daughter of Italian immigrants. I spoke no English until I started kindergarten and my parents, two of the smartest people I know, had very little formal education. I was so fortunate to have teachers and role models throughout my life who motivated and taught me to believe that anything is possible. 

I always knew that I had to give back because I was given so much. So, I have always volunteered,even at a young age, focusing primarily on women and children. That passion for civic engagement has been a key part of my life. 

When I was at Allstate, the company supported my community engagement and volunteerism. There I led the women’s resource group where the mission, just like at TCN, was to empower women to lead. Leading in that space galvanized me to find an opportunity to do that work full time. 

Before I came to TCN, I always knew I’d move into the nonprofit sector because that’s where my heart was. With the right mission I knew that it was something that would continue to propel and excite me to make a difference. But I never wanted to put a square peg into a round hole - I wasn’t going to leave unless it was the perfect fit. 

When the TCN position was announced, a number of people sent me the job posting and encouraged me to apply. When I read it, it was as if I written my ideal job. Everything about it was perfect and I enthusiastically moved forward, never looking back.  

You have to feel it in your heart. You get to a point in your career where you realize that you have to do something that drives you to get up and do your job - I just knew that, as much as I loved practicing law, there was something else calling to me. 

How does your identity as a woman, an Italian, and a daughter of immigrants impact the work that you have chosen to do both in and outside of the office?

I have been fortunate that my parents and role models have always told me that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. The encouragement and belief that anything is possible is what has helped define me - it wasn’t because I am a woman.

However, being a woman and daughter of immigrants has fueled my passion for helping women because of what I have experienced and seen. I see women step back from opportunities because they lack the confidence to believe that they can succeed. You might be aware of the fact that most women will not apply for positions unless they fit many, if not all, of the job requirements, while men will apply regardless if they meet even one. 

Knowing that some women are afraid to take risks compels me to use my voice to promote them to step forward and take a chance. I want to give them what was always given to me - the belief and skills to have that confidence.

And the reality is, even the most powerful women have moments of insecurity.  It is our job as women to remind our sisters who they are, where they came from, where they are now, and where they can go.  Most importantly, once women reach the top it becomes their job to pull other women up with them.

I love that. We all have to be responsible for pulling up those that come after us so that we all succeed even more in the future. How do you act on that?

It is a concept that I call nurturing the pipeline. TCN members are at the top of their organizations, so how do we support women at the level right below? If we don't nurture the pipeline of the women who are on the cusp of being at the top, then when you look to find the next generation of women leaders, they aren’t there. 

I also believe women in middle management levels need to know what it takes to get to the top. You hear men say they can’t find a woman who is qualified to be CEO, and that’s just ridiculous! If we nurture the pipeline so that there is a succession of women ready to step into CEO roles, then we can move the needle and change the numbers. 

So often, to be a CEO, you need to have a finance background or experience managing a significant P&L. In the C-Suite, women tend to move into the “pink seats” - roles like the chief human resources officer, chief marketing officer, or chief legal officer. These are critical and powerful roles; however, they usually are not in a succession line for the CEO position.  Often these roles do not require the individual to maintain a P&L or manage the financial operations of an entire organization - an essential requirement to be a CEO.  If more women were told and encouraged early in their careers to prioritize obtaining P&L experience or getting a finance degree, then they would and we would see a shift in number of women CEOs.  Unfortunately, right now, women find out when it’s too late. 

How do you think the nonprofit sector can become more equitable and inclusive?

There are multiple ways. Nonprofits should begin by holding themselves accountable to the communities that they serve. An organization needs to be purposeful in how they execute their mission. If they find that they are not doing so equitably, then they should reassess how they are living into their mission and purpose. It’s about goal setting, measurement, and accountability. Otherwise, equity becomes simply an aspiration. If an organization doesn’t meet its equity and inclusion goals in alignment with its mission and purpose, then it’s time to reevaluate, recalibrate, and start again. 

Nonprofits should also consider building a diverse board of directors. Having a diversity of experiences, ethnicity, gender, age, perspectives, and expertise promotes better decision making leading to the overall success of the organization. Also, a diverse board will help ensure that the organization is equitably serving its constituents.      

We are so fortunate to live in a community with a robust nonprofit sector - serving a multitude of constituents and achieving distinct goals. I strongly believe that a nonprofit should be true to its mission and purpose - going back to not putting a round peg in a square hole. They should do so with a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens focusing on intentionality, action, and accountability.