A Q&A with Freddie Mac Single-Family Leader Donna Corley on How and Why Organizations Need More Women in Leadership Roles

A Q&A with Freddie Mac Single-Family Leader Donna Corley on How and Why Organizations Need More Women in Leadership Roles

Most industries, housing and finance included, are in the midst of profound cultural transformation. At the center of that transformation is how successful organizations make embracing inclusion and diversity a core value. As the sponsor of Freddie Mac’s new research report, Female Leaders on Reaching Financial Services Upper Ranks, and as executive vice president and head of Freddie Mac’s Single-Family business, Donna Corley is passionate about inclusion and diversity, specifically relating to women in leadership roles.

Numbers indicating the relative lack of women in leadership roles in the housing and finance industries have been disappointing, but not surprising. They’ve just confirmed what many of us already knew. But they have also pointed to a real opportunity for us to make positive change.

Donna believes research matters with this topic, and the stories of the real people behind that research matter even more. They help us understand what’s really happening in our organizations and worlds so that we can look at the facts and make smart business decisions to set new courses of action when needed.

Read Julie Devoll, HBR’s editor of special projects interview with Donna below:

Julie Devoll, HBR: Hi Donna and welcome. Can you share with readers a little bit about your background? You’ve had a long, impressive career at Freddie Mac. What’s moved you to sponsor this new research?

Donna Corley, Freddie Mac: I have been with Freddie Mac for over 25 years. In fact, I literally started the day after I graduated from college. Over the years, I’ve held about a dozen different roles and in each one, I grew and learned more about the business. I don’t take the great culture I work in for granted and Freddie Mac doesn’t take its culture for granted, either. We want to do everything we can to benefit women and make sure that a fair and equal environment exists, and I want to see more of that kind of environment across the industry. That is one of the main reasons why we funded this research.

Julie Devoll, HBR: It’s clear from the research that having a diverse workforce across all levels of the mortgage industry benefits everyone. What are some of the reasons for this?

Donna Corley, Freddie Mac: There are several reasons. When you think of it from a big picture perspective, companies with inclusive and diverse teams and cultures are better-managed companies. They’re more open to new ideas and different perspectives. You’re not narrowing down the choices in front of you as you look for promising business opportunities. Studies also have shown that diverse companies have a better bottom line as well.

I’ve seen firsthand how powerful a team you create when every single person on the team feels free to work to their strengths and full capabilities. That brings out the best in everyone and raises the bar for the entire organization.

Julie Devoll, HBR: What do you see as the biggest challenge we face as we seek gender equality in the workplace, especially in the housing and financial services industry?

Donna Corley, Freddie Mac: There are definitely some big challenges. When I look at all the specific challenges I faced over my career, and try to trace back why that issue was so hard to solve, I think it comes back to one of two fundamental issues. Either it’s unclear who’s accountable for solving the problem or you have an old, entrenched mindset and culture that needs to change. When it comes to workplace equality, I think that, unfortunately, these two elements are the root causes.

Julie Devoll, HBR: How important is it then to include men in the fight for gender equality? And assuming you’re going to say it is important, what are some of the ways companies can do that?

Donna Corley, Freddie Mac: We absolutely need men as part of the fight. When you think of it, we need more than just women supporting other women. We need men supporting women, too. Just look at the statistics. Given that there are so many more men in leadership roles, we’ll never get true equality if it’s only the women who help other women, right? So we need men.

One thing we need to do is help educate men on what women’s issues are, what men can do to support women rise in the workplace, and how all of us can have conversations about this.

Some of us may be afraid of bringing up issues and having what we think might be ‘challenging’ conversations, thinking to ourselves, hey, what if I cross the line? But there are smart ways to approach these conversations and ways to avoid conversational pitfalls. The first step involves getting everyone comfortable with the facts and focusing on opening up opportunities.

Julie Devoll, HBR: What are some of the ways that Freddie Mac supports women in advancing to leadership positions?

Donna Corley, Freddie Mac:  It’s a multi-pronged effort that starts first and foremost with our culture and core values. Having an inclusive diverse workforce is a top priority. Without that, nothing else really matters. There’s also our women’s network, which offers mentoring and coaching.

We also have specific policies in place that help make sure everything that we do drives home our core values. For example, when we interview candidates, we make sure we have a diverse slate of candidates. We go beyond that to make sure the people on the interview panel are diverse, too. Because if there’s a mindset that you’re hiring someone who’s like you, a diverse interview panel will help decrease the odds of bias.

In addition, we focus on programs to encourage greater equality in the workforce, such as our maternity and paternity leave and flexible work arrangements. I’ve been teleworking one day a week for the last 14 years. I remember when I first started, people said, “well isn’t that going to stunt your career growth?” I’m happy to report that I was still promoted to VP, SVP and EVP over the last 14 years. That didn’t end up being the case at all.

But you need a culture that supports and encourages flexibility.

Having a woman who’s chair of our board and another woman who runs our Multifamily business is more evidence that, clearly, we’re doing something right when it comes to empowering women to lead. We want to get that empowering message out there as broadly as we can throughout the industry.

Julie Devoll, HBR: As organizations take a hard look at their diversity efforts, do you think it’s important to look both at what systematic changes the organization can make as well as what changes individuals can make as well?

Donna Corley, Freddie Mac: Absolutely. You need both – a focus on systems and individuals. We’re a data-driven company, so we look long and hard at statistics. We analyze our employee engagement surveys, including different cuts to make sure there aren’t very different views between male and female respondents. We also look at who’s getting promoted, who’s getting rated above plan on their performance measures, and who’s not. We search for any type of anomalies that could be signs of not giving everyone a fair shot at moving forward.

I’d like to mention that our continual focus on making sure our policies are fair applies to people of color as well. With our heightened awareness of racial injustice, we’re exploring not only gender inequality but also racial inequality, focusing on how we can drive meaningful outcomes not only internally with hiring and promotions but also externally with ensuring that our partners also embrace diversity and inclusion in their businesses. For example, to help change the unacceptable gap between white and black homeownership rates, we’re looking into ways we can help break through barriers around important areas such as loan qualification, access to housing supply and expansion of financial literacy programs.

From an individual standpoint, we push for people to be accountable for their own careers. One of the most common mistakes I see are people not willing to be transparent about what they want and what their aspirations are, maybe because they’re risk averse or unwilling to seize new opportunities. A good opportunity isn’t always a promotion. Some of the best growth opportunities I’ve had in my life occurred when I took horizontal rather than vertical moves. You have to be willing to change and put yourself out there if you want to advance. You have to really look at what you personally can do to help change things for the future.

Julie Devoll, HBR: Freddie Mac has a campaign called #LeadingTheWay, which is focused on advancing women in the housing industry. It explores ways to do that from raising awareness and building networks within the industry to spotlighting role models to exploring new equality focused approaches to leading. What motivated Freddie Mac to start that campaign?

Donna Corley, Freddie Mac: Gender inequality is a big issue in the workplace overall, and especially in the financial industry. Since we’re proud of the way we’ve pushed for gender equality within Freddie Mac, we want to share what we’ve learned to help raise awareness and educate others through success stories and techniques we have used.

I have the opportunity to speak on various business-related panels and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come off a stage to greet a line of people waiting to talk to me. The message I hear most often is wow, it was great to see a woman up on stage talking about such hard-hitting subjects. I’ve seen up close the power of how one woman speaking from a position of influence can directly inspire other women and give them the sense that, hey, they can do that, too. That’s why I feel it’s our duty for me and other women in leadership roles to get out there and be those role models who inspire women to keep aiming high with their goals. That’s the only way we’re ever going to turn these statistics around and create positive change.

Julie Devoll, HBR: Circling back to the research, what led Freddie Mac to sponsor this report, which encourages all of us to pay attention and get involved?

Donna Corley, Freddie Mac: Yes, the report does encourage all of us to pay attention and get involved and it is an integral piece of our #LeadingTheWay campaign. I encourage everyone to read this research and pass it on to both male and female colleagues. And while there are many research points and statistics, I believe that readers will be engrossed in the personal stories of women addressing challenges and making their ways up the ladder. I know I was. I also think there’s great value in the trends the report explores and the spotlight on common themes that have helped other women be successful. Through the report, we learn more about what women need in their work environments to thrive and what organizations can do to create these empowering environments.

Julie Devoll, HBR: Can you share a little bit about what empowerment means to you? And do you have any advice for younger women starting out in this industry?

Donna Corley, Freddie Mac: Empowerment is such an important word. It means so many different things to different people. To me, first and foremost, empowerment starts within yourself. You have to stop waiting for others to give you permission to say that you’re good enough or that you can try something. It’s up to each and every one of us to own our journeys and decisions and to act.

Despite that individual aspect, it’s also incredibly empowering to have a trusted network. Knowing that you have a support group or a cheering squad goes such a long way. I strongly encourage young women and men alike to build a great support system, find mentors, and enlist coaches. If someone can be an advocate for your work, ask for their help as you move along your career path.

I used to think of networking as a bad word. As an introvert, I associated networking with cocktail parties and hundreds of people – gosh, just the thought of it would give me a rash. Then I realized, hey wait a minute…I can change the format to be truer to myself, form smaller groups and find close-knit ways of getting to know people better. It was still a way to expand my network but it felt much more authentic for me, and that made all the difference. Now there are teams that I call upon on a regular basis and know that they’re always there for me and vice versa. My approach to networking has come a long way.

Julie Devoll, HBR: We look forward to sharing the new research report with everyone shortly. In the meantime, is there a website where readers can learn more about the #LeadingTheWay campaign?

Donna Corley, Freddie Mac: There is indeed. The campaign has its own website, which features executive profiles, facts and figures that support the need for action, and more about upcoming events and ways to connect and get involved. I highly encourage folks to visit https://sf.freddiemac.com/about/single-family/leading-the-way/overview.

Julie Devoll, HBR: Donna, thank you so much for talking with us. This has been great.

Donna Corley, Freddie Mac:  I appreciate the time. Thank you so much. If there’s one final thought I’d like to leave your readers with, it’s this. While there have been great strides, all of us need to do more to make our workplaces as equal a playing field and as full of opportunities for women leaders as possible. There’s still lots of work to do. After hearing about and eventually reading this report, I hope your readers will feel as inspired and motivated as we are to make a positive difference.

Learn how you can help level the playing field.

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