Women in Business Q&A: Susan Mills, Partner, Polachi

Susan Mills is a Partner at Polachi, the leading provider of Access Executive Search™ services to technology, clean tech, venture capital and private equity clients. Having served as a financial executive in the high-technology industry since 1980, Ms. Mills brings a wealth of experience in operational, organizational and financial operations to the Polachi team.

Prior to co-founding Polachi in 2002, with partners Charley and Peter Polachi, Susan held the position of area finance director for the eastern half of North America at Heidrick & Struggles.
Before her tenure at Heidrick & Struggles, she served as the Chief Operating Officer/Chief Financial Officer at Fenwick Partners where she was a key member of the management team that made the company an attractive acquisition target for Heidrick & Struggles. Earlier in her career, Susan held corporate finance positions at Data General Corporation, Honeywell Information Systems and EF Holdings.

She holds both a Bachelor of Science degree with honors in Finance and Quantitative Methods and a Masters in Business Administration from Babson College.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
In addition to being steadily employed for 35 years, I have always been involved with my community and church and have always sought to do right for others and with others. I believe that my past community work, combined with my BS and MBA from Babson College, have led me to improve my business sense and skills over the years. I would also say that I have always felt it is important to question authority. That is what leads to change and improvement. I try to impress this upon young girls. Stand up for what you believe in, challenge things, but always be respectful and gracious.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Polachi?
I stated working in technology firms years ago so I feel like I can "talk the talk" and relate to our clients. Through my experience there, I worked on the financial end of things and ran P&Ls (profit and loss), which definitely prepared me for financial administration. I was responsible for full faculty and administration responsibilities -- HR, Finance, Legal, IT, Operational, Administration etc. I also worked in a private global firm for a self-made European multi-billionaire. This allowed me to learn how to deal with and embrace the differences of him and his colleagues. I made this a positive experience and took a lot of what I learned there forward in my career. I can do it all basically, and I do.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Polachi?
I would say that the highlights and challenges of my time with Polachi are parallel with economic trends. Our clients tend to react as the stock market reacts. Structuring and driving the business to leverage and diversify itself is both a highlight and a challenge.

We have had the opportunity to work with some world-class clients and candidates. Over the years we have extended our reach well beyond the Northeast and worked for some great Midwest, Southern and West coast clients and even recruited candidates from all over the world. The challenge here has been how to convince the local contacts that we are a national firm.

What advice can you offer women who want a career in your industry?
The executive search industry is a 24/7/365 days a year, international job. As a woman in executive search, I would tell other women to keep in mind that the client is paying a very dear price for your intellect, experience and reach of the network. They're also paying you to do something that she/he doesn't have the time (or want to make the time) to do on their own. This means that when the search is on the client's mind and she/he has questions, you need to be responsive. In my line of finance, I not only need to be responsive, I need to be accurate. This leaves no time for distraction, so it can be a pretty demanding job.

Not only do women in this industry need to recognize this before they join, but they need to impress upon the people hiring them, that just because they are women, that does not automatically mean they are not always available and/or cannot travel. The truly successful female search women with whom I have met and worked with have not had children and I think that is too bad -- there is no reason the industry needs to think this way. There are very good women who also have children and parents to deal with, but they are not given the chance to soar with the very successful ones I mentioned before.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It's easy. My work at Polachi has been a huge part of my life. We are a team that is on the go and mobile in every aspect. In addition to the Boston office, I also have a home office, which allows me to get things done whenever I have to do so. I often do my best work in the wee hours of the morning, even on a weekend. By being able to fit the more challenging (financial thinking versus busy meetings) work in at my convenience, I can really think about things.

The team has always had the confidence and trust in me to know that wherever I am working, I am loyal and giving my full attention. If I were micromanaged or required to report to an office during a structured time period I could never be as productive. I am not one to cage my intellectual contribution to an 8-5 desk.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I continue to think that the biggest issue is working with men who look at you first like you are someone's wife, mother or daughter and not a businessperson, judging the physical attributes more than the credentials. I am so fortunate that the men I work with have never done that to me. I will say though, in general it takes a lot on a woman's part to prove at the beginning that she is just as competent (often more competent) than so many of the male candidates for the same position. If women do not take a stand and assert themselves in situations, men will continue to stand taller, speak louder and take control.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Honestly, I really have never had a mentor. I have always been a self starter and self learner who grabbed the bull by the horns, so to speak. I attended Babson College for both my BS and my MBA and realized that I loved being entrepreneurial in the business/finance world. I cannot point to a mentor per se, but it was probably a professor somewhere along the line or the women at my first job at Data General.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
As a double grad of Babson College, I admire the school's now President, Dr. Kerry Healey. I wish Dr. Healey had been president back when I attended. I admire her because not only has she been involved in academia, but she was prior involved in government and humanitarian work.
I lived in MA when she was Lieutenant Governor with Mitt Romney and admired the work she did to pass legislation on domestic violence, child abuse, homelessness and alcohol and drug abuse at the high school level. She has accomplished so much, yet I am not so sure that she has been acknowledged properly.

What do you want Polachi to accomplish in the next year?
I want the team at Polachi to continue to find world class candidates for our clients as we have been doing. With our reach and network, we continue to grow and expand our boundaries. Our method works and I want to continue to amaze our clients.