Balancing the Board: Dawn Heimer Of Leadership Coach On How To Get More Women On Your Board and Executive Leadership Team

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Create a board-readiness program for high-potential board candidates from underrepresented groups so they can develop the skills to meet the board requirements. The evaluation of high potential should be as free from bias as possible; use standard scorecards and definitions.

Despite ongoing conversations about gender equality, a gap remains in the representation of women in board and executive leadership roles. It’s more than just numbers — it’s about the enriched perspective, creativity, and insight women bring to the table. What are some strategies, initiatives, and real-world practices that have successfully elevated women to board and executive positions? In this interview series, we are talking to C-suite executives who can share their experiences and insights about “How To Get More Women On Your Board and Executive Leadership Team”. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dawn Heimer.

Dawn is a Clinical Affairs Executive with over 3O years of experience in strategic planning, clinical due diligence, and managing high-performing teams. She is committed to continuous improvement, excels in crisis situations, and is skilled at delivering high-quality clinical data for regulatory and marketing purposes.

Her professional journey includes high-level roles at some of the world’s largest healthcare companies, where she has led global teams and contributed to new product development many times over. As of January 2024, she is also a PCC-level Leadership Coach, helping individuals through personal and complex challenges. She is the editor of a forthcoming book, Determined to be Extraordinary Spectacular Stories of Modern Women in STEM. She can be found at

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about balancing the board, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I grew up in a small town in western New York with more cows and corn than people. After I inherited suitcases full of college nursing textbooks, I could often be found with my nose in a book. Fortunately for me, those books had glorious illustrations of the layers of dissected frogs and human skin, sparking my interest in science. True to my upbringing, I have pursued academic and industry-sponsored research for over 30 years. I obtained my Ph.D. in Biobehavioral Sciences and Behavioral Genetics from the University of Connecticut, where I conducted family studies in dyslexia and befriended multiple generations of affected family members. I also conducted and published scientific research on gender differences in learning and memory in small animals and held clinical research posts at several top pharmaceutical and medical device companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Bayer Healthcare. This is where people usually say: “and the rest is history.” Fortunately, my story continues. I am also the editor of a collaborative memoir on modern women in STEM, a Leadership Coach, and an accomplished abstract photographer. I bring a unique blend of research acumen and executive experience to her leadership coaching practice in Rhode Island and New York City. As a former Manager at a Fortune 500 Company, I guide clients to unleash their enthusiasm, lead with purpose, and reach new heights of fulfillment. I split my time between Rhode Island and New York City with my husband and two children.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Being the lead for the clinical function in due diligence activities for company acquisitions and the subsequent staffing integrations has been one of the most fascinating opportunities of my career. The fast-paced, high-stakes nature of the deals kept me on my toes, knowing that significant financial outlays rested on our thoroughness and ability to assess risks, known and theoretical. Every day was a new puzzle, challenging me to determine the right approach, identify the areas of focus, and work in a time-efficient manner. The cross-functional collaboration needed to analyze findings and understand their implications was also very exciting because we never knew what was going to happen next, and we had to problem-solve as quickly as possible. It was actually a very creative and intellectual process. Completing the discovery phase and articulating the seriousness of the risks, along with crafting the strategies to address them, was exhilarating. I am immensely proud of the vital roles I have filled, knowing that my contributions have been crucial to the success of the companies I’ve worked for.

Staffing integrations post-merger demanded a very thorough and detailed tactical plan. Managing the newly integrated team members with grace was essential to ensure a smooth transition and keep the teams working at high levels of engagement. It also required empathy and effective communication skills. These experiences have honed my ability to handle complex challenges, foster collaborative environments, and drive successful outcomes in high-pressure situations.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I’d like to share a story from my previous company. I was working on a study to develop a new drug, and at the same time, it was being studied for another disorder. It was not effective at treating the other disorder, and the company decided to cancel all of the studies. I was very young at the time, and with just a few years of industry experience, I had a lot to learn. The experience of closing down a research study early due to negative results was an amazing learning opportunity. I got to see firsthand how a large, world-class company manages a crisis — from the speed with which it makes decisions to the communication plan to the management of regulators. For my project, it meant I had to throw my original plans and goals out the window and reset them entirely to a new, very tight, almost impossible timeline. It was one of the greatest learning experiences of my career.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Grit: As a people manager for many years, you realize the power of leading by example. Exhibiting grit allowed me to serve as a powerful role model for other women on my teams. When you step up to meet a challenge with strength, determination, and positivity, it inspires others to do the same. Over time, this also allowed me to become an advocate for change and to create a more supportive work environment.
  2. Curiosity: Curiosity is an essential trait for scientists. It makes us challenge facts and study alternatives. Always asking “Why?” lets us dig deep into issues, find several solutions, and pick the best one. This natural or automatic way of thinking is exciting and engaging, even when we’ve hit roadblocks in our research. This may be hard to believe, but it’s because we are motivated by the truth. Curiosity drives us to not accept the status quo and always believe there is a better answer. Without this way of thinking, new scientific ideas would come to a halt.
  3. Dedication to Continuous Learning: Dedication to continuous learning is a critical trait for a scientist. Since facts change constantly as new discoveries, tools, and ways of getting things done become available, staying up-to-date with the latest discoveries helps us ensure we’re using the most current and effective approaches in our research. Continuous learning also keeps our minds flexible so we can shift our focus and our mindset as new information becomes available. Continuous learning keeps our skills sharp so we can continue to make meaningful contributions to science.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

Once, I had an important project that needed expertise that we didn’t have in-house. The easy answer was to bring in an outside consultant (“spend to accelerate”), making sure the job would get done well and on time. However, I had an employee who wasn’t qualified but had potential and enthusiasm. This was not an easy decision for me. Potential delays, the oversight that would be required, and possibly poor results (which were my responsibility) were on my mind. On the other hand, I saw to help this employee grow their skill set, which aligned with my long-term goal of building a strong and capable team in-house.

After I made the decision, I provided project-level training, and we discussed some rules, like when and how issues get escalated. I paired them with a mentor who could be counted on for practical advice and guidance. I am not sure this would have worked out so well if I didn’t have one of their more experienced peers available to help. I had regular check-ins, addressed issues right away, and we adjusted our plans as we went along. I did not want the employee to feel they were being left to struggle alone, and I wanted to create a safe learning environment where they knew they could tap into the knowledge of the team without feeling judged.

The project had issues at first, but the employee began to learn the nuances of the role and started meeting milestones with less oversight and direction. The job got done but with more effort and time than if we had contracted it out. The real success was the changes in the employee. Not only did they gain new skills, but also greater confidence in themself and a greater commitment to their work, which led them to take on larger roles in the department. For me, as a manager, it was a good measure of success.

This experience highlights the importance of long-term goals over short-term gain. By investing in my team’s growth, I got the job done and built a more capable and valuable team at the same time. This strengthened the team’s loyalty, performance, and, I believe, value to the company. It reminds me of a quote: “If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.”

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. How do you view the importance of having more women on your board and executive leadership team? Can you describe the value they bring from your own experience?

Research shows that mixed-gender teams are more innovative and better decision-makers because they draw on a broader range of viewpoints and experiences. I believe having women in leadership roles improves the overall dynamic of the team. We bring different approaches to strategic planning and risk management, like considering the influence of relationships on success and deriving solutions that are fair and equitable. We have the ability to consider a wide range of possibilities and foresee potential challenges long-term, not just short-term ones that satisfy today’s problems. Diversity of thought is crucial in high-stakes discussions, where our thought processes may reveal blind spots that an all-male team might have missed. For example, we might see how a specific risk affects multiple functions within an organization and not just the one that is the primary focus of the discussion, and because we often have strong networks, we would know who to contact to confirm it.

We are skilled at creating stronger, more cohesive teams, so we often excel in collaborative and communicative roles. We care about equitable solutions, and so do employees. This enhances employee morale and engagement, leading to higher productivity and job satisfaction. For instance, a woman in our team started a mentorship program that improved employee satisfaction and retention rates. Her empathetic style created a supportive and inclusive workplace, which translated into company loyalty and improved performance. This contributed to the company’s overall success and promoted a culture of equity and respect. Something we should all aspire to.

Reflecting on the last few years, what positive changes have you noticed regarding women in board and executive roles? Conversely, are there areas where progress has been slower or more challenging?

Despite companies being more aware of the importance of diversity and, in some cases, creating policies to support it, progress has been slow in some areas. One of the main obstacles is the persistence of unconscious biases and stereotypes that can hinder women’s advancement to top leadership positions. An open culture where employees feel safe to express their concerns and share examples of bias and discrimination encourages self-reflection and personal growth that can help reduce these biases.

While there are many women in executive roles, they are usually not in key decision-making roles like CEO or CFO. Simply having women on your board does not mean it is gender inclusive. How do these women’s inputs influence boardroom decisions and corporate strategy — do they have a significant voice, or are they just ornamental?

Traditionally, male-dominated industries, such as technology and finance, still lag behind in achieving gender parity in leadership. Addressing these disparities will require substantial effort to change organizational cultures, provide mentorship and sponsorship opportunities, and create transparent and equitable pathways for women.

What, in your view, might prevent women from seeking board positions?

Some corporate cultures are not inclusive or are even hostile towards women, making them feel unwelcome. The gossip in the hallways is, “That doesn’t happen here.”, meaning women are not even considered for board positions.

The lack of female role models in board positions can make it seem unattainable. In other words, if a woman has not yet been accepted into the “boy’s club,” then how would I ever make it in? I remember when a woman got appointed to the board at my company; I told all the women I worked with to support her and do everything they could to make her successful because this was a test to see if women could actually meet expectations and it was going to determine whether or not this was a viable career path for the rest of us.

Double standards, where women’s qualifications are evaluated more harshly than men’s, are still very common. Men may be selected for development based on their potential, whereas women are often not selected for development until they have proven their capabilities. This type of inequality exists today, even in some of the best organizations.

Board positions are often filled behind closed doors through informal networks and personal connections, which are traditionally male-dominated. Women have a harder time gaining access to these networks and are sometimes even intentionally excluded from key networking opportunities that lead to board appointments. I know this firsthand; it happened to me.

Mentorship and sponsorship are also very important steps for career advancement, and a company’s management or leadership team may be less supportive of sponsoring women versus men. Without mentors and sponsors advocating for us and providing guidance, it can be almost impossible to be considered for board positions. Without these stepping stones, it can be challenging for us to gain the credentials needed for board service.

While focusing on gender diversity, how do you also ensure a broader diversity of thought, background, and experience within leadership? How do these elements intertwine?

A company’s leaders must endorse and actively participate in diversity initiatives, setting a tone that resonates throughout the organization. This endorsement goes beyond verbal support; it involves leading by example and embedding diversity into the core of corporate operations and culture. The significance of executive buy-in cannot be overstated — it serves as a catalyst for change, signaling to all levels of the company that diversity and inclusivity are valued and vital to the organization’s success. Emphasize the necessity of unwavering commitment from the top to foster an environment where inclusivity is valued and prioritized.

Modeling inclusive behavior is an impactful way for executives to support diversity. This means genuinely participating in these initiatives and leading by example. For instance, leaders could openly discuss their own learning journey around inclusivity or solicit input from diverse team members about what could be done better and show respect for a variety of opinions and ideas. Publicly acknowledging the contributions of a diverse range of employees boosts morale but also reinforces the importance of diversity in driving company success. It’s about making inclusivity a visible, integral part of how business is done rather than an isolated agenda item.

Building a diverse leadership pipeline is a great way to ensure that gains in diversity last long-term. This starts with finding and developing talent. You may need to reduce bias in the hiring process. Consider using structured interviews, blind recruitment, and diverse hiring committees, among many others.

Mentorship programs, leadership training, and succession planning can be set up to include high-potential employees from underrepresented groups. For example, consider a mentorship program to support women in preparing them for C-level positions. This promotes a culture that values diversity at the highest levels of leadership. Or maybe consider a Reverse Mentorship Program where employees mentor senior staff on different perspectives.

Engagement and listening are essential to making diversity initiatives work and require genuine interactions with employees at all levels. Roundtable discussions, one-on-one meetings, and informal conversations allow you to connect with employees in authentic and meaningful ways. These will provide insights that can help create more effective and empathetic leadership. These discussions can reveal challenges and opportunities that might not be captured through standard surveys.

What are your “Five Things That Should Be Done To Get More Women On Your Board and Executive Leadership Team”?

1 . Change the nomination criteria for board selection to include diverse backgrounds and credentials (e.g., require candidates to have a history of inclusivity accomplishments or life experience).

2 . Create a board-readiness program for high-potential board candidates from underrepresented groups so they can develop the skills to meet the board requirements. The evaluation of high potential should be as free from bias as possible; use standard scorecards and definitions.

3 . Create term limits for board members to provide fresh perspectives, create a forward-thinking board, and give opportunities for new members.

4 . Review board composition annually against the diversity goals and publish the results for transparency and credibility. Consider using a 3rd party to compile the report to further reduce the chance of bias.

5 . Create annual performance evaluations for board members, including diversity and inclusivity assessments and initiatives. Watch out: Policies that demand diversity but do not work on improving the company culture and true inclusivity (meaning diverse voices are integrated into the decision-making processes, they are heard, respected, and valued) probably won’t work long-term because you have not addressed the heart of the issue.

In your opinion, what role does corporate culture play in promoting gender equality? Can you explain?

The actions and attitudes of a company’s executives set a standard for behavior, creating momentum that can transform the culture. By championing diversity, using inclusive behaviors in as many ways as possible, and preparing the next generation of diverse leaders, they create a path toward a more equitable workplace and a more successful and innovative one as well because both women and men buy into the vision and strategy for the future. Lead by example.

With your commitment to achieving gender balance and fostering diversity, what are the thoughts or concerns that keep you awake at night? How do these reflections shape your approach as a leader?

Women often have to choose between their careers and family responsibilities. This has a huge impact on their ability to pursue leadership positions and, not uncommonly, causes them to leave the workforce. Ensuring affordable and accessible child care is necessary for women to have careers outside of the home and pursue advancement without compromising their families. Also, funding for women’s education is another concern; grants and fellowships are important to their ability to stay in the workforce and be competitive. As a leader, I strive to create a workplace where everyone is given the opportunities and resources they need to be successful. If we work together to tackle these issues, we can gain greater diversity in STEM and leadership roles.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe that all girls have a basic human right to an education. The success and advancement of boys should not come first. Girls deserve more than being relegated to the kitchen and marriage.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can visit my website at and LinkedIn.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.