Seminar helps women develop CEO skills

Kathryn Miller is president (and owner) of HST Materials Inc., an Elk Grove Village custom die-cutting and fabrication company where she has worked for 27 years.

Miller signed up for Project CEO after a documentation error sidetracked HST's application for certification as a woman-owned business.

The slip-up, Miller says, “made me realize that although I was trained in every job in this company, I was used to being a doer. I don't know how to be a leader.”

She knows now.

Irma Bates sought “affirmation, to make sure I was doing everything correctly.” Vice president at Montenegro Inc., a Roselle supplier of paper, printing, packaging and facilities supplies, Bates and her partner “were for a longtime working out of our homes. He was sales. I was the office.”

Five years ago, however, growth brought the need for staff, office space and somewhat greater sophistication. Among Bates' reasons for joining Project CEO: “I wanted to make sure I can read the financials. And contracts.”

She can now.

Bates and Miller are two of nine women who graduated in October from the first Project CEO.

Offered by the Small Business Development Center at College of DuPage facilities in Lisle, the four-module seminar was created by SBDC manager Martha Carney to, as promotional material said, “address a training gap that is fundamentally holding women back when growing a business and creating jobs.”

The fact that Project CEO was designed for women CEOs matters.

“In a room filled with men, I feel I should act like a man,” Bates says. “Here I could be myself.”

“Women are more reserved when men are in the room,” Miller says. “The body language is different. It's more fun with all women. We speak more freely.”

That's the type of learning experience Carney sought to achieve. “Women have different needs,” she says. “We (picked) issues important to women running their businesses and their lives.”

The seminar was aimed at women seeking to grow their companies, not starting up. Topics included mastering profits; the art of selling; process improvement; building confidence; and contract negotiation.

“Martha and I talked a lot,” says Diane Middlebrooks, women's initiative coordinator at Project CEO sponsor Itasca Bank & Trust Co. “She had the idea, but we brainstormed the topics women owners need.”

Although it's too soon to judge results, Miller and Bates already have made some changes. “I learned not to talk so much,” Miller says.

“I came back and asked, ‘Do you guys know our goals? Not really' was the answer. I need to be more succinct in my presentations. We (women) tend to say something, then explain it.”

Bates has implemented weekly management team meetings, a result of the process improvement module that “taught me to take a step back and look at how the people in our office were working.”

Carney plans another Project CEO in the spring.

• © 2014 Kendall Communications Inc. Follow Jim Kendall on LinkedIn and Twitter. Write him at Listen to Jim's Business Owners' Pod Talk at

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