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Who's the Top Female CEO in America?

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Editor’s Note: In an interview with wowOwow, New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera, whose latest book, Good Guys and Bad Guys, is a collection of his writings, also explains why wealthy women don’t buy yachts, how Wall Street still keeps a good woman down and why women’s sports is such a financial flop.

wOw: Who is the most effective female CEO to your mind?

Nocera: Without a doubt, it’s Indra Nooyi of Pepsi. She is tough and smart, but she is also quite charismatic, and a born leader. People respond to her, which I think is a key skill for any chief executive. And she is trying to do something really hard but really important—turn Pepsi into a company less dependent on its core soda business, and transition it to a company that makes food and drinks that are healthier.
wOw: Is there something different about her in comparison to an effective male CEO?

Nocera: To be honest, I don’t really think there is much difference between her and a good male chief executive. No CEO can simply say “jump” and expect the corporation to ask, “How high?” The world doesn’t work that way anymore. Good executives lead by example, by persuasion, by being able to explain why they are taking the course they are taking. People need to see that they are comfortable in their own skin, that they are not defensive, that they are empathetic—but that in the end, they can make the tough decisions. Jeff Immelt, in my opinion, has those qualities—and so does Indra Nooyi.

wOw: Other than our fabulous Mary Wells Lawrence, who is/was the best female entrepreneur in America?

Nocera: I have two candidates: Anita Roddick of the Body Shop, which, in addition to being a successful business, was an early leader in creating corporate culture that was “green” and progressive. My second candidate is Oprah Winfrey, who has done an amazing job “extending her brand” from one talk show into everything from XM Radio to magazines to the movies.

In part two of this interview, Joe Nocera explains why Americans are bad investors, China is scary ( but not in ways you might think it is) and greed is only half good.

wOw: Are women changing Wall Street, or is Wall Street changing women?

Nocera: Neither. Wall Street is still a very male-oriented place, and women can have a hard time there. Most trading floors still have very few women, for instance, and there aren’t many women investment bankers either. The women who get to the executive suite on Wall Street are notable because there are so few of them. And two of them—Zoe Cruz at Morgan Stanley and Erin Callan at Lehman—recently lost their positions in no small part because their bosses were trying to save their own skins.

wOw: Many women have worked on Wall Street for many years. Is the Street any different?

Nocera: Not really. The women who have succeeded on Wall Street have had the kind of jobs that are autonomous but also don’t offer a great deal in terms of “climbing the greasy pole.” For instance, Mary Meeker is a very well-known analyst, and Abbie Cohen at Goldman Sachs was perhaps the best-known strategist during the Internet-bubble years. They could say what they wanted about companies and the economy (well, within certain limits), and run their shops as they saw fit. But neither was going to ever be in a serious leadership role. One woman who does have such a role is Sally Krawcheck at Citigroup—but she too has hit the glass ceiling, having been removed as CFO as Chuck Prince was trying (unsuccessfully) to save his job.

wOw: Women’s sports has never caught on as a business. Any idea why?

Nocera: I wish I knew. I am a huge fan of the UConn women’s basketball team—I love the way good women’s basketball teams play the game the way it should be played— unselfishly and below the rim. But the pro game, even with the backing of the NBA, is still a marginal sport. And women’s soccer, where the American national team is as good as any in the world and which captured the country’s imagination some years ago, has also never caught on as a pro sport. Maybe there is something about women playing for money, as opposed as for the love of sport, that subconsciously turns off sports fans. It’s a shame, because the WNBA is really fun basketball to watch.
wOw: Where does women’s wealth go?

Nocera: So much wealth is now going into foundations and causes, and that is especially true of women’s wealth. To over-generalize greatly, wealthy women seem less interested than men in buying yachts and fancy cars and other such “look-at-how-rich-I-am” toys, and more interested in using their money to make the world a better place. Environmental causes, it seems to me, are near and dear to the hearts of many wealthy women.

Photo courtesy of wowOwow


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