The woman@work column appears weekly in The Globe and Mail.
Let’s talk about women and boards. Talking may sound unproductive but used appropriately it can be a tool to instigate change at the grassroots level. For one, women must start asking the important questions on how to reach the board level and those that made it up the ranks need to better illuminate the process. By lifting the veil on what it takes to rise to the board level, more women can learn to tailor their career choices early on.
When asked how more women can reach the board level, Debra Kelly-Ennis, president and CEO of Diageo Canada, suggests that women should “dream big” and lay the groundwork early in their career. That may include taking courses to enhance their understanding of board capabilities by initially cutting their teeth on a not-for-profit board, where others can see you in action. In addition to sitting on the public company boards of Pulte Homes and Carnival Corporation, Ms. Kelly-Ennis also serves Dress for Success, a global charity focused on putting women back to work.
“You must be qualified in a number of areas including having a strong understanding of corporate governance, finance and accounting, and business strategy to name a few key competencies,” lists Ms. Kelly-Ennis. “Knowledge of succession planning is also important with today’s companies looking for both active CEO’s and successors to CEO and CFO positions,” she adds.
Barbara Stymiest, the chairwoman at Research in Motion, suggests that women seek opportunities to manage a division, a business unit or a volunteer organization, which can act as a springboard to more senior roles. Ms. Stymiest, who also maintains a director role at George Weston Limited, the Royal Ontario Museum and Symcor, among other boards, emphasizes that skills play a critical role in securing these multiple board roles. Nominating committees, she explained, look for CEO or equivalent skills and candidates need to know how to work effectively with their boards in a way that adds value to management. While “your resume matters,” Ms. Stymiest also emphasized the critical importance of a strong network to land your next board role.
“There is absolutely a proven and strategic methodology to being appointed to public and private company and not-for-profit boards both in Canada and in the U.S.,” asserted Lisa Heidman, senior client partner at The Bedford Consulting Group, a global executive search firm.
“The connected and trusted sponsor network remains dominant and powerful and is still how most board members in North America are appointed today. Your next board role is absolutely within your network, and more likely within your network’s network,” she observed.
Ms. Heidman, who acts as an adviser to senior executives on board placements across North America, encourages those she coaches to connect the dots between their own experience and the specific needs of the company. Learning how to communicate this to your network so they can convey what you uniquely bring to the table plays an integral role. The applies to the most seasoned board members seeking new appointments or those that are brand new to the work.
“The days of the phone ringing – for even the most sophisticated, experienced and qualified board members – is over,” observed Ms. Heidman, adding that those who effectively communicate their skill sets and show the value they add manage to land those board placements time and again.
For those early on the board development process the advice from senior leaders and search professionals that have done it well is invaluable. Zuzanna Kusyk, Director of Global Wholesale Services, at Scotiabank plans on looking for her first board role in the next few years. To set the stage, she has already served on a non-profit board in a volunteer capacity and is currently enrolled in Global Professional LLM program at the University of Toronto, which focuses on international business law, to bolster her academic credentials.
Already Ms. Kusyk understands that you have to be very proactive to even be considered for board roles. She believes “you have to seek out an organization yourself that reflects your background and values.” In addition to essential credentials, Ms. Kusyk feels candidates need to raise their profiles to the point where they can be seen as valuable to a board. “It’s important to make your personal brand of success known to others,” observed Ms. Kusyk. “There is no point in hiding your light,” she added.