For Women Executives, It’s Time to Get Out of Our (Functional) Comfort Zones

by Coco Brown, Founder & CEO @ Athena Alliance

When Athena was born, we were focused on a narrow slice of executive leadership: women who were aspiring board directors, or women who were board directors. If you want to sit in a board seat, or currently sat in one, we were the community for you.

We still are. But we’re aware that the line between business and boardroom is not as defined and “neat” as it was a decade ago. Board service, and those who interact with the board, cannot get packed neatly into a box. Rather, it’s an evolving set of expectations and key players. Depending on the business or your background, boardroom players can quickly evolve to address a wide range of topics and issues of the day, tapping into leaders’ expertise the business, and down a few layers the business.

So, rather than saying that Athena revolves around board directors, I now say that Athena revolves around the boardroom . We support the leaders who revolve around the boardroom, who visit the boardroom: founders and CEOs, senior leaders who support a board or supports someone who supports a board, general counsels, experienced board directors, advisors, women seeking a board seat, investors, and executives from every functional area from marketing and human resources to sales and technology.

Thinking bigger about what it means to lead

Boards are not the only thing to evolve in the last decade — senior leaders have evolved, too. I tell the women leaders of Athena that they need to get comfortable with becoming stewards of the overarching business, a phrase you’ll hear me use often.

As you rise in your career, this is the foray into true leadership, when you stop fixating on just one silo of a functional business area and instead begin to look across the business (at all the functional areas and how they evolve, operate, and collaborate), up at the business (from the C-suite to the boardroom), and out of the business (at what’s happening in our nation, in our world, and with our community and stakeholders). This is what it means to steward the overarching business. Your perspective as a leader enlarges. You take a holistic look to scale, protect, and grow the business. And, through it all, you grow as a leader.

Board service or not, stewarding the business is a separate matter. Whether you desire to serve on a board today, to take a board seat when you retire, or to pursue board service, stewarding a business and understanding the principles of good governance is an entirely different matter. Boardroom education is not above any good, forward-thinking leader. It’s not a “me” (non-board member) versus them (board member) thing; rather, it’s the idea that any serious leader should want to understand the happenings and procedures at the highest level of leadership.

For rising leaders, understanding the boardroom can unlock a whole new way of approaching their responsibilities, with an added perspective of risk, public perception, and stakeholder engagement. It’s an opportunity to layer your experience and become a better supporter to those who do present to the board, and to prepare yourself to interact and present to board members, too — something we are increasingly seeing at organizations of all sizes. Board members want to mentor, network with, and understand senior functional leaders, and maintain a pulse on the talent bench of the company. (Rising leaders, this means you — are you ready for these interactions?)

For aspiring board directors, the benefit of understanding good governance is obvious. But even the basics, like onboarding, how meetings run, and how to form productive relationships with other directors — these are invaluable learnings that can make or break you as a new director.

An unlimited approach to your leadership growth

I’m always baffled to hear women say, “When the time is right…” or “When I’m ready to…” as they consider their leadership learning or the prospects of a board seat. This perspective assumes a start and stop to growth, to executive education, and even (in some ways) to one’s career entirely.

The time is now. Don’t wait to grow your network, to understand the level above you, and to grasp the ongoings of the boardroom. Do it now.

The trajectory is ongoing. It’s not a bootcamp and it’s not a book. Enlarging your thinking, expanding your worldly views as a leader, and being able to speak to modern governance is your job. (Even if you don’t think it is).

If there’s anything the business world learned from 2020, it’s that we can’t count on the status quo/ Everything we thought was normal has evolved. Leaders — today more than ever — need to step outside of their comfort zones to level up and outside the bounds of their functional areas.

Originally published at https://athenaalliance.com on February 4, 2021.

Activating the connections, knowledge, & opportunities women executives need to lead at their highest level of impact. Learn more: athenaalliance.com

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