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Sister act: Siblings share perspectives that got them to the head of Fortune 500 firms

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Denise Morrison, left, and Maggie Wilderotter during the Tuesday evening session.
Denise Morrison, left, and Maggie Wilderotter during the Tuesday evening session. - ()

Denise Morrison and Maggie Wilderotter are in a sisterhood beyond the one they shared growing up in the Sullivan household in Elberon — the CEOs of Campbell Soup and Frontier Communications, respectively, are among only 21 female CEOs in the Fortune 500.

In a wide-ranging conversation on women's leadership Tuesday evening at Liberty Science Center, in Jersey City, the sisters addressed the debate over the persistent shortage of top corporate women that's been ignited by the new book by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead." Like Morrison and Wilderotter, Sandberg is a wife, mother and successful corporate leader who urges women not to let their ambitions fall victim to the challenges they confront in the workplace.

"One of the values of the book is the fact that it continues this important dialogue," Morrison told the audience of more than 400 executives at the event, sponsored by KPMG's New Jersey Women's Network-to-Network, which brings leaders of corporate women's initiatives together several times a years to share best practices that help women build their careers in the state.

While there are plenty of women in entry-level and middle management jobs, "there is still so much work that needs to be done at the top," Morrison said. She noted five women serve on the board of Camden-based Campbell, and they are "making an enormous difference in that room in terms of how ideas are processed and how governance is conducted — for the better."

Coming in Monday's print edition of NJBIZ: Denise Morrison and Maggie Wilderotter discuss leadership, risk-taking and career strategies.

Wilderotter commended Sandberg for raising an issue which she said had been dormant.

"There hasn't been a lot of activism around women in the workplace. I think what Sheryl Sandberg has done is spark that discussion again, to bring that back up to the surface," Wilderotter said. She said there needs to be a pipeline of women getting a succession of opportunities to advance. "The problem in corporate America today is the pipeline is small, and women opt out of that pipeline because of other priorities in their lives. We have to figure out what the right flexibilities are in order to make things work."

Asked about Sandberg's contention that successful women, unlike successful men, are not viewed as being likable, Wilderotter said, "I don't recall being conscious of people not liking me because I was successful." She said she spent time getting to know people, especially people known for being hard to get to know, and try to bring out the best in people. "I would build relationships with people before I would ask them to do things. Then people would help me, and not try to stand in my way."

Morrison said, "Being a leader is not a popularity contest. You are not doing it necessarily to be liked, but you have to earn respect, because if you don't have followers you won't lead anything. Followers come from trust and respect: I focused more on how you build that trust and respect rather than worrying about whether I was liked or not."

The program's moderator was Kelly Watson, New Jersey managing partner for KPMG, who in 2007 launched the New Jersey Women's Network-to-Network. Watson talked about the importance of relationships in growing a business.

"People want to do business with people they know, with people they like, with people they've spent time with. And women tend to not know as many people outside of their organizations," Watson said.

She said women may think they should work hard "and then hope someone taps me on the shoulder and promotes me. That's not the way it works. You have to pick your head up, pay attention to what is going on, get to know people, and make your skill set known to others. That is what makes you valuable in the market."

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