It is no longer news that a diverse board of directors can have a direct impact on a company’s bottom line. According to McKinsey, those companies in the top quartile for board member gender diversity are 25% more likely to outperform than those in the bottom quartile, and a 2022 study found that organizations where women make up more than a quarter of the executive committee enjoy profit margins that are 10x those with no female board members.
Still, women only hold 28% of board seats across all North American and European companies, and growth has slowed in recent years.
But gender diversity can bring tangible benefits to companies of all shapes and sizes. For one thing, as corporate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives continue to spread, women have proven to be more adept at navigating those issues and creating effective policies to guide organizations.
I recently spoke with a number of female executives who are currently serving as board members to learn more about their experiences in order to help other women secure board roles. Here are some of the insights shared.
Finding board opportunities
Where should you start when looking for potential board roles?
Certainly, talking to your network and getting your name out in the industry through speaking engagements, thought leadership pieces and more is an important part of any modern career. But finding a board seat often takes an extra level of effort. Go to conferences in your industry, let your network know that you’re open to board opportunities, and even reach out to directors you may already know and ask them about their experiences. It is effectively a branding exercise; you need to market yourself as a visible expert in your space who would be a valuable addition to a board.
One avenue that has proven effective is to first join a nonprofit board. Many people who serve on nonprofit boards also work as for-profit directors, enabling interested women to network at a deeper level among potential peers while also learning more about what happens on boards, how responsibilities are handled, and the ins and outs of working alongside other directors. There are significant differences between working with a nonprofit vs. for-profit company, of course but as a steppingstone for women interested in exploring board membership it can be a good place to start.
Landing a seat at the table
That said, securing a board seat can be a significant hurdle for many potential executives.
An effective board member needs to understand both the company and the composition of the current board well. Who are the other directors? What skills are already there? As Ann Lewnes, Adobe’s Chief Marketing Officer, shared, “ask yourself: what value can I add?” What would make you desirable to the company and the board? Drawing from her own experience in joining Mattel’s Board of Directors in 2015, Ann stated that “Mattel had a digital marketing need as they were trying to make themselves into a more digital-focused organization and I fulfilled that need.”
This is your opportunity to sell yourself to the board by outlining what you’ll bring to the table and how you can help the organization succeed. At this point, they already know what you do, but you need to spell out your superpower and what truly sets you apart.
Remember, there is a symbiotic relationship between what you are bringing to the board and what they’re giving you.
And it’s normal to feel some imposter syndrome once you’re in the seat. As Zip Allen, Chief Marketing Officer of Strava, and a member of Reformation and Attentive’s boards said: “People see a woman in a board seat and think ‘that woman must know what she’s doing.’ But as someone relatively new to board service, I’m often wondering – ‘do I belong here?’ I’m learning to stand in the value of my professional and lived experience and being confident in that.”
What companies are looking for
In our board work here at JM Search, we get to see both sides of the process.
We know that our corporate clients need those who understand the balance between strategic insights, KPI performance assessment, and simply operating the business. Typically, that means a candidate who has been a CEO or Executive Leadership Team member in an adjacent business or market and has experience with various types of transactions. Board committee membership is always a plus, but so is a candidate unencumbered with too many other responsibilities who can commit the necessary time.
But it is the intangibles that are increasingly important.
Yes, significant operational experience is important, but so is the ability to think strategically. Directors need to be able to help their team craft a vision and then determine the milestones that are necessary to achieve it.
Investors are looking for board members who have the gravitas and perspective to look at things at a high level and see around corners, as well as work with the CEO and hold them accountable.
The fact is, board dynamics are changing for the better. New points of view, new insights, and new perspectives are increasingly setting successful companies apart, and that begins at the board level. For women who are interested in taking on these types of responsibilities, it is important to network and market your skills and experiences. Finding a board seat is not easy, but for those who are willing to go the extra mile it can be a rewarding addition to their careers.
A very special thank you to Zip Allen, Ann Lewnes, and the other exceptional women executives that I spoke to for their insights and contributions.
For more insights from women in executive leadership, read our recent installment of our Women Rising Series featuring Helayna Minsk, Board Director at PPI Beauty.