Let’s get more women on boards, ASAP!

Lorri Lowe shares her views on getting more women on boards.

I invited a couple of tradesmen to my home last week to quote for repairs to a sash window. One of them, having inspected the damage, said he’d like to have a quick word with my husband about the costs. I’m a Partner in a professional services firm with 40 offices around the world – I run three of them in the UK. I speak with many key decision makers every day, but (and this is unlike me) I was lost for words. Needless to say, he didn’t get the work.

Countries with female leaders have coped much better with the Coronavirus pandemic. The former IMF chief Christine Lagarde (she now heads up the European Central Bank) spoke of their “stunning” response to the coronavirus pandemic, especially when compared to their male counterparts saying that the policies adopted by female heads of state were proactive and their communication style was clear. Data suggests her assessment is correct. As she said of the 2008 financial crisis, “if it had been the Lehman sisters rather than the Lehman brothers the world might well look a lot different today.”

I believe that helping to advance more women to lead in business is an imperative for global economic success. That is not hyperbole, or my woman’s bias, but a fact. Far too many boardrooms are still dominated by older white men, even though the latest data allows the government’s Hampton-Alexander Review of 2016, which set (voluntary) targets for FTSE 350 company boards to be 33% female by 2020, to claim it has hit one of its two key gender diversity targets. However, the review is still struggling to achieve its second main aim which is to have 33% of women in the leadership teams of firms listed in the London Stock Exchange’s FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 indices. To achieve that, half of all available FTSE 350 leadership roles will now need to go to women in 2020.

It’s by now undeniable that gender balance on boards encourages better leadership and governance, but while most business leaders know a diverse and inclusive culture is critical to performance, they don’t always know how to achieve that goal.

Transparency is often an issue for women trying to enter the boardroom because the vast majority of privately-owned companies aren’t actually obliged to make their board vacancies known. All too often Directors will rely on their own networks and go for people they already know within their own circles, whilst never looking beyond. Indeed, many are actually fearful of somebody they don’t know joining their board. Subconscious bias – hiring ‘people just like us’ – can result in a dangerous lack of diverse thinking, a potential lack of challenge, and that is not good for a healthy Board or a successful company. Wait for the metaphorical ‘tap on the shoulder’ and it may never come. Higgs, Sainsbury and various other reports on Corporate Governance all encourage the company to engage, through professional head-hunters, with others outside of the ‘usual suspects.’ Phrases like ‘new blood’, ‘innovative thinking’ and ‘fresh perspectives’ are often heard over the ramparts and bastions, but entrenched bias will not deliver any of them.

Perhaps you are already a successful CEO, or a senior executive, confident in your strong track record in operating roles and P&L management or you might be years away from it, but you’re never too young to start thinking about it. Ah, good old Imposter Syndrome – rarely if ever do I hear doubt from a man. Many bosses would actually be happy for you to join outside boards, as you can bring the skills and knowledge you learn back to them. It can also be a great option for women who have been out of the workplace on career breaks, or maternity leave, to keep up their skills.

How to get noticed?

The old adage – ‘if you walk like a duck, swim like a duck and quack like a duck … then you are a duck’ – is true. To get a seat at the table you need to be clear about the value you bring to a board and believe it. Match your skill set to the needs identified (or not) by the board and be resilient; sometimes you might be a great candidate, but the timing is wrong. If you’re already financially minded, joining a non-profit audit committee can be a great way to hone a skill set corporate boards value. If you are not comfortable that you know your way around a set of accounts and aware of the liabilities and responsibilities of a director – then do something about it. There are a range of courses and programs you can do online or face to face.

So, to women and all friends of diversity I say, you don’t have to go it alone. Get to know some Head-hunters who specialise in board placements and are genuinely excited about your prospects. Spruce up your ‘Board CV’, (that’s not the chronological career history version), and make sure it has a summary of your transferable and professional skills (not your role) and the value you bring. Start to develop your network – people like me would love to hear from the new wave of CEOs in waiting.

And when you do get that seat up at the high table, make sure you open the door wide and in doing so open the minds of all those around you.

Lorri Lowe

Lorri Lowe

Partner | Friisberg & Partners International 

As a Headhunter with Friisberg & Partners International, Lorri has recruited into many senior executive positions for a diversity of clients, ranging from Fortune500 and FTSE 100s across all sectors including outsourcing, pharmaceutical / biotech, retail, manufacturing, professional services, national charities and board level positions. She currently chairs the Innovation, Diversity and Strategy groups for Friisberg globally and writes extensively on leadership and recruitment for a variety of publications.

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