Carrie J. Hightman, executive vice president and chief legal officer for NiSource Inc.
Carrie J. Hightman, executive vice president and chief legal officer for NiSource Inc.

Many top in-house counsel and executive board members pay lip service to the advancement of women within the company. But how, exactly, are they expected to accomplish these goals? Perhaps they should take a cue from Carrie J. Hightman, the executive vice president and chief legal officer for NiSource Inc.

“The higher up we get in our organization, the more we have an obligation to ensure that there are equal opportunities for women and minorities,” Hightman told InsideCounsel. “We all have to be sure that we’re alert to the needs to bringing women on board with an equal opportunity to men.”

She saw those opportunities while president of AT&T Illinois. There, she said, she became involved with a women’s affinity group, where the networking opportunities and outside speakers dedicated to advancing women impressed her. When she left to take the job at NiSource, she wanted to create a similar atmosphere for female advancement.

After consulting with the rest of the executive board, she had her result: the “Building the Next Gen: Women in Leadership Program.” This program brought the company’s top 190 women to a conference in Chicago, where they networked and heard from multiple speakers, including Susan Sher, at the time Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.

“They came in thinking it would be a one-time thing, just like a lot of companies have programs,” Hightman said. “I don’t think they were truly convinced that this would be something that could help; they thought it was just a conference.”

Instead, she said, the participants were blown away. Afterwards, she said, they all wanted the same thing: to empower even more women within the company.

“At the end of the meeting, we asked them, ‘What do you want to see next?’” Hightman said. “We really knew what we were hoping they would say, and they did: They wanted to share the wealth with the more junior women. They wanted to do something for the people below; you can only invite so many people to a meeting.”

So Hightman got to work on the next steps. Now, just three years into the program, NiSource runs regional conferences for the next 300 women in the company, an affinity group, a book club, a leadership circle, and many other initiatives with the goal of simply getting women within the group talking. And those programs led to further African American and veteran’s affinity groups, helping employees network and learn from one another.

According to Hightman, the initiative has taken root within the company’s culture. Now, NiSource women don’t even have to ask whether a conference is going to happen again. Everyone, even the executive board, has seen the benefits take place.

“I love that we’ve now done it for three years in a row, and there’s no question whether we’re going to do it,” Hightman said. “There isn’t negative feedback from my male colleagues like, ‘Are you doing this again, what’s the cost, what’s the benefit?’ They know now it’s a sustainable program. It’s as much by demand as it is by necessity.”

Want to learn how to create this culture of leadership at your own company? Carrie J. Hightman will be a panelist at the “Mastering Leadership Skills For Your Path to General Counsel” panel at InsideCounsel’s SuperConference. The event will take place between May 12-14 in Chicago and will bring together senior-level in-house counsel from around the country to help attendees elevate legal knowledge, foster innovation in legal departments and help counsel become better strategic partners. Learn more about the event here.


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