Network your way to your first Board role

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the Financial Times Non-Executive Directors’ Club “Women on Boards” event, run in association with EY (previously known as Ernst and Young). The key theme that arose out of this half day event, targeted at women either looking for or just embarking on their first board position, was network, network, network. The well-known saying “it’s not what you know but who you know” cannot be more true for a business woman trying to secure that first board position.

The first session, run by Fran Moscow, an experienced executive coach and senior leadership trainer, discussed the perceived and actual challenges faced by women seeking their first board level position. Actual challenges do exist and include a reliance on “the band of brothers” and a tried and tested “little black book” for recruitment to board positions. Also, women still struggle to take time out to have children and then return to work in the same job, often in a role or an organisation not set up for flexible working. However the perceived challenges, including self-doubt, a lack of understanding of “how things get done” at board level and our own ability to self-destruct, can compound the problem and make some women with the experience and qualifications to be a board director, decide that it is simply not worth it.

Some of Fran’s top tips for securing that first board position include;
• Be really clear about what you want to achieve - establish your own vision
• Be your own PR – volunteer for high profile projects and broadcast your achievements through social media
• Work with a mentor more senior than yourself who can promote you and make introductions to useful contacts.

Meryl Bushell, former Chief Procurement Officer of BT Plc, with experience of a number of diverse board roles, then took over to discuss the differences in the way that men and women network, and to present some of the findings from her on-going PhD research into the role of social capital and networking in corporate board selection.

Meryl’s research shows that almost 100% of board roles in the private sector are filled through word of mouth, and probably around 90% of public sector roles. The importance of networking cannot be denied and this is compounded by Meryl’s research with head-hunters, many of whom suggested that “write-ins” – people who contact them out of the blue - are often not even contacted back, far less put on to a data base or actually invited in for a meeting.

The main differences in the way that men and women network include that while women keep in contact with people they like, men will keep in contact with people they think will be useful to them. In addition, although women are good at building strong ties, these relationships are often with people with the same or a lower power status and will therefore be less useful at making introductions to decision makers. Men build more but weaker relationships and are generally more central to their network, so have visibility and access to information. According to Meryl, women on average hear of 33% less job opportunities than men because they have a smaller number of contacts and are less central to their network.

Some of Meryl’s top tips for effective networking to improve the chance of getting a board position are:
• Review your networking activities and audit your contact list
• Use LinkedIn
• When contacting people ask for advice not for help
• Send catch up emails to previous colleagues, bosses, clients and classmates
• Invest time in informal networking – grab catch up coffees or suggest meeting for lunch

“The fundamental job of NED’s is to see that the company is properly run, not to run it”. How you do this was the focus of the session run by Ali Gill, CEO of Crelos and director of Bvalco Ltd, specialising in board evaluation and effectiveness. She described the three key functions of the board as being decision making, oversight and board administration and that to do these effectively a NED requires the four key characteristics of an excellent antennae, sound judgement, a breadth of business understanding and self-awareness of their own behavioural strengths and limitations.

Ali discussed some of the traps that can befall boards, including a lack of positive challenge and Group Think (Janis, 1972), whereby the group ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanise other groups. A focus on board behaviour, including thinking, involving, inspiring and performing behaviours can help boards minimise their chances of falling in to these traps.

The final session of the day was a lively and informative panel discussion with four extremely experienced NEDs; Suzy Walton, Rachel Lomax, Barbara Duvoison and Gerry Brown. A couple of take-aways from this discussion were that in order to get your first NED role, it is advisable to pick a sector and organisation that you know something about already, so that you can bring that knowledge to the boardroom, in addition to the other technical and behavioural expertise. All panel members gave their opinion about the positive and negative attributes of NEDS, with those difficult to work with being described as individuals who took too much air time, those who simply nodded through decisions without any discussion or challenge, and in particular those individuals who betrayed the confidence of the board for the purposes of getting their own way.

For any women reading this with aspirations of a board level role, my summary of top tips includes:
• Develop an active and powerful network
• Find a senior, male mentor who can help with introductions
• Be your own PR – publish your success
• Be aware of what you can offer a board, be it technical skills, corporate governance skills or sector experience
• Develop effective boardroom behaviours
• Ensure that you are fully aware of the role of the board and the role of the NED

I would recommend any women looking for their first Board level role to attend such an event . As well as the useful reminders and tips, essential for any business woman not just those seeking a board role, it was truly inspirational to spend time with so many intelligent, successful and ambitious women – and great for building my network!

Libby Ferguson

Consultant, Crelos