Prudential’s Peggy Foran on diversity from the board to the C-Suite has been saved
Cover image by: Natalie Pfaff
Peggy Foran: And now we’re going back and saying, okay, well, why aren’t we successful? Why aren’t we promoting more people in the pipeline? Where’s the bottleneck? Why are people leaving or why are people not getting promoted? Let’s go back and reexamine it, because if you do the same thing over and over again, you’re going to get the same result.
Tanya Ott: I’m Tanya Ott and this is The Press Room from Deloitte Insights. One of the things I love about hosting this show is that I get to have really interesting conversations with people who’ve got such rich work and life experiences.
The road to leadership is different for everyone, and today, we’re going to hear Peggy Foran’s origin story. Peggy is chief governance officer, senior vice president, and corporate secretary at Prudential Financial, Inc. She’s held similar positions at Pfizer and JPMorgan, was general counsel for Sara Lee, and worked in private practice at a Wall Street law firm.
Welcome to the show, Peggy. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you got started on this journey.
Peggy Foran: If I think back, when I was in high school or college, I don’t think I would have ever thought, gee, I really want to be [head of] corporate governance and know about boards and be an executive on Fortune 500 companies. That really wasn’t the way I was thinking. But I always knew that I wanted to be involved in something that had a purpose, that had a meaning, that would change the world or people for, even if it was just a little bit, a little better.
And that really has to do with my background. I came from a fairly large Irish-Catholic family of six—I’m the oldest of the second litter. I’m four out of six, but there’s space between three and four; lots of girls—five girls, one boy. And I came from parents that believed that all of their children, including their girls, could do whatever they wanted, which really instilled mission, purpose, [and] resiliency [in us]. When I look back on my career, I think that grit is probably one of the most important factors [to] being successful.
Tanya Ott: You know, going back to your childhood, growing up in that large family, were there any sort of seminal moments, either related to gender or anything else, where you were like, now, this is something I need to fight for?
Peggy Foran: The answer is yes. Women tended to be nurses and teachers, and several of my sisters were nurses or teachers. But I wanted to do something different. And my parents, they supported that, although I think they still thought I was going to be a nurse or a teacher at the end of the day. But that was fine. I was actually very fortunate because I went to all-girls schools. It gave me the opportunity … I’m not a very good athlete, but I like to run. It gave me opportunities to be smart in math, to do well, and to maybe get involved in activities that I may not have [participated in otherwise]. I think the support of parents and adults to explore and be curious, and also to fail, is so important.
Tanya Ott: The room to fail can be so critical. You know, your story reminds me of my own in that I went out for a soccer team in high school never having touched a soccer ball—not something I would advise. And I wasn’t great at it, but I tried something that I hadn’t tried before, and it was a lot of fun.
Peggy Foran: Yeah! And knowing that—so you ran for student council in fourth grade and you didn’t get it. But that’s okay. Now people know you. I think it was those experiences and maybe having older siblings and maybe having younger siblings. I think my younger siblings, we were very close. There was a sense of responsibility to develop, to help, to look out for other folks, not only my sisters, but others. I saw my parents do that. They gave back to their friends and family—and they gave back to their community. They thought that was important and critical to step up when you needed to step up. I have these wonderful stories of my grandmothers, both of them, when my grandfathers either got ill or lost jobs—this is the 30s and the 40s—they went out to work in a White Castle, being a bookkeeper at a movie theater, making beds, things like that. There was no pride. This is what you do for your family, [a] “you don't cry in baseball” type of thing. You figure out what you have to do, and you get it done.
Tanya Ott: Yeah, so, you close out high school and then you go to college. And I understand you were in the first class of women to graduate from Notre Dame. What was that experience like?
Peggy Foran: It was really interesting. And this is why I thought it was so important for my girls to go to a single-sex school. Here I am, having gone to single-sex schools, and now I’m the only woman in many of the classes—or there may be two. Professors [are] asking me for the female perspective, getting an A on an exam, and having a guy say under his breath. “Oh, that’s a waste of an A, you’re probably just going to get married and have babies.” That was said.
I think the background gave me confidence and gave me that grit. I also went to Notre Dame and Notre Dame was just a wonderful place: You talk about purpose, you talk about meaning, you talk about civil justice, you talk about fairness, you talk about giving back. I think it really did mesh with not only my family values, but as you develop what your core is, it was a place that I could develop. For me, it was a fabulous experience, and it also tested me on being maybe different and how to present in those situations. And, certainly, I learned not to be shy.
Tanya Ott: You graduate from Notre Dame and then you launch into the world. What does that look like for you?
Peggy Foran: Well, I went to law school at Notre Dame, also, and I launched in the world. And, you know, the world is different. First of all, I moved to New York City, where you have to fight to get a taxicab. You know, you’re waiting patiently [for] your turn. But I was very lucky in that I figured out areas that I liked. I found out I really liked securities law. I really liked mergers and acquisitions (M&A). And then, later on, I found out I really liked governance, because governance came from a point of fairness, shareholders, management, and directors. I was able to observe that an effective board is a business differentiator. I saw some really good boards and I saw some boards that probably needed more development, I could see the difference. I also could see certain things: As a lawyer, we wrote legal documents, and I quickly said, wait a second, I don’t write memos to senior executives or board members like I write registration statements. Isn’t there a way that we can use plain English? And luckily, I was introduced to Arthur Levitt, who was the chairman of the SEC, and was able to work on their Plain English Project of really trying to get legal documents that people could understand, which then really went into proxy statements that people could understand, with summaries and valuable information, and trying to do things that really communicate. It’s respect for people. Save[s] people’s time, you know. Try to get that so that they can understand it on the first read. Again, wherever you look, there was the next level of things to learn or to step back and say how can I make this so it’s easier or more helpful or more efficient?
Tanya Ott: Well, the world thanks you on the plain language front, I’ll tell you that. When you first were in the workforce and you were doing this work that you found so rewarding, what was it like for you personally? Were there a lot of other women in the companies that you worked for, or were you still sort of standing alone?
Peggy Foran: Look, we stand on the shoulders of giants. You know, there were a few, but not many. I think it was really kind of my cohort that you started seeing more—and when you say more, you know, maybe out of a class of 15 associates, there may be three women. There were folks that had been there for four, five, six, seven years that were trying to make partner. Many of them did make partner. When I went to corporations, there weren’t that many women. In the corporate law department, I was the first woman who gave birth there. I think there was a thought—and I saw [that] was [the case] with some of the senior executive women later on in my Fortune 50 companies—that you had to decide between a family or being a senior executive.
Tanya Ott: What was that experience like for you as you come in and you’re a woman and you’re going to have a baby while you’re there?
Peggy Foran: Well, you know, I’m a bit of a workaholic, so I tried to show by action. I realized that others are looking at me. I’m a role model and you can’t screw it up. And I don’t know, maybe that came from Notre Dame—[or] maybe that came from being the oldest of the second litter. You can’t screw it up for your sisters. Oh, there were hard days. Oh, my gosh, there were hard days. There are hard days being a Wall Street associate thinking, do I really want this? Is this being fun? Maybe it’s not. Doing two all-nighters in a row? Or actually, after I had my first daughter, trying to balance all of that. My husband was an associate at a law firm, so his hours were terrible. And I kept on saying this is kind of deferring—it’s deferral because I know where I want to be in five, 10, 15 years, so I have to go through this. So, it will be painful, and it will be tricky balancing it. But nevertheless, this is what you have to do, and you do it.
Tanya Ott: Isn’t this the push-pull that we see, particularly as women having children when we’re working, and particularly maybe in the seventies and eighties and early nineties or so? I know I went back to work one week after giving birth the first time because I had changed jobs in my ninth month and there was no maternity leave and my husband was not employed at that time. And yeah, soldiered through it, gritted through it, didn’t sleep much at all for months and months and months. And thankfully, it’s not, for many women, that way anymore. But it was tough.
Peggy Foran: No, I agree. I absolutely agree. I remember once going down to the nurse and my husband was in Asia. That’s when I had three kids, [aged] three and under, and I had not slept. She said something and I think I burst into [tears], and I said, I’m so tired. And she said, “Sweetie, you go into that cot, and I want you to take a nap.” I’ll never forget that. Because you had to be strong. And it is better. And I remember that. I remember trying to give people flexibility and recognizing not only for women, but for all people, this is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. We have to support and develop our employees. When they’re at that stage of their lives, you’ve got to support them. You’ve got to give them the flexibility again, because you’re looking two years, four years, and five years, [maybe] 10 years down the pipeline, and these are the types of things that you need in order to get the talent that is so critical to your company.
Tanya Ott: And I think this is also the argument for why having diverse points of view at the table is so important. And, as you say, it goes beyond just gender.
Peggy Foran: You know, it’s interesting because in the beginning, you know, doing M&A, I remember I was pregnant with one of my daughters—I don’t know if it was number one or number two—and of course, I didn’t tell anyone. In those days, I don’t know if you experienced this Tanya, but I delayed telling folks that I was pregnant. And so, it was like nine o’clock at night and we were negotiating. I had to eat. (laughs) I had to eat, you know, because I was pregnant. Or my CEO calling a meeting at 7 a.m. And I thought to myself, my babysitter lives in Queens. For me to be there for a 7 a.m. meeting means I have to either get her there the night before or she’s got to leave at 5 o’clock [a.m.] in order to get there so I can get there on time. So those are the things. I think going through it, I was more aware of the folks that I managed. Even through the pandemic, you heard me say this is really tough on young parents. Really tough. We’ve got to give them a break. We’ve got to figure out how we can truly support them. Because I just remember those days. I had three kids at home [while I was] trying to get my deals done, without sleep, probably because, you know, I don’t know about your kids, but I swore they weren’t going to sleep all night until they went to college. And then also having to home teach, for all intents and purposes, [was] very, very difficult.
Tanya Ott: And the other thing is, you don’t know what you don’t know about other people’s lives. So, you have to be able to establish a system that helps you better understand what’s going on. So that leads me to wonder how organizations can embed inclusion and diversity into [their] business efforts rather than, you know, having these nice-to-have add-ons, as in “we’re going to run a special program about X, Y, or Z.”
Peggy Foran: I think you have to. You want to get the best talent. Look, I saw this with my daughters when they looked at colleges, and we went to various places and my daughters would say, “I don’t know, I don’t see a whole lot of diversity here. I’m not sure this is the school for me.” Because they didn’t grow up that way. They grew up in New York City. They grew up in schools [where] it wasn’t just folks that looked like themselves. I think you’re seeing the same thing. We want talent and we want talent in the pipeline. So, the answer is you absolutely have to embed it and you have to figure out what you need to do.
You know, I think the pandemic in many ways has been a blessing for those types of things because we now have a better understanding of people’s needs, etc., or what we can do. For example, mental health—30 years ago at work, I don’t think I ever heard [of] mental health. The fact that you were juggling 92 things, no one ever said that. Or working from home: I’ve said for many, many years, you could work on Mars, I know you will get the work done. You don’t have to apologize because you need to go to a [parent-]teacher conference or you’re having an appliance come or if you want to take a music class, or something like that. I want to get the best out of people, because as I say, it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint.
Tanya Ott: I think that the pandemic has really opened up the aperture in the way that we think about where people do work, which might provide some really interesting opportunities to increase diversity in our workplaces.
Peggy Foran: I absolutely agree. I think what you’re going to see is certainly a lot more geographic diversity. And again, if you’re willing to be flexible, you may be able to get that talent that you would not have gotten if you told that person that they were going to have to move 600 miles in order to work for your company.
Tanya Ott: One of the things that we’ve talked about on this podcast before is how the increased move to remote work is also opening up a lot of avenues for people who are neurodiverse, which is a type of diversity that, you know, again, 30 years ago, we wouldn’t have been talking about.
Peggy Foran: No, absolutely. I’m also very much involved in disability rights, [and] I absolutely agree with that. We live in interesting times. I think things are getting better when I look back, but we still need to improve. As you said, we’ve embedded these programs, but I think a lot of organizations have gone back and said, okay, we really care. This is really important to us. But why aren’t we successful? What are the obstacles that are there that we don’t know about that we’re putting? What are we requiring that we really don’t need? If we take that obstacle out, we can open this up and make sure that it’s successful to a whole wider group of people.
Tanya Ott: What do you think are the most pressing obstacles right now?
Peggy Foran: That’s an interesting question. I’ve been thinking about that. Obstacles are, for example, [the fact that] we all have our biases: We have someone that’s worked for us for five years and they’re fabulous and we want to promote them—so we make another job for them. We don’t necessarily open it up for the world. There may be someone who is actually better that could do that. That’s one thing that we’ve looked at. Remote working, as you said, that’s an obstacle—I’d love to work for you, but I have school-age children, and I just don’t want to leave right now. Can I come once a week or something like that?
[And it’s also about] just recognizing what your biases are. Do you really need that piece in the job description? Do they really need to have that background, or can you develop them into that? Can you take someone that has 50% and see if they’ll grow? It's those types of things that we’ve just done it that way forever and ever and ever and ever, and now we’re going back and saying, okay, well, why aren’t we successful? Why aren’t we promoting more people in the pipeline? Where’s the bottleneck? Why are people leaving or why are people not getting promoted? Let’s go back and reexamine it because if you do the same thing over and over again, you’re going to get the same result.
Tanya Ott: Do you see a difference between how DEI plays out at the board level versus the C-suite?
Peggy Foran: I think it is different. I actually think diversity on boards has really resonated for a long, long time. I’m a huge believer. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. You want to have a diverse board with diverse backgrounds and experiences and perspectives—to be quite honest with you.
When I started out, mainly the folks that were on boards were male CEOs. And they were not on one board; they usually were on three or four boards. There was an understanding that, in order to really be a good board member, you had to be a very busy CEO. It probably would have helped if you knew how to play golf. And that was how you got a good board.
And it was hard because I’d go to the search firms like in the ’90s or in the early 2000s, and I would say, “I want to see a diverse slate.” And they gave [me] the same old, same old, all-white CEOs. And I’d say, well, wait a second. Please give me a diverse slate. And [I’d] essentially got the same thing—so I would discover where to go. For example, the Executive Leadership Council, which is made up of senior Black executives. Fabulous, fabulous. I’d talk to their CEO and I’d find out who their directors were and do research and give that to the search firm. I do the same thing for Hispanic groups, etc. Or I would do searches for women. [I’d] give it to the search firm to say, I want that. And then, I would just say, You know what? I would like a slate at least 50 percent— and then it actually got higher—different. These are the skills and experiences we’re looking for—but look for others. They don’t have to be CEOs. They can be a level down or maybe they’re in technology, maybe they’re in a consultancy. But it’s really important to us because the research has shown that if you have this diverse perspective, [it may] take longer because you’re all not going to agree, but the decision you make is going to be a better decision. That, I think, is truly what’s the most important thing when you’re overseeing and you’re monitoring a company, to have those perspectives so you can give that type of advice or you can oversee or you can say, well, have you thought of this? I think it’s happened more, at least [in] the boards I’ve experienced, less so than you’ve seen senior executives. And have theories on that, but I bet you also have theories, Tanya.
Tanya Ott: Well, I was just going to ask you to talk about that, because in my experience, I’ve seen more diversity on boards than I’ve seen in senior leadership [at the] C-suite and executive levels. So, what are your theories?
Peggy Foran: My theory is they got the board because they had shareholders, institutional investors with a big push, and other stakeholders that really were calling for that. I think boards probably could have done more [to] focus on the pipelines of companies. As I said, I think there was a bias early on in my career that you could only do one or the other—at least for women. I think there was also a bias on what we expected, which made it harder for folks that were different.
Tanya Ott: Let’s talk a little bit about the sorts of roles that women in financial services tend to maybe gravitate toward and how that affects their paths to the C-suite.
Peggy Foran: Well, we all know profit and loss (P&L) experiences are critical. If you have your eye on the CEO or even the next level down, P&L is just very, very important. Through most of my career, I saw growth in areas like lawyers—CFOs actually, I saw a lot of growth, controllers, heads of communication, heads of HR, all for women or for people of color. But in the businesses, you saw [fewer] senior diverse folks. And to me, that was the most important, if that’s what you have your eye on. You know, if you look at your Fortune 500 and you say there are 44 women, well, I would assume that a vast majority of those women really came up through to their business. And the same thing for people of color, the same thing. It’s not the only ticket, but it’s that the majority have that type of background in P&L.
Tanya Ott: And what I hear you saying also is, “if that’s what you have your eye on.” It's perfectly fine if that’s not what you have your eye on, but just understand the landscape.
Peggy Foran: Absolutely. Understand when you go in what the horizon is. I absolutely agree with you, Tanya, and I’ve told that to a number of people: As you go up the food chain, there’s a lot of sacrifices. These are not nine-to-five jobs. I remember my kids being very upset that their classmates could all go to Disney World or whatever during spring break, and mommy had to work on proxy statements and annual meetings and various other things. It’s just not fair, mom. It’s just not fair. But, you know, there are trade-offs with whatever you do, and you have to figure out what’s your passion.
Tanya Ott: Yeah. You know, your proxy statement story reminds me of sitting in the carpool lane at my kid’s school waiting to go into a recital that wasn’t going to start for 10 minutes. And I’m finishing up filing a story with NPR. And sitting in the car in front of me is my friend who’s an attorney who is doing pro bono death penalty cases, and she was writing a brief. And then, we both rushed into the auditorium just in time to see our kids up on stage. But we could have just as easily been late.
Peggy Foran: Absolutely. If you research me, you’ll see that I was one of the first people from my company who got a BlackBerry. It changed my life because I could actually then go to that soccer game looking at my emails. But my girls, they took a collection of pictures on all of our vacations with mom with her BlackBerry.
Tanya Ott: [laughs]
Peggy Foran: That’s the price you pay for the flexibility to be able to be connected to the office and to be able to go to events with your family.
Tanya Ott: What do you hope the conversation about gender equity in the industry is going to look like, say, in 10 years, 20, [or] 30 years?
Peggy Foran: It would be great if we didn’t have a conversation. I would tell my daughters stories of what I experienced [when they were] in high school, they would roll their eyes because you just didn’t see that anymore: The sexual harassment, those types of things, being called honey or being patted in a place where you shouldn’t be patted. They just don’t happen, at least not in the companies that we work with or for. I think once we see the same thing with diverse people, I don’t think we’ll necessarily need that conversation. Again, it’s all about talent. How do we develop? What are the needs and how do we give folks the flexibility [so] that they can live their personal lives, as well as their professional lives, to the fullest?
Tanya Ott: Okay, one quick lightning-round question—and that is, what is the one thing that you would change to make a difference in gender equity in the industry?
Peggy Foran: I would probably do numbers on a quarterly basis that employees got. Put your money where your mouth is, because I think those are very telling, having been on boards and getting those numbers. I think companies publishing their EEO 1—and if you’re not a public company, still publishing your EEO 1. Because look, I think there are a lot of fabulous organizations. I don’t think they’re going out of their way to make things difficult. But I think a lot has to do with the obstacles and barriers that they don’t realize. The biases that they have, that in order to do X, you need to have X, Y, and Z, and some of that you really do need. My son-in-law is a nuclear physicist. I will never be a nuclear physicist, I will promise you that, because I don’t have that background nor the way of thinking or [experience] solving those types of problems. But I’m not sure you need to be a nuclear physicist to do my job, or you need to have 10 years [of] experience doing something, or you need to be going into work five days a week, or you need to work on weekends and evenings. You know, maybe it works for you to take off three or four hours, [then] at night get [to] back online, [and] really to work—having that flexibility.
I think it’s just so important to have that grit. Look, there are going to be hard times and I think it’s particularly harder on folks that feel different. Some of the best things I did, one is to have friends; two, to have family that at least you could commiserate [with]; three, find folks that do similar types of work that you can bounce ideas off; four, find friends that will be brutally honest with you, will take you into the room to say, “You know what you said? You know how it was perceived?” You need your own kind of board of directors. If you have friends that will do that, who will not only mentor you but will give you the critiques that you need on how you might have been able to do things better or maybe you shouldn’t go into that meeting. You’re just going through X, Y, and Z, you probably shouldn’t go in because you’re not going to be at your best. I think all of those things are really important.
Tanya Ott: Great advice! Thank you for joining us today. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Peggy Foran: Well, thank you. This has been wonderful.
Tanya Ott: Peggy Foran is the chief governance officer, senior vice president, and corporate secretary at Prudential Financial, Inc. This is part of a series of conversations with women leaders on the front lines of the financial services industry. I talked to an executive vice president of Freddie Mac Multifamily about how what happened on the softball field translated into the boardroom. The global head of operational risk and control for Citi’s Global Consumer Bank stressed the importance of seeing the difference between “no” and “not now.” It was a career-changer for her. The CFO of T. Rowe Price talks about overcoming the confidence gap and embracing the seven-minute rule.
You can find those conversations and more at deloitte.com/insights.
The Press Room podcast is available where you get your podcasts, online at deloitteinsights.com and on Twitter at @deloitteinsight (no “S”). I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Tanya Ott and we’ll be back here again in two weeks.
This podcast is produced by Deloitte. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte. This podcast provides general information only and is not intended to constitute advice or services of any kind. For additional information about Deloitte, go to Deloitte.com/about.
Cover image by: Natalie Pfaff