Lynn Utter’s career path has been largely defined by two things: doing the unexpected, and an appreciation of the importance of diversity—whether in experience, perspective or background. This path recently led her to earn the Aiming High award from Legal Momentum, the nation’s oldest legal defense and education fund dedicated to advancing the rights of all women and girls.
A Midwestern upbringing that saw Utter spend weekdays in Omaha and weekends at her grandparents’ farm was apt preparation for a career that demanded she be just as comfortable in the boardroom as in the warehouse. A BBA at University of Texas, where she was one of only a few women studying engineering, was followed by an MBA at Stanford. Stints in such varied functions as distribution and consulting and at companies as different as Coors, Frito-Lay and Knoll Office, where she is President and COO, put her on Roy Haley’s radar when the former CEO and chairman of WESCO was looking for outside directors.
“When most companies are looking for a board member, they are looking for a sitting CEO,” acknowledges Haley about his selection of Utter. “Lynn’s dual consulting and organizational background was very important. Her capability and knowledge made me confident she was bringing the right mix of experience and point of view.”
Utter earned those qualifications with her determination and willingness to buck the status quo.
After several years of consulting, she took a job at Frito-Lay in Texas. The desire to be in the same city as her future husband then dictated a move to Colorado. The only available job was one in distribution—not the traditional fast-track position for someone with her background, and one of her bosses tried to talk her out of. She took it regardless, seeing it as a chance to learn the basics of the snack-food business alongside the people who knew it best—the truck drivers responsible for getting the product on the shelf.
“That’s when I realized I was able to connect the dots, and could relate to people at all levels,” she remembers. The experience also shaped her views about a leader’s responsibility to establish a vision, motivate people and give each person the chance to contribute in accord with their own skills and abilities. She sees her ability to contribute as being defined primarily by her experience, and secondarily by her gender.
“I come at it as being a great executive—whether as a board member, a management team member, or a leader, “ she says. “Especially with a board, it’s not about going after diversity for diversity’s sake but about bringing in experiences and perspectives that can help both the board and the management team succeed.”
Utter cautions women to rethink how gender shapes their contributions, pointing to studies that show how over a five-year period companies whose boards have more women posted 26 percent better returns than companies with exclusively male boards. “I don’t think women necessarily make better decisions in and of themselves,” she says. “When a board is diverse it is by definition a group that values different thoughts and perspectives and considers multiple points of view before coming to a decision.”
Utter says she’s grateful that Haley “took a risk” with a relatively young executive early in her tenure. Haley dismisses the idea that he was taking a chance. “One of the elements of a good board is compatibility based on respect, intellectual appreciation and contribution. Lynn’s understanding of the nuances of operations and her exposure to top management made me confident Lynn could contribute in a way that earned her the admiration and respect of fellow board members.”
For Utter, contributing is only part of the story; she’s also grateful for what serving on WESCO’s board has taught her. “There is no question my experience at WESCO has shifted my perspective on what long-term success looks like and priorities around things that may seem mundane,” she says. “Similarly, as a manager I can appreciate in the boardroom that we can have grand plans but I’m very cognizant of the day-to-day realities and what it takes to shift an organization. Having an appreciation for both sides helps guide expectations and reasonable goal-setting.”
For anyone with aspirations to serve on a board, Utter counsels patience and preparation. “I served on not-for-profit boards, both in my alma maters and in Denver on behalf of Coors, so I had experience rubbing elbows with very senior executives,” she says. “I understood the difference between management and boards so when I got a call that WESCO was looking for a director and my distribution background was of interest to them, I was ready.”
It was worth the wait. Says Utter: “You get out of your box and you get exposed to different people’s way of thinking, different context, and I think it’s an alternative to going off to an executive education course.”