Updated February 22 at 12:27am

Helping women smash glass ceiling is her mission

By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer
Ask long-time management consultant Susan Colantuono why she’s made it her mission to move more women into corporate America’s boardrooms and corner offices, and she’ll cite a long list of studies and reports.

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A PBN Special Section: 2008 Business Women

Helping women smash glass ceiling is her mission

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Ask long-time management consultant Susan Colantuono why she’s made it her mission to move more women into corporate America’s boardrooms and corner offices, and she’ll cite a long list of studies and reports.

Women account for only 15.4 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers; 14.6 percent of Fortune 500 board members; and 8 percent of those in top-paying corporate jobs, she said.

“In the 30 years I’ve been in this business,” she added, “the statistics regarding women in organizations have barely budged.”

Colantuono’s career has been one long effort to change those numbers, and her work as a mentor and development coach has influenced the lives of thousands of women in Rhode Island and beyond. She is the founder of Leading Women, an organization that offers networking opportunities and leadership seminars to business women. She launched the Women’s Institute for Leadership at Bryant University. And she’s the author of two books on professional and personal growth.

“I think she’s fabulous,” said Ellen Ford, president and CEO of the People’s Credit Union and a frequent face at Leading Women’s monthly networking breakfasts. “As a mentor she really makes you look at yourself and bring out the best in your leadership, and she does it in a very natural way, not by throwing a lot of theory at you. She takes reality and said, ‘Let’s be honest about how the game is, and see what we can do with it.’”

“What makes Susan different is her passion to see women succeed,” said Lisa Bergeron, president of Leading Women’s southeastern New England affiliate. “When our paths crossed, she inspired me to take a leap and join her company. She changed the course of my career.”

Colantuono’s seminars and programs are built on research, not motivational platitudes. She pores over Fast Company, Harvard Business Review and other publications and devours weighty business tomes. Currently she’s working her way through “Building a World Without Poverty” by Bangladeshi economist Mohammad Yunas.

As a result, she keeps her focus on a few key areas, such as business acumen, strategic acumen, leadership presence and everyday negotiations.

While she’s a reader, she’s more than a wonk. As a mentor, Colantuono can draw from a long business resume. She has advised women leaders at IBM, MetLife, Fleet/Bank of America, Pfizer, Fidelity, the US Bureau of Land Management and other organizations. Her former positions include president of The DELTECH Group, vice president of media education for Markus Communications, partner in The Consulting Group of Washington, and founding partner in DCG Inc. She has been an active volunteer with the Society for Human Resource Management and formerly served as state director for the organization’s Rhode Island council.

Colantuono began her current project, Leading Women, in 2002, when she realized her son would soon be leaving home.

“I was working full time, but I was facing the empty nest,” she said. “I wanted something that would fill my nights and weekends with something worthwhile. I think I was born to do it. I gave a speech recently where I noted that I was the first born of seven children, so leadership comes naturally to me.”

The organization’s southeastern New England affiliate has grown from 250 members to 2000, and she’s launched two more affiliates in the region. She expects to see Leading Women become a national and global network.

Leading Women offers leadership-development seminars, career coaching, and networking events. The most popular online program is a book club. It’s similar to those that meet in libraries and Barnes & Noble, but discussions are held in office conference rooms, and the focus is on business bestsellers. Colantuono has produced study guides for every book on the list.

“It takes a trend and gives it more power,” she said. “A lot of companies will pass out books to managers, but then there’s no discussion. Our discussions are designed to ensure the knowledge in the book is applied in the workplace.”

Colantuono, a Massachusetts native now living in Rhode Island, is perhaps best known for her programs at Bryant University in Smithfield. A decade ago, she proposed running a women’s leadership program at the school’s Executive Development Center. The course – Purpose, Power, and Presence – is still enormously popular. Women managers, supervisors and department heads attend four day-long sessions, spread out over four months, where they hear Colantuono and other experts speak on everything from setting goals to body language.

“The seminars are highly interactive, so the women who attend are a very important part of the teaching and learning process,” she said.

Colantuono is a prolific writer, penning articles on everything from strategic thinking to horsemanship – riding is her hobby. She is also the author of two books, and she’s working on her third. “Build Your Career” has been described in reviews as “a guide to using the job you have to get the job you want,” while “Make Room for JOY!” steers clear of business topics.

“It’s about becoming more skilled at discovering joy in the life you live, instead of always grasping at something you don’t have,” Colantuono said. “What both books have in common is that they’re designed to be tools, rather than just a source of information.”

Women who know Colantuono said she’s changing lives in almost every endeavor she undertakes.

“I’ve learned a lot by observing her leadership style and how she successfully gets things done,” said Nancy Roderick, human resources manager at Concordia Manufacturing. “If I have a problem in human resources, she’s a go-to person I can ask for guidance.” •

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