CHICAGO – Kate Bensen calls herself "a builder, a connector." Networking, for her, "is as natural as breathing."
So having a standing wine date with a recruiter was in character for the longtime attorney, and six years ago that relationship landed her at the helm of the Chicago Network.
The Chicago Network, founded in 1979, is an invitation-only group of high-ranking Chicago women whose 450 members span the upper echelons of business, academia, science, the arts and nonprofits.
In the landscape of leadership clubs, Bensen, 57, said the group is distinct for fostering "deep and abiding" relationships among women leaders in disparate circles, operating on the premise that connecting a Fortune 100 CEO with a leading architect will enrich everyone's lives. Criteria for entry are not disclosed, but everyone must demonstrate civic engagement, she said.
Bensen, who became president and CEO in April 2010, did not grow up surrounded by such elite company.
"I came from a household where my mother didn't go to college, my dad [a Lutheran minister] worked his way through a million jobs to put himself through college and seminary," she said.
Before her family moved from a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood to Westchester County, N.Y., to care for her ailing grandfather, "I'd never met a wealthy person, I'd never met a corporate executive, I'd never met a Jewish person," Bensen said. "My whole world exploded, and I recognized that my life was never going to be the same."
Bensen got her undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, where she studied economics, and her law degree from Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She was a partner at Schiff Harden and later vice president at public affairs firm Conlon Public Strategies before taking the reins of the Chicago Network.
Q: How do you view the progress of women in leadership?
A: Glacial. But we're starting to see signs of change. There are CEOs who get it. Miles White at Abbott is a prime example of someone who believes very strongly in the power of diversity to affect the bottom line and the quality of his company. So he holds his managers accountable for performance, and their bonuses are affected if they're not meeting diversity goals.
Q: Why do you think progress has been so slow?
A: I think it's a multifaceted thing. One is that women who step off to raise families have difficulty stepping back on. I think, also, we need to see women taking on more operating roles, going for more profit-and-loss responsibility, because that's really the route to the C-suite. But companies have to really adapt for the 21st century. Especially as you look at millennials coming up, their expectations are very different. I think their patience for sitting around, waiting for change is not as great as it might have been for prior generations.
Q: What is your favorite career advice to give to young people?
A: Lean into discomfort, and accept growth opportunities. And asking for what you want is really important. Not in an obnoxious way, but if you don't communicate what you want, people won't know that you want it. A great story about that is Irene Rosenfeld, who runs Mondelez. She was having dinner with her boss, and he said, Irene, what would you like your next move to be. And she said, Hmm, I think I'd like to run a division. A few weeks later, he's having dinner with his boss. Well, the Canadian division opened up. She got that job. She wouldn't have gotten that job had her boss not asked her.