Board Savvy March 4, 2020

Ladies, Board Service Is for You

By Sandra Andrews Athena Member

When I was in kindergarten and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I remember being devastated when Mrs. Brewster explained to me that I couldn’t be a Queen even if I married a prince, because you had to be born into it. I struggled then (and I still do today) with the concept of being entitled to a right or privilege to achieve a specific role. I value fairness and the ability to earn achievements. 

My passion to land a board seat started a little over a year ago and has been an eye-opening journey. The biggest surprise to me is how few highly successful, professional women know about board roles. With no knowledge of the career opportunity a board seat provides, there is a lack of a pipeline for women to get a seat at the table on corporate boards. In my own experience, I’ve had to educate my network on the role of a board, the fact that positions are compensated, and how many of my peers truly are “board material”. 

Ready for a pathetic statistic? There are more men with the name “John” on public company boards than there are total females. It is absolutely astonishing to me that such a highly rewarding way to make a contribution to businesses exists, and yet these board roles sadly remain unknown and unfilled by women.

Board service: a rewarding and invigorating experience

A board role is a way to share your knowledge and expertise and gain valuable skills while scaling your impact. Women should be clamoring for these opportunities. Board roles are paid and require quarterly participation. Yet it is comparable to the work many of us take on voluntarily above and beyond our existing duties; for me, it has been equivalent to managing an ongoing project or initiative I am passionate about.

The metrics are changing. 2019 was the best yet in terms of the number of women appointed to public company boards. But I see many women who are phenomenal operating executives who still have no idea how to translate their executive career into the boardroom. I continue to be amazed by how many of my male peers can envision themselves serving on a corporate board while  higher achieving female colleagues have no knowledge of board roles or don’t see themselves in the boardroom because they don’t come from the typical CEO or CFO mold.

Boards are for you, too!

Being on a board is rewarding and invigorating. It is exciting and satisfying to aggregate all your lived operational experience and use it to make a difference for another organization’s future. What is second nature to you is enlightening to them. Your past experiences, your learnings, and now your current approach and expertise are valued. Likewise, you have work to do in supporting the CEO, adding to the business, and fulfilling your obligations as a board director. You need to define your role and what you bring to the board and the company, establish your level of engagement in operations, and commit to exceeding expectations and delivering for the organization. (Which is what you always do in your executive career, and why I am sure you will be successful in the boardroom.) 

A challenge for women leaders

There are five things I want you to do:

  1. Be curious. Increase your awareness of boards and, more importantly, TALK ABOUT IT. Every organization, private or public, for profit or non-profit, has a governing body. Ask your friends (male and female) what boards they are on, learn how they got there, and be aware.
  2. Learn the lingo. Know the roles and the committees. Understand the structure. There are courses, books, retreats, and incredible resources to educate and expand the pool of qualified individuals.
  3. Advocate for board members with operational roles. Goldman Sachs recently announced that they will not take a company public without diverse candidates on their board, and one way to do that is to open up the boardroom to a broader range of backgrounds—including women who are incredibly impactful operators but lack formal board experience.
  4. Visualize yourself on a board. What kind of company do you want to serve? What do you bring to their board? Define your superpowers and be able to speak to them. Put on the cape or the crown and believe in your abilities and unique value. 
  5. TELL EVERYONE. Be bold and vocal about your ambition and interest to someday serve on a board. When others hear your interest, they’ll remember. Everyone I’ve met who serves on a board got the role through some level of networking. 

For me, what makes board work engaging is the ability to context switch swiftly. You go from the 15,000 foot view to 5,000 feet to 5 feet in a variety of areas very quickly. Women are good at this and have the ability to juggle multiple balls in the air.

In all my years of mentoring and developing peoples’ careers, pursuit of a board position is the first place where I have observed a huge gender disparity in terms of awareness. In other words, ladies, it’s time to get more informed and help each other aspire to board service. It’s time to do our part.