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Ann Harlan

Ann is a 2011 alumna of the Board Institute. Her bio is available here

BOARD SERVICE EXPERIENCE

Gorman-Rupp Company

2009-present

Lead Director; Chair of the Nominating and Governance Company; Member of the Audit Committee

Eatem Foods Corporation

2010-2015

How did you get involved with the boards you serve (or served) on? Did networking play a role?

I got involved on the private company board I served on through my work as a lawyer. This is interesting from a DirectWomen perspective because often women are told to position themselves as business women with law degrees. However, this opportunity initially came because I had done legal work for the private equity group that purchased Eatem Foods Corporation. Because of our prior connection, they knew of my legal experience as well as how I interacted on a team. Moreover, being the General Counsel at The J.M. Smucker Company at the time gave me some insight into the challenges of running a food company. Despite this, I doubt they would have just cold-called me if we had not known each other from our prior relationship. 

I was introduced to the management team at The Gorman Rupp Company through a business connection at Smucker I worked closely with our audit partner on several complicated acquisitions. He was also the lead partner at Gorman-Rupp, and when they had a need on their board, he suggested me. 

This experience shows that you never know where these opportunities come from, so it is important to always put your best foot forward. Reputation leads, after all. 

Gorman-Rupp's focus is pumps, which is a bit different from the food industry. What has it been like adjusting to work in that environment?

One of the first questions I ask myself when I consider a board opportunity is: How can I add value to this company? With respect to Gorman-Rupp, at the start, I had limited knowledge about the pump business. But Gorman-Rupp was a public company with a very large family ownership interest, which is certainly consistent with my experience at Smucker. 

Additionally, I had compensation and public company governance experience which were both areas where Gorman-Rupp thought it would be helpful to have some additional perspective. Certainly, the knowledge of the business is critical and I continue to work hard to stay on top of industry issues that were new areas for me. Ultimately it was the perspective on compensation, governance, and a public company with family ownership that was my initial contribution. 

You have held quite a few leadership roles with Gorman-Rupp and also with several of the other boards you have served on. How did you get into these roles and what advice would you give to women who are interested in becoming committee chaires

Every woman who is part of the DirectWomen organization has already accomplished a tremendous amount and are already leaders and subject matter experts. For me, stepping into Board leadership roles has required that at transition from being a content and subject matter expert to becoming well versed in the business, business risks and opportunities as well as “being able to see around the corner” to identify what might be the next strategic challenge to face the organization.

If the focus is always on determining how best to contribute as a Board member, it is largely a combination of being willing to work hard and recognizing that businesses are run by people, and people are driven by relationships. It is important to be a team player and still have your own voice and independent perspective.  

Being a team player sometimes has a negative connotation because some people think it means just “going along with the group” and “being one of the guys”. Yet, my perspective of being a team player is a focus on the corporate objectives while at the same time bringing diverse points of view to the conversation. It’s about knowing when to be collaborative and when to step up and speak your mind. The emotional intelligence required to be a leader is something we all must learn. It requires as much hard work as being a subject matter expert. 

What have you learned about what it's like to be a director since becoming a director? How have you grown into the position?

The issues facing companies today are changing at a much faster pace than ever before. As a result, it is so important for directors to constantly be learning and to be willing to acknowledge that we don’t know all the answers. 

In a relatively brief time, you joined several boards, you retired from the J.M. Smucker Company, and you started your own management consulting firm. What was it like going through so much professional transition in such a short time and what advice would you give to women who are also going through many transitions stimultaneously?

I had great support from colleagues and friends. The Gorman-Rupp opportunity came to me shortly before I retired. I was very transparent with Richard Smucker and Tim Smucker (the CEOs of the J.M. Smucker Company regarding my interest in the position, and they were very supportive. They were wonderful mentors and allies, and there are dozens of other people about whom I could say the same thing. 

To be successful in the face of rapid change requires both the nimbleness to shift when things don’t go your way and the willingness to put your nose down and work hard. It means knowing your limits while also being as flexible as possible. 

What are your short and long-term goals moving forward?

Well one goal is certainly to continue to grow the consulting business my business partner and I started, Harlan Peterson Partners, LLC. 

From a board perspective, the public company board service, the private company board service, and the not-for-profit company board service are all very rewarding and very different both in terms of time demands and skill sets. With the recent successful sale of Eatem Foods, one of my goals is to identify another corporate board opportunity where I can make a contribution. In the long term, if the right opportunity comes up, I would be open to adding one more public company board. 

How has DirectWomen helped you to achieve your board-related objectives or goals?

I was on each of these boards prior to my connection to DirectWomen. The connection that I feel with DirectWomen stems from my passion for supporting other professional women who have the desire to do what I’ve been fortunate enough to do. There’s certainly nothing special about my skills--I’ve just been fortunate enough to have a solid group of mentors around me that have supported me through network-building, relationship-building, and skill-building. For me, DirectWomen is about giving back so that ultimately, we have more diversity of age and experiences in the board room. One way that I do that is by getting to know my DirectWomen colleagues and sharing my experiences--both the things that have worked and things that I would do differently. Perhaps most importantly, this is a great group of professionals and I’ve made terrific friends. 

Have you seen any shifts in the corporate world in attitudes towards women in leadership or executive positions since you started your career?

We’ve seen so many changes. We should honor the women who came twenty years before us because they were in the trenches. Every day they worked to create professional reputations and to be viewed as content experts. That sounds so obvious now, but at the time, it was almost the rule that they were the only female lawyer in the room Consequently, these women had to navigate how to give their male-dominated workplaces a frame of reference for seeing them as professionals. 

Those women were pioneers. Today, workplaces have much less blatant discrimination, but unconscious bias is still a significant challenge. Candidly, we all have unconscious bias. And although we have made tremendous progress, we are not there yet. Most people are coming to understand that diversity—whether it be age, experience, race or ethnicity, or gender—leads to better outcomes.

Have you had an experience where diversity on a board led you in one direction versus another direction?

Yes. One example might be University Hospitals Health System. The board has diversity in age, occupation, gender, and ethnicity; we each bring something different to the table.

Because University Hospitals is a healthcare system, our focus on the finances, operations, and management of the system is critical and is all around supporting the mission of excellence in patient care and cutting-edge research. There have been many occasions where our conversations about the patient experience differ based on our backgrounds and perspectives. I have seen our diversity lead us to ask different questions that lead to better answers. 

Do you have any final advice for aspiring women directors?

My advice is simple. Just bring your best authentic self to the Board room. When we do what we believe others expect of us, but in doing so are not authentic, people sense that and we lose trust and credibility. But when we focus less on influencing people and more on being true to our skills and our beliefs, we are much more likely to be successful.

 Secondly, develop your professional reputation. Put your best foot forward every day because you really don’t know where your next opportunity is going to come from. And then take appropriate risks. Try something outside of your comfort zone. You’ve got to work for it, but having the self confidence is half the battle. 

Success Stories

Ann Harlan

Ann joined the board of the Gorman-Rupp Company in 2009. Learn more

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