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women on boards (6)

How to Get on a Corporate Board

As I travel to different parts of the country for speaking engagements and conferences, I’ve noticed a growing trend. An increasing number of women have been asking me about what steps they can take to land a board seat—particularly on a corporate board.

It’s a timely question, since the latest research on women and boards released in February showed only a very small increase in the percentage of board seats held by women. A new report from Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity found that in 2016, women and minorities occupied less than one-third (31 percent) of board seats in Fortune 500 companies. Meanwhile, the usual pattern continues of white men continuing to claim the vast majority (over two-thirds) of corporate board posts.

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Inclusion Is the New Diversity

Tony was on the Executive Leadership team. The senior leaders were charged with identifying a new board member from within their internal groups. Susan reported to Tony, and although her last performance review was lower than she had expected based on her boss’s assessment of her decisiveness and strategy setting, she was considered to have high potential in the organization based on her productivity and attention to detail.

While Tony briefly considered nominating Susan for the open board seat, he quickly ruled her out and moved on to other candidates. His reasoning was that Susan’s work style was more expressive and collaborative rather than the analytical, conceptual leadership style favored by the current board members.

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Why Inclusive Leadership Is So Important

One of the responses I received to my last post, The Truth About Inclusion, was from a senior executive in the tech industry. He agreed with a concept that I’d mentioned in my post—that of “psychological safety,” the zone where members of teams feel they are in a climate of trust and mutual respect—posited by Charles Duhigg in his article in The New York Times Magazine.

Noting that psychological safety appears to be a “way forward to successful teams,” the senior leader also pointed out what he feels to be a “Catch-22” about the concept: “that those who currently control the boardrooms and technical teams feel psychological safety when things remain the way they have always been.” So he asked: “How do you encourage the status quo teams to embrace creating psychological safety for all under these circumstances?”

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Why Aren’t More Women Landing Board Seats?

Abercrombie & Fitch recently nominated four new independent director candidates to the company’s board—all of whom are women. Their election would make 33% of Abercrombie’s board female, which is around twice the national average. While an increasing number of corporate boards give lip service to diversifying their ranks, the latest Catalyst Census showed the U.S. weighing in below eight other countries, with only 16.9% of women on boards in corporate America. Less than one-fifth of organizations had one-quarter or more female directors in both 2012 and 2013. One-tenth of companies had zero women on their boards. What’s more, for the past two years, less than a quarter of companies had three or more women serving jointly on their boards.

Over the years that Catalyst has been charting these trends, there has been little to no increase in women’s board participation, making Abercrombie’s relatively high percentage of potential female board members stand out all the more. Could Abercrombie’s bold move put pressure on other organizations to do the same? From a business standpoint, every company in the nation would be smart to follow suit. A separate report from Catalyst that examines The Bottom Line revealed Fortune 500 companies that had three or more women board directors in at least four of five years significantly outperformed companies with zero female board directors. The former firms experienced an 84% better return on sales, 60% better return on invested capital, and 46% better return on equity compared to the latter.

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How Important is Executive Presence to Executive Success?

You may or may not have heard about the recent, sudden ouster and subsequent reinstatement of the University of Virginia’s first woman president, Teresa Sullivan. The story received national attention and dominated the local news here in Virginia where I live.

As for why Sullivan was forced out, a New York Times article suggests that although she is a talented and well-credentialed administrator, UVA’s Board of Visitors (i.e., board of trustees) perhaps felt she was just that – an administrator rather than a leader. The article further infers that Board members thought Sullivan lacked vision and a strategic perspective, didn’t possess the “mettle” necessary to make tough decisions, and didn’t fit their image of a chief executive. But after numerous on-campus protests and a significant social media backlash, the Board reinstated her. I wish Teresa well in what will undoubtedly be an awkward, if not difficult, situation going forward.

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