What is keeping women off corporate boards? It’s not a lack of attention to the problem: A top board search consultant characterizes the push for board diversification in the following way: “opportunities are abounding for women … no one ever says, ‘bring me a white male.’” Business magazines and newspapers follow the progress of top women in business onto boards: their board positions merit mentions in leading publications, such as the New York Times business section. Business schools design educational programs specifically to help women attain corporate board positions.
This makes the continued rarity of women directors all the more puzzling and raises the important question of how to get more women on corporate boards. This article shares six tips from women board members, knowledgeable search consultants, and other savvy insiders, on successful strategies for board selection with women (and men!) who aspire to follow in their footsteps.
The findings in this article are based on interviews with a non-representative sample of 40 women executives and one man covering a variety of career and board issues. The sample included women from all over the country including several prominent board search consultants, corporate and non-profit executives, a university president, the president of a research institute that studies gender differences in leadership, and women executives from a broad array of industries and functions.
Over half the participants (56%) are or were CEOs or Presidents. The same percentage (56%) came from companies in the health care sector. The remainder came from a variety of industries, including financial services, investment banking, private equity and venture capital, law, universities and research institutes, oil and gas, and transportation. 10% of the sample was comprised of board or search consultants. 78% of the sample has corporate board experience; 93% has not-for-profit board experience, and 76% serve on both corporate and not-for-profit boards.
The top six tips for women who aspire to corporate boards are:
- Tip #1: Create a plan to manage your career.
A big career, including one with corporate board service, requires a “single-mindedness” of purpose; a plan is essential to put this focus into action. One executive astutely summarized the problem in this way: “Women let their careers happen to them.” Big careers don’t just happen. They require intention and strategy, from determining long-term and short-term goals, needed skills and experiences, wise career moves, and the possible role of board service.
Women executives are particularly vulnerable to the competing demands of big jobs and family responsibilities and often don’t or can’t devote the time to manage their careers.
A career plan is essential to keep the focus on intentional career moves that enhance career strength and board credentials.
- Tip #2: Seek opportunities to run anything.
Above all, boards want women (and men) who have already run an operation and have P&L experience, preferably C-suite experience. An SVP or EVP is generally the minimum desired profile, “unless you know people.”
The problem is that most women executives don’t have this kind of experience. A disproportionate number of women executives are in staff, not line, positions which provide no P&L experience. Many others are in not-for-profits, government, or academia, or other settings where P&L experience is not relevant.
That’s why a career plan with a focus on actively seeking opportunities to run something – a business unit, division, even an interdepartmental task force or project or volunteer organization — can be a springboard to larger operating roles and to serious board consideration. Do not wait for a hoped-for operating assignment to materialize; find one.
- Tip #3: Build specialized expertise in a function, industry, or body of knowledge.
One woman executive noted that if you aren’t a CEO, you need valuable functional or industry expertise. Since few women board candidates are CEOs, they need: (1) specialized expertise such as financial, digital, marketing, cyber-security, legal, strategy, IT – providing a unique and needed experience and perspective for a particular board; (2) reputation as an expert in a field (functional, industry, body of knowledge – boards want expertise not just experience), and (3) visible leadership and excellence in an industry and organization (boards want stars, not average performers).
- Tip #4: Build financial knowledge and skills.
Financial skills and knowledge have always been of critical importance to board selection “because that’s what board decisions come down to,” but a strong financial background is “more important than ever” in this post Sarbanes-Oxley era, as is compliance awareness. At a minimum, a woman needs to know how to read financials and understand financial management for serious board contention. Courses in financial management are available for those with serious board aspirations.
- Tip #5: Build a strong network.
A strong professional network is the number one requirement for women seeking a corporate board seat. Virtually every woman in the study got board positions through her network, especially the first and most difficult to secure board seat. As one participant noted, “Networking is more important than skills.” Women executives reported that they obtained board positions through their contacts with colleagues, bosses, and clients. The most dramatic example was the woman executive with no prior board experience who got four board offers in four calls to her investment banking clients!
The first important role of a network is providing visibility and entrée for women board candidates. As one female CEO put it, “It’s really about an entrée and then about qualifications. Many women have the qualifications, but they don’t have the contacts, and haven’t aggressively pursued their networks to be visible to boards.” Another echoed this point, saying “If people don’t know you, no matter how good you are, you are put at a disadvantage” when it comes to board selection. And a third pointed out that “Women lack the contacts for the introduction, they don’t lack the skill set.”
A second role of a network is to provide valuable information on a candidate’s people skills and work style. One CEO explained, “People find it hard to get rid of board members so they need to know you have the skills and are good to work with.” If a candidate is introduced by a board member, she has already passed the chemistry screen and the board may be more willing to relax the other qualifications. This is a crucial advantage for women who make lack the full complement of paper qualifications.
- Tip #6: Build board qualifications and network through other board service and relationships with board search firms.
A Fortune 500 board was not the first board experience for the vast majority of women. Many of them gained valuable board experience on not-for-profit, startup, and smaller corporate boards. Women served on these boards to build board skills, credibility, and even contacts.
Some women executives reported that major not-for-profits, such as educational institutions and museums, were especially effective as a springboard to corporate boards, because their board members often also sit on corporate boards. A leading board consultant also recommended aiming for the Fortune 2000 for the first corporate board seat as another stepping stone to large public boards.
Another recommended strategy was to build relationships with search firms who do board searches, let them know of your interest, ask them to assess your board viability and give you advice, and help them with searches in return. Over the long term, this mutual relationship may open up another important source of board opportunities.
A simple career plan can focus on developing the operating experience and network needed to be visible and qualified for board consideration. Specialized industry or functional expertise, and a reputation for excellence and leadership in her field, as well as a strong financial background are also essential for serious board consideration. And building a strong professional network is paramount for entrée and advocacy for a woman’s work quality and work style, important criteria that can overcome the lack of other ideal qualifications.
Major not-for-profit, small corporate, and startup boards are major sources of experience and contacts necessary for serious consideration by larger corporate boards. Employing these tips from women who have achieved what few do is a road map for success. Get on board!