I was recently a drill sergeant of sorts at a boot camp. No, I wasn’t in combat boots barking out instructions to hapless cadets on a muddy field—this was an altogether more elegant gathering, more silks and chiffons than khaki and camouflage.
Context? Driven by the belief that more diverse boards are a better representation of the marketplace, consumers and workforce, regulators worldwide are pushing hard to get more women on corporate boards. Additionally, research demonstrates a positive correlation (though that does not imply causation) between better corporate results and women on boards. The argument that more diverse boards, specifically more women, lead to better corporate governance and decision making is now widely accepted, with governments pushing hard for regulatory reform or a call to action.
So far so good. But why does one even need a special track for women on boards? Partly, it’s a supply issue—with fewer women at the top, the pool to choose from is limited. Moreover, the issue is as much on the demand side, with the natural instinct to preserve the largely all-male status quo (aptly described as the “homosocial reproduction” syndrome) kicking in. Hence, the concerted efforts underway to change the status quo—calls to action, guidelines, affirmative action, regulatory changes, training—by regulators, corporations, headhunters and academia, all of whom are powerful influencers of this agenda.
So, back to the boot camp. Of course, all of this does hinge on women themselves—and their desire and preparedness to serve on boards. The agenda was to walk women through the process of getting on boards, help them prepare a road map and get themselves “board- ready”. Here goes:
To get on a board or not
To start with, think through why you want to serve on a board. As they say, some love the prestige and like the money, others love the money and like the prestige. While the benefits of serving on a board are clear, most women have carefully balanced ecosystems that enable them to run their dual careers at work and home—and they would be well advised to assess the commitments, risks and trade-offs, liabilities and reputational risks, before signing up.
Target and study the types of boards on which you would like to serve. Board structures vary across countries, responsibilities vary from executive to non-executive. Companies vary from individually or family owned companies and corporations to start-ups and non-profits. Ownership, scale, location and industry are important factors to consider. Lastly, diligence on the reputation, dynamics and antecedents of the board or shareholders is key.
Figure out the process
While board searches are increasingly run by professional executive search firms, traditionally the process of getting on a board can be opaque, driven by word of mouth, family connections or the old boys’ club. Each channel has its own strategy. Suss out whom you know on boards, figure out how you leverage personal and professional networks. Get on the radar with search firms. Get on the board registries. Build and reach out to a network of mentors and influencers.
Familiarize yourself with the process of how boards are structured and how they work. At the very least, get financially literate. The next step is to understand what skills and experience the target boards seek, and how you SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) up against that. Apart from professional and personal credibility, do you bring industry or functional expertise? Knowledge of specific markets or customer segments? Significant profit and loss (P&L) management experience? Are you aware of the larger economic issues and global trends? Can you demonstrate strategic or operational skills? There is a perception that women do not always have the breadth of career experience that their male counterparts have—particularly in terms of travel, difficult postings or projects, etc. Think through qualifications and experiences that need to be supplemented. Consider executive education, training. Look at how to position your experience to a board.
By and large, women expect their work to speak for them—and tend to hesitate to proactively project themselves. Branding is about what you stand for, as well as visibility. Google yourself once in a while, and see what shows up. All senior professionals have—or should have—a professional brand statement. Define your proposition, your tag line, and work on your elevator pitch—what do you do—your experience and expertise, your value-add, your goals. How are you projecting your brand? Unfortunately, if you don’t stand out, you are unlikely to get that call—think through how to step this up, particularly outside of your existing company. Do you write, teach or volunteer? What are the companies, committees and affiliations you are associated with? Are you on social media?
Consider how to engage
A board CV generally differs from a regular job résumé—and should be designed to showcase your strategic value-add and brand proposition. How you structure it will depend on your proposition. Recognize that board interviews are also quite different from regular job interviews, often conducted in less formal settings, often over a drink, designed as much to assess compatibility and style as skills. Can you disagree without being disagreeable? Ask tough questions? Over and above this, boards co-opting women for the first time may have additional concerns about commitment, time, availability to serve on committees, etc. Research the backgrounds of board members and seek connects, work with the search firm or your introducer to identify and address concerns.
Recognize that there are assumptions and biases out there. The onus does really lie with the woman to tackle these, learn to navigate the unspoken rules and influence the landscape. Invest, prepare, learn—be proactive, rather than just working hard and awaiting recognition. Seek out opportunities to gain experiences. Mentor and be mentored. Create your circle of support. Find the people who influence board selection, ask for advice, pitch your stuff and ask if they will recommend you. Above all, don’t hesitate to explicitly state your goal of serving on a board to everyone who matters—take charge of the process.
So, hup two three four! As an uncle of mine used to say to me, “Don’t be afraid of the shy.”
Sonal Agrawal is managing partner, Accord India, an executive search firm.