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Coco Brown

You Don’t Have to Be Perfect. You Have to Be Top of Mind.

By and | Board Savvy, Building the Modern Boardroom | No Comments

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 thingsespecially 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.

Finding Your Unique Selling Proposition

By | Executive Development | No Comments

Gary Purece is one of several executive advisors for Athena members.  He is a communications advisor who assists executives in clearly articulating their corporate and personal brand message.  Athena Alliance members receive two hours of coaching with Gary to start the process of writing their own board bio for future placement.

Gary penned this advice on how to identify your Unique Selling Proposition (USP)a term which is interchangeable with “value proposition” or “brand statement.”

Think advertising… 

Advertising works only when the words differentiate the product from similar products. BMW differentiates itself with “the Ultimate Driving Machine” (the word car is not even mentioned); GE states “We make things that very few in the world can, but that everyone needs.” These slogans depict a unique selling proposition to help these two companies stand out for those in the market for similar goods and services.

The Unique Selling Proposition contains words that, when clearly stated, explain how you solve problems or help make the company relevant, meet specific needs, and explain to the listener why they should choose you. The USP establishes the unique differentiation between you and the competition.

As an example, I chose the following USP; “Coaching that helps executives communicate with confidence and authority.” In one sentence, I describe my audience (executives), what I do (verbal communication coaching), and the impact (communicate with confidence and authority).

Today, the differentiator statement is not just a necessity, it is a requirement.

As you continue to review your brand statement (it is a work-in-process statement) the following questions will help you refine and update your USP.

  • What is unique about the way I think?
  • What makes me distinctive as a leader?
  • What impact do others expect from me?
  • What impact do others receive from me?
  • What types of solutions do I consistently deliver?
  • What is my legacy/what do I want my legacy to be?

Competition for board seats can be fierce. In order to earn a spot, you must present your unique value to the reader and listener. This is your USP.

Thanks to Gary’s 1:1 coaching on this process, Athena members can clearly define their value in their bios, their LinkedIn profiles and their elevator pitches so that board members seeking directors can more easily see the reasons to consider them.

 

The Athena Alliance Welcomes Nancy Sheppard, Founder of Women2Boards, to Our Leadership Team

By | Announcements | No Comments

There is no shortage of qualified women for boards, but there is a need to connect these exceptional women to boards looking to fill an open seat. The current pace of change toward gender parity in the boardroom is 1% per year. At this rate parity for the largest companies will be achieved in 30 years, and for the smallest 50 or more.

The need for an organization that can scale to accelerate the pace of change has become increasingly apparent. We believe Athena is that organization! We expect to see significant expansion for the organization in 2017 through membership development, program sponsorships, and board opportunities. To accelerate our own scale and ability to drive change, Nancy Sheppard, who has expertly led Women2Boards with the same mission, is joining us. Her addition provides us with more resources to augment that expansion.

Nancy founded Women2Boards in late 2014 to provide matching services for smaller company boards. Women2Boards also assisted its members on their journey, providing 1:1 coaching and guidance as they explored board opportunities. Since its inception, the organization has served over 100 women nationwide, and has made more than 30 referrals of qualified women to boards and search firms.

Since Athena’s inception less than one year ago, we have connected women with 17 board opportunities at organizations of all sizes, from large public companies to late-stage private companies; there are more board opportunities on deck to be added this quarter. The organization has received more than $400,000 in donations, including major support from industry leaders Autodesk, Intuit and DLA Piper.

The Athena Alliance is not a recruiting firm and it is not a board training program. Rather, the organization serves as an extension of a board’s intimate network, introducing them to incredible executive women. At the same time, we are an essential part of a woman’s support structure, helping her overcome the ‘last mile’ barriers to board service and ensuring that she is prepared, such that when she is tapped for a board opportunity it’s hers if she wants it.

Nancy will join The Athena Alliance as a member of our Leadership Team with a focus on membership advisory services for women preparing to serve in board roles. She will also drive communications strategies and programs to advance Athena’s mission.

Nancy’s past experience includes 20+ years as CEO and director, Western Independent Bankers, founding board member for a bank services corporation, and trustee for a workers’ self-insurance group. She was a member of the leadership team at the California Bankers Association and spent several years on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Her record of working in male-dominated environments has given her a passion to assist more women break through the boardroom ceiling. She was selected as one of the Most Influential Women in Business by the San Francisco Business Times. Because of her leadership in the board diversity movement, she was asked to chair the 2020 Women on Boards San Francisco, National Discussion on Board Diversity for the past two years.

I am delighted that Nancy is joining Athena and bringing with her the best practices and wisdom she has developed through Women2Boards. Her past experience, obvious passion for and dedication to helping women as they reach for a board seat will be an incredible asset to our program..

 

The Boardroom: By Invitation Only

By | Board Savvy, Building the Modern Boardroom | No Comments

Being considered for an open board seat is an “invitation only” affair. Why? Because deciding who to put on the board is a deeply personal, high stakes decision for the CEO and other board directors. Therefore, you must be part of a trusted network to be seriously considered.

It is important to note that this “invitation only” experience is not usually associated with large, high-profile companies. Larger companies are likely to have brought on more than a few directors over the years and developed a mature Nominating Committee structure and process. They are also likely to hire a recruiting firm to support them. Instead, board additions made through a trusted network are usually those of the young, or small to mid-cap public companies, or well-backed private companies on a trajectory toward a winning exit and looking for their first or second independent director.

Why is the process an “invitation only” experience with these companies? For two very personal reasons:

  1. The process is the only one in which the CEO participates in hiring their own boss.
  2. This new director will be on the board for six to 10 years, or even decades.

Considering these facts, it’s not surprising that personal success and company success are obscurely intertwined in the board decision process. In such a high-stakes situation, board members, usually men, will usually pick — consciously or unconsciously — someone from their network. More often than not, this person will look a lot like them. This inevitability, when viewed through the lens of unconscious bias, makes the progress of diversity in the boardroom achingly slow.

However, when an informed advocate for diversity enters the network and is able to make the case for diverse board candidates, change can happen very quickly. This change relies on access, influence, and positioning. It also requires an awareness of the perspective of the CEO and the board as a whole, who will be evaluating candidates by asking:

  • “Will this person add value?” (i.e. “Will the company thrive as a result of what this person brings to the table?” “Will they evolve as quickly as we do?)
  • “Can we, the board, trust them?” (i.e. “Will they have our best interests at heart?””When we need to make a tough call, do we share the same values and leverage them in similar ways?” “Do we know their triggers, and can they manage them well?”)

“Will our chemistry be strong?” (i.e. “Do we ‘get’ them?” “Do they ‘get’ us?” “Do we understand how they think?” “Will our collaboration make all of us better leaders for this company?”)

Here are my thoughts on the best ways to move the needle more quickly for women (or anyone outside the network) within the realities of how board selection decisions are made.

Access

For those of us sponsoring women, our sharpest focus should be on joining the trusted network of CEOs, VCs, and seated board directors. It is almost guaranteed that these individuals will be male and that their network will not boast many qualified women. Becoming a part of their trusted network means that you are more likely to be made aware of open board opportunities and to be able to put forward qualified women for those roles.

To become part of this trusted network, you must consciously pursue it. If you are a senior executive or in the C-suite, you know at least one CEO, are likely to interact with your company’s board, and are probably invited to events where you mingle with CEOs and board directors. To be aware of open board positions and put forward qualified women, strengthen your connections with these individuals and ask them for introductions to other CEOs, VCs, and seated directors.

I have yet to meet a male leader who won’t consider a woman candidate when they are recommended by someone they trust. In fact, when I tell CEOs, VCs, and seated board directors that I know women who would be excellent choices, their response is usually, “Great! Please introduce me to them so I can consider them for the role.”

Influence

When my organization (The Athena Alliance) speaks with a board influencer or decision-maker about an open board seat, we are careful to move past the discussion of a candidate’s desired title, industry, and company size. We are quick to ask “why” these details matter to them. This question expands the conversation to include the trajectory of the business model and its services, the opportunities and challenges the business faces in scaling, the gaps in the experience and capability of the existing board, and the thought leadership and temperament that is desired in this next director. The result is a broadening of the possibilities around board fit.

The Athena Alliance is a mission-based organization working to advance gender diversity in the boardroom. We are not a recruiting firm and are not hired by the board to find a director. However, we do make introductions between boards seeking directors, and amazing women for them to consider. To begin a dialogue with the CEO and board, we approach them as a trusted member of their network and develop credibility by demonstrating our ability to understand the needs of their business. With this trust and credibility comes a displacement of any unconscious bias as well as an increased interest in considering our recommendations.

Positioning

When you have a clearer understanding of why a board is seeking certain qualities, position a qualified woman by telling a story that illustrates the value she brings to the table. Stories go beyond qualifications to connect the audience with character, context, and contribution. They can be far more memorable than a CV or bio, and can better map a woman’s experience to the needs of the business and the board. Furthermore, by engaging an influencer with a story, we focus on relevant experience rather than job title. This chips away at bias and makes the influencer more willing to consider the candidate. In providing the influencer with a personal story that can’t be found on a resume, we position a woman for success from the start. Unconscious bias is naturally eliminated or suppressed in the face of relevant stories of realized value.

Make it easy:

My final word of advice is this — don’t ask boards to create or participate in a process that they are not already familiar with. Between 94% and 99% of board seats are filled through a network, and this is especially true for small-cap public or the private companies. Networks do not follow a formal recruiting process, and trying to introduce a new process is a superfluous barrier to entry. Instead, meet boards where they are — become a part of the trusted network, help the board’s articulate the value of the right candidate, and present women by telling stories that illustrate the value the board is looking for.

Please Join Us at The Catalyst Conference

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Girls in Tech To Host Fourth Annual Catalyst Conference and The Athena Alliance is a major partner in this event with 14 of our members speaking. Athena members recieve a 25% discount. Please use the code ATHENA

Girls in Tech is proud to announce the fourth annual Catalyst Conference, a three-day event designed to celebrate women in this new age of innovation. The event will take place at Hotel Palomar in Phoenix, Arizona on April 17-19, 2016. Click here to purchase tickets!

“The Catalyst Conference was created to provide our attendees with an environment that allows for true and honest conversations about important issues including gender diversity in the workplace and how we can better support girls in tech.” said Adriana Gascoigne, Founder and CEO of Girls in Tech. “We look forward to hosting another great group of attendees with a solid lineup of workshops and conversations in Phoenix in April.”

The Girls in Tech Catalyst Conference will include inspiring keynotes from female leaders, as well as multi-media presentations and networking events. The conference also offers attendees exciting discussion and sage advice on innovation and technology, and will provide them with a platform to exchange ideas, connect with other influential women, and create lasting business relationships that could have considerable impact on the technology industry at large.

“As an advocate for innovation in government, I know how valuable it is to collaborate with techies outside my organization,” said Laura Williams, Catalyst speaker and eDiplomacy Officer, United States Department of State. “I’m looking forward to connecting with the women of Girls in Tech, hearing their stories, learning from their perspectives, and brainstorming new ideas.”

There are more than two dozen speakers confirmed for this year’s event, including:
Amy Bunszel, Vice President, AutoCAD Products, Autodesk
Leah Busque, Founder & CEO, TaskRabbit
Sandy Carter, Social Business Evangelist & General Manager, Cloud Ecosystem & Developers, IBM
Mercedes De Luca, COO, Basecamp
Debra Jensen, CIO, Charlotte Russe
Rashmi Kumar, Vice President of Information Technology, McKesson
Fran Maier, Founder & Chair of the Board, TRUSTe and co-founder of Match.com
Monique Morrow, CTO, New Frontiers Engineering, Cisco Systems, Inc.
Cheryl Porro, Senior Vice President, Technology & Products, Salesforce
Kara Swisher, Executive Editor & Co-Founder, Re/Code
Jennifer Tejada, President & CEO of Keynote
Kristen Wolberg, Vice President of Technology, PayPal

Featured discussion topics include:
Fuel­ing the She-Economy: Why It Matters
Build­ing Your Brand, Net­work­ing, and Show­cas­ing You
Prac­ti­cal Prod­uct Mar­ket­ing: Engag­ing your Cus­tomers to Drive Advo­cacy and Growth
Diver­sity and Inclu­sion: Lever­ag­ing The But­ter­fly Effect
What it Takes to Build a Great Com­pany: Mis­takes Entre­pre­neurs Make That No One Talks About
How the Accel­er­ated Learn­ing Model is Help­ing to Alter the Gen­der Dis­par­ity in the Tech­nol­ogy Work­force
This is the second year that Girls in Tech has held their flagship event in Phoenix, acknowledging the area’s potential to harness and support women as they pursue tech and entrepreneurial endeavors.

“We’re excited to welcome the Girls in Tech Catalyst Conference back to downtown for the second year in a row,” said Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. “Some of the world’s most innovative women in technology will come together in Phoenix to empower other women to lead and succeed in this critical field.”

Catalyst Conference is sponsored by Automattic, IBM, H&R Block Small Business, Wells Fargo, Axosoft, Infusionsoft, City of Phoenix and Downtown Phoenix, Inc. Athena Alliance is also a proud partner for the event. Television and radio show host Kym McNicholas will emcee the event.

For more information about speakers and schedule of events and to register to attend, please visit: http://phoenix.catalyst.girlsintech.org/

Click here to purchase tickets!