By Coco Brown, founder and CEO of Athena Alliance
“I don’t think I can make time that week. It’s end of quarter and taking a biz dev meeting isn’t my number one priority right now.”
A few weeks ago, I called one of our Athena Alliance members. This woman is an aspiring director, a newer member looking to examine and cultivate her board readiness. I wanted to hear from her directly: what did she think of our program so far? How was her first coaching session? Where is she feeling stuck?
In her position at a global hardware company, spearheading their IT organization, this woman is an obvious target for external corporations—software companies, cloud platforms, application development companies, you name it. The CEOs and VCs associated with these organizations very much want to meet with leaders of her stature, to have an intimate conversation about their products; to gain perspective from the executive “voice of the customer”; and, hopefully, to grow the relationship or co-innovate on a new project. No surprises there.
It also came as no surprise that this woman was overwhelmingly busy and didn’t feel she could make time for what appeared to be yet another business development engagement. I told her I understood, and that I knew that she was working to stay on top of things—especially at quarter end. I told her I realized she had obligations outside of work. I told her that I’m tired, too.
And then I told her to take the meeting.
The first step to expanding your network: just say “Yes.”
No, I’m not in the business of working anyone to exhaustion. However, I am in the business of fostering connections and expanding networks. And, while one may not look at it this way to start, CEOs and investors are also board influencers and decision makers. This is one hell of a networking opportunity not just for them, but for this aspiring director Athena member.
By saying “Yes!” to this business development meeting, this Athena Alliance member is expanding her key influencer network, the most critical element in the journey to the board. She saw a meeting request on an already-too-crammed week; I saw an opportunity for her to shake the right hands—-the hands of board decision makers (CEOs) and board influencers (investors).
Here’s why this matters: there’s a different standard for men and women when it comes to obtaining board positions. It’s not intentional, and it has nothing to do with women’s capabilities, experience, or intelligence—of course, women are just as capable, just as experienced, and have just as much value as their male counterparts.
It’s because being part of the network—the right network—can allow you to build the crucial relationships that can lead to the boardroom. Men happen to be within these intimate networks. When corporations begin their board search, they do it like most companies approach most open positions: they are bent on finding a perfect candidate, a unicorn who meets every requirement. Yet, these “perfect” candidates rarely exist.
This means corporations are forced to bend their requirements. They may evaluate leaders within their network. When they do this, it’s typically a male candidate who is waiting in the wings. Sure, he may just possess most of the requirements, but he has all the power to shape the conversation. He can leverage his relationship and influence the board selection process—because he’s in the right place (the right network) at the right time.
When Saying Yes Means So Much More
The path to the board seat is complex, time consuming, and winding. It can take years. It takes leadership, visibility, and confidence. But, without a doubt, it takes knowing the right people.
Women need to become known by influencers and board decision makers far earlier in the recruiting process. Business development opportunities are one way this can occur. On the surface, these meetings appear to be about sales, but I challenge women to change their perspective on this. Turn business development opportunities into network expansion opportunities. Bring your thought leadership to those meetings; show up prepared to showcase your value proposition; put your best foot forward.
The same goes for panels, customer conferences, coffee meetings, sales calls and more. This is the legwork it takes to expand your reach. Saying yes to conversations with CEOs, VCs, talent partners and other influencers may be all it takes to get your name thrown into the hat for a board position when the opportunity arises.
The Difference a Network Makes
People hire who they know, and board positions are often no different. That’s why Athena Alliance fosters access: access to aspiring directors, access to open board positions, access to influencers. But you can take steps to expand your own networks long before a formal request presents itself, simply by rethinking your approach to the numerous requests that come your way.
Every handshake is an open door. Every meeting is a chance to brand yourself. Every request for your time is mindshare, captured—bringing you one step closer to a board seat.