It is important to note that this “invitation only” experience is not usually associated with large, high-profile companies. Larger companies are likely to have brought on more than a few directors over the years and developed a mature Nominating Committee structure and process. They are also likely to hire a recruiting firm to support them. Instead, board additions made through a trusted network are usually those of the young, or small to mid-cap public companies, or well-backed private companies on a trajectory toward a winning exit and looking for their first or second independent director.
Why is the process an “invitation only” experience with these companies? For two very personal reasons:
- The process is the only one in which the CEO participates in hiring their own boss.
- This new director will be on the board for six to 10 years, or even decades.
Considering these facts, it’s not surprising that personal success and company success are obscurely intertwined in the board decision process. In such a high-stakes situation, board members, usually men, will usually pick — consciously or unconsciously — someone from their network. More often than not, this person will look a lot like them. This inevitability, when viewed through the lens of unconscious bias, makes the progress of diversity in the boardroom achingly slow.
However, when an informed advocate for diversity enters the network and is able to make the case for diverse board candidates, change can happen very quickly. This change relies on access, influence, and positioning. It also requires an awareness of the perspective of the CEO and the board as a whole, who will be evaluating candidates by asking:
- “Will this person add value?” (i.e. “Will the company thrive as a result of what this person brings to the table?” “Will they evolve as quickly as we do?)
- “Can we, the board, trust them?” (i.e. “Will they have our best interests at heart?””When we need to make a tough call, do we share the same values and leverage them in similar ways?” “Do we know their triggers, and can they manage them well?”)
“Will our chemistry be strong?” (i.e. “Do we ‘get’ them?” “Do they ‘get’ us?” “Do we understand how they think?” “Will our collaboration make all of us better leaders for this company?”)
Here are my thoughts on the best ways to move the needle more quickly for women (or anyone outside the network) within the realities of how board selection decisions are made.
For those of us sponsoring women, our sharpest focus should be on joining the trusted network of CEOs, VCs, and seated board directors. It is almost guaranteed that these individuals will be male and that their network will not boast many qualified women. Becoming a part of their trusted network means that you are more likely to be made aware of open board opportunities and to be able to put forward qualified women for those roles.
To become part of this trusted network, you must consciously pursue it. If you are a senior executive or in the C-suite, you know at least one CEO, are likely to interact with your company’s board, and are probably invited to events where you mingle with CEOs and board directors. To be aware of open board positions and put forward qualified women, strengthen your connections with these individuals and ask them for introductions to other CEOs, VCs, and seated directors.
I have yet to meet a male leader who won’t consider a woman candidate when they are recommended by someone they trust. In fact, when I tell CEOs, VCs, and seated board directors that I know women who would be excellent choices, their response is usually, “Great! Please introduce me to them so I can consider them for the role.”
When my organization (The Athena Alliance) speaks with a board influencer or decision-maker about an open board seat, we are careful to move past the discussion of a candidate’s desired title, industry, and company size. We are quick to ask “why” these details matter to them. This question expands the conversation to include the trajectory of the business model and its services, the opportunities and challenges the business faces in scaling, the gaps in the experience and capability of the existing board, and the thought leadership and temperament that is desired in this next director. The result is a broadening of the possibilities around board fit.
The Athena Alliance is a mission-based organization working to advance gender diversity in the boardroom. We are not a recruiting firm and are not hired by the board to find a director. However, we do make introductions between boards seeking directors, and amazing women for them to consider. To begin a dialogue with the CEO and board, we approach them as a trusted member of their network and develop credibility by demonstrating our ability to understand the needs of their business. With this trust and credibility comes a displacement of any unconscious bias as well as an increased interest in considering our recommendations.
When you have a clearer understanding of why a board is seeking certain qualities, position a qualified woman by telling a story that illustrates the value she brings to the table. Stories go beyond qualifications to connect the audience with character, context, and contribution. They can be far more memorable than a CV or bio, and can better map a woman’s experience to the needs of the business and the board. Furthermore, by engaging an influencer with a story, we focus on relevant experience rather than job title. This chips away at bias and makes the influencer more willing to consider the candidate. In providing the influencer with a personal story that can’t be found on a resume, we position a woman for success from the start. Unconscious bias is naturally eliminated or suppressed in the face of relevant stories of realized value.
Make it easy
My final word of advice is this — don’t ask boards to create or participate in a process that they are not already familiar with. Between 94% and 99% of board seats are filled through a network, and this is especially true for small-cap public or the private companies. Networks do not follow a formal recruiting process, and trying to introduce a new process is a superfluous barrier to entry. Instead, meet boards where they are — become a part of the trusted network, help the board’s articulate the value of the right candidate, and present women by telling stories that illustrate the value the board is looking for.