Panelists Share Practical Guidance to Help Advance More Women to Corporate Boards
Corporate board service is an ideal way for senior leaders to exercise their skills in new ways, either as an encore chapter in retirement, or to diversify their experience while working full time.
Women remain in the minority for corporate board of director seats—but groups like the Women Corporate Directors Foundation are working diligently to change that. Their recent event, “Championing the Next Generation of Board Ready Women,” focused on the current board landscape and how women can better position themselves as strong candidates.
Guest panelists included:
- Anne deBruin Sample, CEO of Navigate Forward
- Jim Zuehlke, Founder of Cardinal Board Services
- Kelly Connolly, Consultant at Spencer Stuart
More Boards Staffing with First-Time Candidates
One of the biggest misconceptions about corporate boards is that open seats go only to experienced board members. In fact, board culture and composition are undergoing an evolution, with diversity featuring more prominently in the selection process. In the past year, first-time board members filled 27 percent of public company board openings, or just over one in four positions.
“Companies are becoming more overt in their desire to diversify their boards.”
Panelists stressed the numbers reflect a positive trend, with corporations more open to filling board roles from new talent pools. One search firm reported half their board searches now focus on recruiting gender diversity for boards. Women of color remain the most under-represented, with positions on just five percent of corporate boards.
“Companies are becoming more overt in their desire to diversify their boards,” Sample noted.
Pandemic Boosts Demand for Skills Beyond P&L
In addition to a heightened emphasis on gender and racial diversity, public and private corporations are re-evaluating the skills and experience they value in their board members. Managing a P&L has long been one of the most important criteria for board service, which limited opportunities for many female candidates. While still important, boards have expanded their wish list to include more unique capabilities. The pandemic is also increasing demand for different competencies.
Current skillsets desired for board service include:
- Fluency with digital technology and tools
- Omnichannel marketing and supply chain experience
- Business transformation
- Human capital management
- Crisis management
- Social and racial justice
- ESG and sustainability practices
Women Must Close Gap in Professional Networking
Panelists concluded with best practices for women executives to increase their visibility, effectively market themselves and demonstrate their qualifications for board of director positions.
By far the single most important activity for female leaders is networking. Unfortunately, women are far more likely to rely on search firms to obtain their first board role, while most men find their opportunities through networking. Sample shared that in 2019, 83 percent of Navigate Forward’s executive clients found their next leadership position or board role through networking.
“Look for individuals who are in a position to provide useful knowledge about board service or a company. Focus on creating advocates who will support you in your candidacy.”
“There’s simply no substitute for the power of these one-to-one conversations,” Sample noted. “And, with the pandemic limiting business travel and eliminating commuting, it’s fairly easy right now to book networking meetings with senior leaders—there’s less friction in the system.”
Who you target for networking is crucial. Panelists advised making connections with these professionals:
- Current and retired C-suite leaders
- Other board members
- Local and national executive search firms with board practices
- Director advisory groups
“We emphasize being strategic about networking. For board work, look for individuals who are in a position to provide useful knowledge about board service or a company. Focus on creating advocates who will support you in your candidacy,” Sample said.
She also shared tips from Navigate Forward’s Board Readiness practice. This tailored consulting service works one-on-one with senior leaders to prepare them for public and private board roles.
“It’s all about showing value quickly. Which specific skills make you relevant? How are you in a position to add value?”
A key part of each engagement is preparing a board bio. This one-page career overview creates a much stronger introduction than a traditional resume. It includes a clear statement of each individual’s personal value proposition for board work, with supporting career highlights focused on vision and governance rather than hands-on management.
“It’s all about showing value quickly. Which specific skills make you relevant? How are you in a position to add value?” Sample explained.