Female Industry Powerhouses Welcome Andi Owen to Top Role as CEO of Herman Miller

August 29, 2018 by

2018 has been called “the year of the woman”, and it also now is  officially the first year that a major contract furniture manufacturer has appointed a female to the VERY TOP position; CEO. Andi Owen joins Herman Miller after a 25-year career at Gap, Inc., where she most recently served as Global President of Banana Republic, leading 11,000 employees in more than 600 stores across 27 countries. In speaking with several other industry powerhouses (who also happen to be female), the message was clear: we’re proud to welcome Owen to the industry and her new position, but not because she’s a woman; simply because she’s the right person for the job.

Malisa Bryant, Senior Vice President North America & Global Strategy Business Group at Herman Miller shares, “As a woman, it would be foolish for me to give the impression that my excitement for the appointment of Andi Owen as Herman Miller’s new CEO and President has little to do with her being a woman. However, in this case I also am excited that we chose the right person to lead us at a time when our industry is experiencing rapid change. The fact is, Andi brings enormous experiences that will accelerate our capabilities and strategies within our contract and consumer businesses. We couldn’t be more excited for the impact we believe she will have on our business.”

While it’s clear her qualifications -not her gender- got her the job, the statistics around females in top leadership positions are dismal. After reaching an all-time high of 32 in 2017, Forbes reported that in 2018, only 2.4 percent of seats in Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. are held by women. Moreover, according to Bloomberg, “since 2009, 19 female CEOs of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies have stepped down. In only three of those cases was she replaced by another woman.” Fortune also recently analyzed data from 16 Fortune 500 companies and found 80 percent of their corporate leadership was men — 72 percent white men. Clearly, there is a lot of ground for women to make up. While these statistics are not available specifically for the contract furniture industry, one would suppose our statistics could be even more staggering.

A recent McKinsey study conducted in 2017 in partnership with LeanIn.Org could be a great place to start when it comes to awareness and how we can better promote women’s leadership and foster gender equality. It states, “getting to gender equality starts with realizing how far we have to go. Women remain underrepresented at every level in corporate America, despite earning more college degrees than men for thirty years and counting. There is a pressing need to do more, and most organizations realize this: company commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high for the third year in a row. Despite this commitment, progress continues to be too slow—and may even be stalling. One of the most powerful reasons for this is a simple one: we have blind spots when it comes to diversity, and we can’t solve problems that we don’t see or understand clearly.”

The report continues, “Many employees think women are well represented in leadership when they see only a few. And because they’ve gotten comfortable with the status quo, they don’t feel any urgency for change. Further, many men don’t fully grasp the state of women in the workplace, and some worry that gender diversity efforts disadvantage them. As a result, men are less committed to the issue, and we can’t get to equality without them. Many companies also overlook the realities of women of color, who face the greatest obstacles and receive the least support. Diversity leads to stronger business results, as numerous studies have shown. But we can’t unlock the full potential of our workplace until we see how far from equality we really are.”

Source for image above: McKinsey Study  https://womenintheworkplace.com/

A supportive report in Harvard Business Review gives us tangible ideas we can take to begin to evolve this phenomenon in any industry. After interviewing 57 female CEOs, 41 from Fortune 1000 companies and 16 from large privately held companies, HBR advises companies to:

  • Identify potential early and offer women opportunities to broaden their skills through operating roles.
  • Illuminate the path to CEO through a process that includes sponsors, mentors, and role models.
  • Ensure women in senior executive roles have sponsors who take a hands-on role in managing their career moves.
  • Articulate jobs in terms that engage women, instead of focusing on the title, experiences required, and deliverables, which may not motivate all potential candidates. Women CEOs, they found, pursue — or invent — roles that leveraged their skills in a way that added value to the business, while advancing something that benefited the world, customers, or employees.
  • Beware of the “glass cliff” — giving women senior roles associated with a high risk of failure. Difficult situations can provide valuable lessons, but high-profile failures can end a career.
  • Talented women with the experience to lead are in our companies today. They may be ready now to step up — but are being undervalued or overlooked. Or they may not have had the development opportunities their male peers have had. 

Ironically, the day that Ms. Owen’s appointment to CEO was announced, a good friend also posted a picture of her 10-year old daughter, Olivia, to social media wearing a shirt that said, “The Future is Female.” And, while I am the mother of three BOYS, I love the message that this appointment models for  current and future generations of both genders: as of this month, the future is decidedly looking one step more PROPORTIONATELY female, and that’s a good thing for ALL of us.

So, Ms. Owen, on behalf of all of us, welcome to the contract furniture industry.


This article was originally published in The Business of Furniture, a division of Bellow Press, on August 22, 2018. It is reprinted here with permission.

About the author: Amanda Schneider, LEED AP is a researcher, blogger for the Huffington Post, and the founder of ThinkLab www.thinklab.design, a research led strategy firm serving the contract interiors market.