Nebraska native becames one of a handful of female Fortune 500 CEOs

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September 12, 2011 - 7:00pm

Deanna Mulligan grew up in the small town of Wisner, Neb. population 1,273. Today, she lives in New York City, where she's the first female CEO of Guardian Life Insurance Company, a Fortune 300 company, and one of only about a dozen women currently heading Fortune 500 companies. In today's Signature Story, she talks with Hilary Stohs-Krause of NET News about her first two months on the job, and about wanting to be a role model for rural Nebraska girls and young women.

Deanna Mulligan, CEO of Guardian Life Insurance Company

DEANNA MULLIGAN, CEO of Guardian Life Insurance Company: "My initial reaction was, This is a great opportunity to make a difference for a company that I think does really important work for small businesspeople and families. And it's a great opportunity to make a difference for a company that's filled with people whom I really respect and admire.' I came to Guardian because of Guardian's culture, and my husband said to me when I went home to speak to him about potentially taking this job, and we talked about the pros and cons, and he said, At the end of the day, you love this company. Who is going to care about it more than you, and therefore whom would you trust more than yourself to lead it into the future?'"

HILARY STOHS-KRAUSE, NET News: "So two months in: tell me how that's gone so far."

DM: "Well, I was fortunate in that I had a long transition period with my predecessor, Dennis Manning. He gave me lots of good advice, and I spent almost seven months following him around when he was the CEO. And when it was announced that I would be the next CEO, he and I spent a lot of time planning, and he spent a lot of time introducing me to the various aspects of the job. So in some ways there weren't a lot of surprises in the two months because of the excellent preparation that Dennis had given me.

"On the other hand, I don't know if it's possible to fully prepare for the fact that when you're the CEO, the buck stops with you. You get credit for a lot of things that weren't necessarily your doing, but also anything that goes wrong is definitely your responsibility when you're running the company. You can't really take it off when you come home at night. It's not a 9-to-5 thing. It's a 24-by-7 responsibility."

HS-K: "You're the first female CEO of Guardian Life. Why do you think that is? Does that affect how you view your position? Is there added pressure because of that?"

DM: "I don't feel any added pressure being a woman, but I do feel added responsibility. Because of the fact that I grew up without many role models, one of the reasons that I do speak to the press and do some of the public activities I do is that I want young girls out there to know that if this is the career opportunity that appeals to them, they can do it.

"And I especially want young women and girls in Nebraska, and maybe in rural corners of Nebraska, to know that there isn't anything about growing up in a rural area of Nebraska that's a disadvantage. In fact, there's many advantages to growing up in that environment if one wants to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or do any number of other careers, because I think the values one learns of hard work and self-reliance, growing up in a rural environment as I did, are very important."

HS-K: "You've touched on this you know, you're saying that just because you come from a rural environment in Nebraska, or any other state, you shouldn't let that damper your ambitions. Specifically, maybe for young women in Nebraska who are interested in business careers, do you have any general advice that you would give based on your experiences?"

DM: "Yes, I think it's important to read widely. I started reading the Wall Street Journal, or at least the stock section of the Omaha World-Herald, when I was in I think fourth or fifth grade, and I was very interested in McDonald's stock, because I think I was interested in McDonald's." (Laugh) "We had a little learning session in school about how to read stock tables, and I followed my McDonald's stock religiously. And, you know, I think things like that are available to anybody. Read the wall street journal online, read the New York Times, read all the business publications and books you can get your hands on.

"Ask successful business people in your community how they became successful, and watch. Watch successful people in your own neighborhood, and see what they do. Talk to them about what it took for them to get to where they are. And of course you need to take a lot of math and science in high school. It's difficult, at least in my business, in financial services, to rise to the top, without having a very good grasp of math. Pay attention, participate in all the activities, work hard and believe you can do it."

HS-K: "Thank you so much for talking with us today."

DM: "Thank you, Hilary."



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