Article: Getting a foothold, and staying put, in boardrooms


Getting a foothold, and staying put, in boardrooms

In navigating male-dominated boardrooms, women should confidently demonstrate meticulous preparation, effective communication, relationship-building skills, and exemplary leadership to leave a lasting and impactful impression.
Getting a foothold, and staying put, in boardrooms

Most senior executives cherish a post-retirement board role and know that it is not easy in India given the choices India Inc. makes in recruiting to the board. For women, this is particularly challenging due to longstanding gender biases and structural barriers. Even with a 2013 regulatory mandate, only 73% of NIFTY-500 have the bare minimum one-woman board member requirement on their boards. Gender parity is a long way off in boards.

How can women executives position themselves as strong candidates for board roles and get a foot in?

Women need to have a deliberate and strategic approach to securing a foothold into a board. Begin by assessing skills, experience, and areas of expertise to identify the types of boards where they can make the greatest impact. For this, conduct a self-assessment to identify strengths and weaknesses and seek feedback from mentors and trusted advisors, including any male directors you know. 

Mary Dillon, CEO of Ulta Beauty, strategically positioned herself for a board seat by leveraging her extensive experience in retail and consumer goods. Her deep understanding of consumer behaviour and market trends made her a sought-after candidate for boards in the retail industry, eventually leading to her appointment to the Starbucks board.

Building strong relationships with other executives, board members, and influencers is essential for securing a board seat. Women leaders should actively participate in industry events, conferences, and networking opportunities to expand their professional networks and connect with potential board contacts. Joining professional organisations, such as the Women Corporate Directors (WCD) or theBoardlist, can also provide valuable networking opportunities and access to board placement resources. 

Chandani, a senior finance executive, attends industry conferences and networking events to expand her professional network. Through these connections, she builds relationships with current board members and executives, eventually leading to introductions and recommendations for board opportunities in the finance and technology sectors. I know of many such folks who have understood how board recruiting works in India.

Many organisations such as the Institute of Directors offer board readiness programmes and training workshops designed to prepare executives for board roles, albeit from a regulatory knowledge basis. My colleague Ralph Ward specifically offers a certification programme for women only to learn other aspects of governance than the regulatory details. Women executives should take advantage of these opportunities to enhance their understanding of corporate governance best practices, boardroom dynamics, and regulatory requirements. Investing in ongoing professional development will strengthen their candidacy for board positions and demonstrate their commitment to excellence. 

Aparna, a technology executive, who participated in a board readiness programme offered by Ralph and gained insights into boardroom dynamics, and strategic decision-making, leading to a couple of invites to smaller boards. She positioned herself as a knowledgeable and prepared candidate for board opportunities in the cyber security area – a hot board issue today.

Another way to increase visibility and credibility as board candidates is by demonstrating leadership and thought leadership in their respective fields. Seek speaking slots at industry conferences, publish articles or thought leadership pieces, and actively participate in professional associations and advisory boards, including NGOs. Such visibility will attract the attention of nominating committees and board recruiters seeking diversity and inclusion in company boards.

Deepika, a marketing director, publishes articles on emerging trends in digital marketing and UX strategies. Her thought leadership attracts the attention of board recruiters seeking candidates with expertise in marketing and digital transformation, ultimately leading to her appointment to the board of a leading e-commerce company. 

In recent times, several company boards are moving away from the who-you-know kind of recruiting to mandating executive search firms to find the right board candidates. Women leaders should engage with these firms and build relationships with recruiters specialising in board placements. Michelle, a healthcare CXO, proactively reaches out to top-notch search firms specialising in board placements within the healthcare sector. Through these connections, she ultimately got her foothold on the board of a leading healthcare organisation. 

Also read:  Industry leaders on how to champion gender equality

Once inside a board, what should a woman leader do to make a mark and stay put in a male-dominated boardroom? Look at it as an opportunity to bring diverse perspectives, insights, and leadership qualities to the table. Of course, it will be challenging, but there are several strategies that women can employ to make a significant impact and establish themselves as valuable contributors to corporate governance. 

Confidence and assertiveness: Confidence is especially important in male-dominated environments where women may face additional scrutiny or scepticism. Women should strive to project confidence in their abilities, opinions, and contributions to board deliberations. Assertiveness, backed by thorough preparation and expertise, can come in handy to command respect and influence decisions. Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, is known for her confidence and assertiveness in such settings. She navigated the challenges with grace and determination, earning the respect of her peers and driving significant growth and innovation at PepsiCo during her tenure. 

Preparation and knowledge: Women must enhance their credibility and influence by being thoroughly prepared for board meetings and discussions. Stay informed about industry trends, company performance, and relevant regulatory issues. Showing a deep understanding of the business issues will position them as trusted advisors and valuable assets to the board. Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox, is well known for her meticulous preparation and knowledge of the company's operations and industry landscape. Her strategic insights and attention to detail were instrumental in guiding Xerox through a period of transformation and growth, earning her recognition as one of the most powerful women in business. 

Effective communication: This is essential for building relationships, conveying ideas, and driving consensus in the boardroom. Focus on articulating thoughts clearly and persuasively, using evidence and data to support the arguments. Active listening is also crucial, allowing one to understand different perspectives and engage in constructive dialogue with fellow directors. Sheryl Sandberg, ex-COO of Facebook, was exceptional in communication skills and ability to inspire and motivate others. She leveraged her platform to advocate for gender equality and empower women in leadership roles, demonstrating the power of effective communication in driving positive change. 

Building relationships and allies: Building relationships with fellow board members, C-suite executives, and stakeholders is essential for success in the boardroom. Actively seek out opportunities to connect with peers, both inside and outside of formal board meetings, and cultivate allies who can support and advocate for them in challenging situations. Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox, is credited with building strong relationships with key stakeholders and allies within the company and the broader business community. 

Leading by example: Women can make a mark by leading by example and demonstrating their leadership qualities through their actions and decisions. Set BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), integrity, and ethical conduct and inspire others to follow suit. Mary Barra (General Motors) was recognised for her principled leadership and commitment to excellence. She championed diversity and inclusion initiatives within GM and actively mentored and supported women in the automotive industry.

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Topics: Diversity, Leadership, #InternationalWomensDay

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