With an extremely successful 30-year corporate track record, Debbie McAneny has become a sought-after advisor in corporate boards rooms. As the newest member of the Board of Directors of a multi-national, Fortune 500 Company, she is a female executive who is leading by example. Debbie is well known for bringing diversity of thought and powerful decision-making capabilities to the table.
The percentage of minorities and women with a seat at the table in the boardrooms of the largest public companies in the United States has edged up in recent years, but advancement is still slow, and the bulk of corporate directors at such firms continue to be white men, a 2018 study from the Alliance for Board Diversity finds. However, women on boards bring different perspectives to the difficult issues facing today’s corporations.
The study by the Alliance for Board Diversity, which advocates for broader demographic inclusion in boardrooms, and the professional services firm Deloitte, shows that women and minorities occupied 38.6 percent of board seats at Fortune 100 companies last year, compared with 35.9 percent in 2016. At Fortune 500 companies, the figure rose to 34 percent in 2018 from 30.8 percent two years earlier, the last time the study was done, but still fell short of the alliance’s target.
As more women today are striving to earn board positions, Debbie candidly shares her story and encourages women to become prepared to serve. Having served on eight corporate boards over the past fifteen years, she has extensive experience to share. She started her career in the mid-1980’s and rose through the ranks at John Hancock Financial Services ultimately becoming Executive Vice President of Structured and Alternative Investments and a member of its Policy Committee. This Boston-based company was one of the best-known names in the U.S. life insurance industry.
While her passion for the business, commitment to the team and drive to succeed propelled Debbie forward, she recognizes that family dynamics had immense influence over her choices. As a young woman she knew she wanted her life to be different than her mother’s and other women of her generation who lack financial independence and the freedoms that go along with it. Debbie was the third of four girls growing up in the small, New England town of Cumberland, Rhode Island. From an early age she was determined to be an independent and self sufficient woman.
Debbie wanted a clear career path to that independence, so she chose to major in business at the University of Vermont. (She ultimately served on the UVM Board of Trustees (2005-2017) and as Board Chair) In order to start repaying student loans, right out of college she accepted a job as an auditor at one of the Big 8 accounting firms—Arthur Andersen & Co. in Boston, Mass.
As she dove into her career, Debbie quickly realized that measuring financial results (accounting) did not stimulate her. She preferred to be creating the results. She was most interested and intrigued by equity real estate acquisitions and wanted to be on the decision-making side of the table. As she described it, “I wanted to be a deal maker, not a bean counter.” It was at an after-hours Boston happy hour she met a recruiter who was working an assignment for John Hancock Financial Services. Without an MBA and lacking most of the qualifications they were looking for, she courageously applied for an equity real estate analyst position at the firm. After the interview she was told she was nothing of what they were looking for, and everything they were looking for. She may not have had the educational background or job experience they were seeking, but she had confidence and determination, as well as a collaborative and driven personality. She landed the job.
Over the years, Debbie cultivated the ability to master whatever she did. Her tenure at Hancock included a variety of high-level, executive positions and responsibilities, from managing a multi billion-dollar commercial real estate debt and equity portfolio to CEO positions in subsidiaries and ultimately to the Executive Vice President of Structured and Alternative Investments. Throughout all the opportunities she was offered, the common thread was her desire to be not just an expert—but a leader. She thrived at building businesses, solving complex challenges and inspiring teams. She remembers many times that by day she walked the walk of self-assuredness, but in the quiet hours of the night she felt all of the fears and insecurities that women share: self-doubt despite tremendous accomplishment.
Often, Debbie considers herself to be more lucky than smart. That is her humble nature. Of all the strengths and qualities that have helped her succeed, she credits her ability to be forward-thinking and having a vision for life and career. Debbie has always had a strategic plan for her life. Her husband and three (now) adult children have always been her priority. As an executive, mother and wife, Debbie feels that women can have it all. In addition to the many corporate boards she serves on, her life priorities today include her family, her own health and wellness, travel, and service to community. For Debbie, this comes in the way of mentoring young professionals—a passion she has always embraced.
While Debbie’s goal has always been to succeed, she emphatically states “I NEVER took a job for money. Every job I took was because I was passionate about the work, and the people and I believed I could not only add value but grow personally in return. It is never about money—when you are happy and fulfilled, the money follows.” She recognizes that there were many obstacles and skeptics of her steady climb up the corporate ladder. Her advice to others is to “ignore all the noise, put your head down and do what you do and do it well. In the end, even the skeptics will acknowledge and respect your success.”
Debbie shows up authentically. Competency, compassion, vision, hard work and a collaborative approach is what she brings to every opportunity. In her 2015 Commencement speech as Chair of the University of Vermont Board of Trustees, she challenged the young women graduates with this call to action:
“I cannot let this opportunity go without speaking for one moment to our women graduates. I sat in your seat years ago and shared your fears and emotions. When I left here, I worked harder than I ever thought possible, found ways to open previously locked doors and shattered a couple of glass ceilings to get where I am today, with the associated cuts and bruises along the way. But I am disappointed to report that my generation did not get the job done. Today 56% of this graduating class are women but less than 5% of major corporations have women CEOs and women hold less than 20% of corporate board seats. Similar inequalities exist across many professions and dimensions throughout this country. Today I challenge you to finish this job. We are not done. This NEEDS to change and YOU, all of you, need to be that change. Make it happen. Give it your all and finish the job!”