“ITT was ahead of its time,” says Christina Gold, who was the industrial conglomerate’s first female board member in 1997, when the company had more than $30 billion in sales. “They were looking to be reflective and making sure that their board reflected society,” focusing in particular on race and gender. Gold, who at the time was running Avon’s North America unit, was hugely in demand as a female operating executive.
Over time, ITT’s conglomerate model fell out of favor, and in 2011, it decided to split into three separate publicly-traded companies — which meant that each needed a brand new board. Denise Ramos, who had been CFO, was put in charge of what was left of the original company and given three members, including Gold and Linda Sanford, to build a board virtually from scratch — a process that she led.
With three female directors, including Ramos, gender was no longer the main gap to address; Ramos created a “skills matrix” and tried to build an ideal combination of experiences and backgrounds. Yet she also was aware that Sanford would soon be leaving — and selected Rebecca McDonald, an energy executive, as her replacement. In 2018, Ramos knew that she would be retiring and that Gold was also approaching ITT’s director retirement age, so she started planning in advance, putting gender diversity atop that matrix as a must, with an emphasis on digital expertise. Ramos has little patience for those who say it’s too hard to find diversity and maintain the same level of quality. “That’s a bad argument,” she says. “You just have to look harder.”
After a nine-month search, she had identified two female candidates with quite different credentials — Cheryl Shavers, CEO of advisory firm Global Smarts, and Sabrina Soussan, CEO of a unit of Siemens. Rather than lose either of these two strong candidates, and recognizing the need to be flexible, the board decided to increase its size to accommodate adding two directors instead of just one. Currently, five of 13 directors are women. “If the organization is willing to make it happen,” says Gold, “It will.”