Invisible: Why many women aren’t on boards

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    Unlike a job interview, the process to get into the selection pool of potential board members is often murky and does not come with a proven playbook. 

    Although many would-be board candidates assume that their HR manager can serve as a direct champion of such appointments, an HR manager’s role is that of an influencer or facilitator rather than a direct champion, according to Linda Forte, senior vice president, Business Affairs, and chief diversity officer, Comerica Bank.

    “HR managers are  often involved in drafting search factors like core competency requirements and identifying qualified search firms to assist in the recruitment process, as opposed to making direct recommendations,” said Forte. 

    A firm’s general counsel, who may be responsible for organizational governance as well as other executives familiar with organizational corporate culture, and trusted external advisors are more likely to be called upon for board recommendations than other executives, according to Forte. 

    EXPERIENCE COUNTS

    Experience is a must, particularly financial experience, according to Joyce Hayes Giles, senior vice president, Customer Service, DTE Energy, who was tapped to serve on the board of Health Alliance Plan in 2011 following appointments to board seats on the American Association of Blacks in Energy and the DTE Energy Foundation, in addition to the boards of the Music Hall, Oakwood Hospital, St. John Providence Health System, Wayne State University Alumni Association and Belle Isle Conservancy.

    “Achieving a seat on a corporate board requires deep experience of 10 years or more,” said Forte, who emphasizes that external activities become as important as internal accomplishments in the board selection process.

    “It’s a diplomatic process,” she  concluded. “There’s a fine line between networking and expressing interest in a possible board seat and over-promoting yourself. The adage that it’s easier to find a job when you are employed applies here. Many senior level officers assume that if you have to announce your qualifications, you are probably not the right candidate. They are looking for the self-evident candidate.”

    Despite obstacles, preparation is key, according to Hayes Giles.

    “Preparation is a common requisite whether you are seeking internal career advancement or external opportunities,” she said. “You have to walk the walk. If you don’t possess the education, experience and track record desired, you are not as likely to get tapped.”

    While savvy senior level decision makers seek diversity, appointing a new board member ultimately is a goal-based process, according to Jack Riley, senior vice president of marketing, Fifth Third Bank, whose announcement of the appointment of General Motors Director of Corporate Relations and president of the GM Foundation Vivian Pickard to its board of directors raised resounding applause among Detroiters who cite, that despite advances, too few women of color are tapped for open board seats.

    The proof is self-evident.

    According to the Michigan Women’s Leadership Index, published annually by Inforum, found that Women of Color make up 1.18% of board directors in the top 100 public companies in Michigan, a slight decrease from 1.4% in 2009. 

    “Executives with experience as CEOs and CFOs are usually in high demand, as are those with specific expertise,” notes Terry Barclay, chief executive officer of Inforum, Michigan’s largest business organization helping women lead and succeed in the workplace. “For example, international experience – particularly in Asia – is in high demand. The needs of public companies are diverse. When companies seek to recruit board members, they look for high-level executives that can add something of real value. The seek people with perspectives or sets of skills that fills a gap for managers and/or other board members.” 

    “In addition to the importance of diversity of race and gender is diversity of thought. It is the candidate’s experience and track record that matters most,”  said Riley. “There’s got to be a fit with the organization’s unique corporate goals, mission and business needs. Vivian Pickard was a natural fit to our Fifth Third Bank board. She had the corporate governance, finance, political and leadership experience our leadership was seeking, in addition to the type of proven philanthropy and community-based marketing expertise we value.”  

    NON-PROFIT POSTS PAY DIVIDENDS

    It’s important that candidates do not dismiss non-profit board posts.

    Why?

    “Experience matters. A large number of women are appointed to non-profit board seats,” comments Forte, “which can serve as an invaluable training experience.”

    The type of nonprofit board service matters, according to Barclay. “Being a board member of a big, non-profit health care system or university can provide the experience, visibility and strategic connections that can get you there faster.”

    Although preparation is a key consideration, Hayes Giles comments that board trends are shifting, albeit ever so slightly.

    “Forward thinking companies are starting to take a more consumer-minded focus in filling available board seats, recruiting candidates that mirror their consumer demographics,” she said.

    And they are being rewarded by the insight that a more diverse group of board members brings to the process.

    “Bottom line, a company’s profit margin lifts in tandem with consumer satisfaction,” says the customer service expert who has invested 33 years in building DTE Energy’s reputation as a leader in customer satisfaction.

    THE INSIDERS CIRCLE

    As more women enter the boardroom, they elevate other candidates, according to Hayes Giles.

    “The insiders circle is a very, very small circle,” said Hayes Giles. “Men recruit and recommend other men to fill board seats. And it’s up to us to recruit and recommend other women. Without such advocacy, challenges will remain.”

    It’s worth noting that despite advances, the majority of women appointed to boards are serving without compensation.

    “Paid board seats are highly coveted and don’t come easily to candidates, regardless their gender, race or area of expertise,” said Hayes Giles. “Ultimately, I’d like to be among those few.”

    LOW RISK CANDIDATES ARE
    REWARDED

    A common thread among female executives interviewed is this consensus: board seats are filled by executives with the lowest common risk factors.

    Are you worth the risk?

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