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In the Lead

Joan Sherman Freilich ’63

Former CFO & Vice-Chair, Consolidated Edison Company of New York

Earning a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a PhD in French, Freilich began her career teaching, ultimately going into academic administration as director of admissions at the College of New Rochelle. But Freilich, who became a trustee of Barnard in 2006, enjoys challenging herself: She enrolled at the Columbia University Business School to earn an executive MBA. In class, she met a public-affairs executive at Con Ed who brought her into the company. Starting in accounting, she moved into power-generation—not the dead- end she imagined because of an enlightened male superior from whom she learned a great deal about power—both electrical and corporate. Her career tracked upward until her recent retirement.

For Freilich, critical components of exemplary leadership— for both sexes—are a vision for the future of the institution and the ability to mobilize resources and personnel to help support and realize the specified goals. How to motivate staff? Says Freilich, “You need to ask as much of yourself as you do your personnel and maintain the highest level of personal integrity.” To enable such mobilization, “deep channels” of communication must be encouraged from the head office down. But even more critical, those channels must also flow from the lower echelons to the top. Managers have to be comfortable enough to share problems with superiors and must be encouraged to do so without fear of being scorned as less than a team player. Espousing a “tough, but fair” ethic, she says a leader needs to know when an error can be forgiven and when it cannot.

Women as leaders do have some advantages over men. It’s easier for many women to feel openly uncertain about a proposal, and to solicit more information, research, and expert opinions before making decisions. But, adds Freilich, “as a leader, you have to be willing to make that decision.” Because they are generally outside the “old boy network, and throw off the balance of a group,” women may also be more willing to speak up in a group dominated by men of similar backgrounds and training. This unbalance, says Freilich, can bring a fresh perspective and new ideas to problem solving, and is a major advantage to encouraging diversity in the workplace.

 

Dana Points ’88Dana Points

Editor-In-Chief, Parents Magazine

She got the publishing bug early on; Dana Points always knew that was the field she longed to enter. On the job as editor-in-chief of Parents Magazine since September 2009, Points, an English major, said she was drawn to magazines because they enabled her to help others and bring about change on a large scale. Despite the problems print media face in the electronic age, she has a major role in the business overseeing one of its strongholds: Parents, a monthly magazine published by Iowa-based media behemoth Meredith, has more than 10 million readers.

Before joining Parents, Points served as executive editor of Self, a woman’s magazine specializing in fitness, health, nutrition, and beauty, for nine years. At Parents, she oversees a staff of 30 editors, designers, and writers. As a leader she strives to be clear and decisive. She avoids being too controlling, wanting to give her staff “room to grow.” As an editor, she welcomes input from outsiders. With a healthy respect for publishing deadlines, which, if ignored, can be extremely costly, Points acknowledges the need for wise, effective management and planning while maintaining a healthy respect for “creative” types. “You have to play to the strengths of people who work for you ... to a point,” she says.

Hesitating when asked about differences in leadership styles between men and women, she laughs, “I’ve only worked for women,” but allows that the business, or advertising, side of magazine publishing remains to a large degree a male domain, adding that the founder of Parents was a man: George J. Hecht, a businessman and social-service worker started the magazine in 1926. The first editor, Clara Savage Littledale, was a mother of two and an alumna of Smith. Points is thoughtful about women or men being greater risk-takers; she’s not really sure the issue is entirely gender-based. So many other variables come into play, she adds, among them, personality, family background, and an individual’s experience. She also feels that the current economy might temper the more adventurous.

Alexandra Guarnaschelli ’91Alexandra Guarnaschelli

Executive Chef, Butter Restaurant

In a field where top chefs have first names like Daniel, Mario, or Thomas, there’s Alex—short for Alexandra, as in Alexandra Guarnaschelli, the not-so-typical female executive chef of Butter Restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village. Her creative take on a menu of American cuisine with greenmarket ingredients has been drawing the rich, famous, and those who are simply hungry for fresh, delicious, and imaginative food, since 2003.

After graduating from Barnard with a degree in art history, Guarnaschelli worked with restaurateur and chef Larry Forgione, credited with fueling interest in classic American cuisine. This daughter of renowned cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli then went to France to study and work for restaurateur Guy Savoy. Ultimately, he put her in charge of a kitchen in Paris with 10 young French cooks—all men. “It was a life-changing experience,” she says, exhaling. Today, in addition to running the Butter kitchen, she is also a member of the advisory council at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City; new episodes of her TV show, Alex’s Day Off, will begin airing on Food Network early this spring.

Guarnaschelli says she leads by example, “How can I expect my team to work hard if I’m off having cocktails every night during service?” She also thanks them every night, “I recognize my team for the work they do.” In the kitchen, each cook is ultimately an extension of her, and she points out, “I want each person to know they are valued and respected.” Given the diversity of the kitchen staff, she says food is a great unifier, bringing together different cultures over its preparation. It’s something akin to a family meal: people cook dishes that will say something about their background or culture, and share the results.

Guarnaschelli gives much credit for her success to Guy Savoy, who helped her learn how to take charge of a restaurant kitchen. She believes that gender doesn’t consistently affect the way a kitchen is run; women may be more motherly, men more fatherly, but the notion of family reappears. “I care for my staff and make it my business to be as involved in their lives as I can ... I try hard to establish a routine and a bond. And this style of leading has worked for me: I’ve had 80 percent of the same team for over five years.”

Susan Baer ’72Susan Baer

Director of Aviation, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

The first person in the history of this bi-state agency to manage all the major Port Authority airports, Susan Baer has spent the past 34 years of her working life at this Port District created by an interstate compact in 1921. As director, she’s responsible for the safe, efficient running of JFK International, Newark Liberty International, LaGuardia, Teterboro, and Stewart International Airport. A major in urban studies and anthropology at Barnard, Baer has an MBA from New York University. She joined the PA as a management analyst and rose through the ranks.

Baer forthrightly ticks off what she considers to be needed leadership qualities: communicate with staff (she’s responsible for 900 aviation staff, 700 dedicated police, and more than 2,000 contract employees); keep focused on the institution’s mission; be able to make the tough decisions; and appear fearless. The latter quality doesn’t imply being fearless. The same skills women use to keep their families running smoothly are the same skills that can make them effective leaders. She feels women can often take on risk more readily than men because women’s egos are less tied to their jobs. Baer also sees women as being less likely to take risks that will jeopardize or hurt families; and they will ask for input from staff before making decisions.

During her time at the Lincoln Tunnel, Baer saw male supervisors with a “paramilitary” management style and structure she was not comfortable with. Asserting herself, she was a more inclusive manager, seeking employees’ feedback and ideas in round-table discussions about various issues, and instituting a family day. Among the aspects of leadership she enjoys most is being able to develop, mentor, and promote individuals, and encourage diversity in the workplace. Baer believes that a diverse staff discourages “lockstep” thinking and encourages creativity. Essentially, she sees her role is that of an enabler and a leader through a changing environment.

A principal goal of the top person is to help staff be creative and solve whatever challenges the group has to face. And today, in the transportation business, those challenges are myriad and, at times, seemingly intractable.

Ellen V. Futter ’71Ellen Futter

President, American Museum of Natural History

Frequently included in media lists of “most powerful women,” Ellen Futter graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with an English major. With a law degree from Columbia University, Futter practiced corporate law at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, taking a year’s leave to become interim president of Barnard. And then, at 31, she became Barnard’s president, the youngest ever of a major American college. She led Barnard for 13 years, preserving its independence from Columbia, launching a major fund-raising campaign, and beginning construction of the Sulzberger Tower dormitory, without funding in place, among other accomplishments. In her current position since 1993, Futter has brought a dazzling array of achievements to the AMNH, including the creation of the Rose Center for Earth and Space, 12 new or renovated exhibition halls, and the establishment of the Richard Gilder Graduate School. AMNH is now the first American museum authorized to grant the PhD degree.

Futter brings a strong team orientation to her role as a leader. The top person must bring an organization forward and have a strong plan for growth. In her view, women are inclined to be more collaborative, a notion that goes back to her endorsement of the team concept, and one, she allows, that is not that much different than running a family. She encourages staff—be they curators, professors, or administrators—to think beyond their specific area, to see how a group’s particular role might “fit into a larger context.” Futter explains, “This lifts their work and maximizes the product.” For example, when mounting an exhibit at the museum, staff must function across departments: designers, curators, educators, and installation specialists must work together to bring about an optimal result.

Her list of accomplishments suggests a supreme confidence, almost fearlessness. But Futter characterizes the projects she has led as arising “out of complex and unique decision- making processes....” She describes the whole as “prudent risk-taking,” invoking her previous training as a lawyer. That process involves such considerations as a “full briefing and analysis” of pertinent conditions, understanding the “strategic importance ... of the project,” and “the risks of both action—and inaction.”

-by Annette Kahn, photographs by Brandon Schulman