THE BLOG
08/09/2014 09:16 am ET Updated Oct 09, 2014

Women in Business Q&A: Sue Sears is Vice President of Global Diversity & Inclusion at Kimberly-Clark Corporation

Suzanne (Sue) Sears is Vice President of Global Diversity & Inclusion at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, where she is responsible for working with the global businesses to advance and embed the company's key diversity growth strategies and initiatives for business impact. Sue is passionate about advancing women in leadership roles and has been extremely active in this area during her career with Kimberly-Clark.

Previously, Sue worked in Kimberly-Clark Professional (KCP) where she led the Global Marketing & Sales team. She was accountable for the development of global marketing strategies and customer management strategies including global national accounts. She formerly was President of the Global Do-It-Yourself Business, an entrepreneurial business of Kimberly-Clark that sells and markets professional grade products into the retail channel working with key customers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot.

Prior to joining Kimberly-Clark, Sue was Vice President of Marketing for Unisource Worldwide, Inc, a leading distributor of printing and imaging products, packaging systems and sanitary maintenance supplies.

Sue is an active member of the Board of Directors for the Network of Executive Women since March 2011 and currently co-chairs the Education and Learning Council. She also sits on two marketing advisory boards: Kelly School of Business, Indiana University and Widener University, PA.

Sue graduated with honors in Business Education from the University of Delaware.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My life experience led me to realize women have to help other women. Most of my sponsors moving up the career ladder were men. I know I would have benefitted from advice and support from women leaders, but opportunities were limited, since there were fewer women in senior management ranks. I became involved in women's groups and decided to make change from global marketing to diversity because I wanted to pay it forward, be a dynamic force for other women and help them succeed.

How did your previous employment experience aid your position at Kimberly-Clark?
I served in junior roles before coming to Kimberly-Clark. I started as a secretary and worked my way up the corporate ladder. My first boss expected me to get his coffee and water his plants. I let him know I was not going to do that and I was hired to be his assistant and that was not in my job specification. I wanted to stand up for myself and be recognized for the talents and skills that I brought to the job. As I advanced, I had to gain the confidence to be assertive in a meeting and stand up for my point of view. As a junior brand manager, I envisioned myself as a Director and had the confidence in all my interactions to be that person.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
You need a supportive partner and good kids who understand what you are doing is for the family and for your own personal growth. They need to understand your goals and why they may need to make tradeoffs. It is also very important to make time for yourself, whether it's weekend trips with girlfriends or a visit to the spa. Your job is important but not the whole thing in your life. You are more interesting both inside and outside of work when you have other interests. Also, I think it is very important to step up and be grateful for what you have in your life as always stay positive. I always approach every challenge with an attitude of "we can do this" and 90% of the time we can.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Kimberly-Clark?
Kimberly-Clark has offered me many opportunities to contribute to the growth of the company and make an impact, and there have been many highlights for me. I had the opportunity to lead an entrepreneurial business unit, with a great team focused on winning with our customers. We grew the business significantly and profitably during my tenure. I also had the opportunity to work for a $ 7 billion company and transform their marketing division, which was extremely satisfying. Another highlight was achieving a senior level officer position in company eight years ago. I became one of the top 12 women at K-C to hold that position. It is great to have a seat at the table and participate in important discussions that are strategic to the company's growth. In April of 2014, Kimberly-Clark received the Catalyst Award for its work to advance women in senior leadership roles. That's a real highlight for me, and I am proud to have been involved in that effort.

In terms of challenges, I would have liked to have had more women leaders to learn from as well as observe. It is important to have an idea of where you want to go with your career even if you don't have a clear path to get there. I believe if I had had more female role models to learn from it would have helped me tremendously. That is why I have focused on sponsoring and mentoring women - and men - to help them succeed. That is a very rewarding part of my job.

What is the K-C Unleash Your Power initiative and how is it making a real difference within the company?
In 2009, only 11 of the top 120 leaders at Kimberly-Clark were women. Women buy over 80 percent of the products we make, but they did not have representation on the leadership team. Our CEO, Tom Falk, our board of directors and our senior leadership team recognized that K-C needed to create more demand and velocity for women in senior management roles.

We went to 15 regional and functional groups around the world to determine where they stood on diversity and what it meant to them. Based on the research, we developed 15 customized diversity and inclusion action plans.

We clearly needed to get more women into senior director roles. One of the realities is that Kimberly-Clark is a great place to work. People enjoy working here and stay here for a long time. As a result, senior positions open up less frequently, and we have to make a very conscious effort to ensure we identify talented women in our ranks and make sure they are included as candidates when we are searching to fill a senior role.

To build support for the program, we needed to focus on how greater diversity in the management team benefits the growth of Kimberly-Clark's businesses and brands. To do so, we found and shared success stories of leaders with diverse teams where their results exceeded others, often by double digits.

We developed a global framework for advancing diversity and inclusion to address challenges posed by geographic and cultural differences. For example, in China, there is heavy traffic, which makes for very long commutes to the office. We decided to change our starting time to 10 AM so women had enough time to get to work after dropping their kids off at school.

In your opinion, how can other companies adopt a similar initiative to further opportunities for women?
It is essential to have leadership from the top. Our CEO, Tom Falk, champions Kimberly-Clark's efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive management team. He models the behavior we want to encourage across the organization. Today, half of the executives in the C-suite are women.

It is critical to establish real goals for advancing women in senior leadership roles. We worked with a management consultant to look at market and demographic trends and set reasonable objectives for expanding the number of women in director-level jobs over a five year period. We communicate these goals throughout the organization, and measure and report progress to the senior leadership team on a quarterly basis and to our board from two to three times a year.

Another key is to ensure there is a diverse slate of candidates when senior management positions become available. We have identified the top talent in the company. They know who they are as well. We create personal development plans for these individuals, which identify any skills gaps that need to be bridged, so they are ready to advance when positions open up. We want to make sure we draw from the widest and deepest pool of talent in our global organization.