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How and Why Employers Should Support Their Female Leaders in Pursuing Corporate Board Experience

"From the Boardroom" with Nancy Sheppard

Companies across industries have faced growing challenges in talent recruitment and personnel management over the last few years, with some larger companies even flattening their organizational structure. These factors have made it difficult to provide rising stars and top performers with the opportunities they want to further develop their leadership skills. The issue is compounded for professional women, who statistically face a more challenging path to the top rungs of corporate leadership. Data shows that women still make up less than 25% of executive level positions. Reaching the C-suite is harder for women for a wide variety of reasons including historical power dynamics, gender bias and misperceptions regarding leadership style. These obstacles, among several others, are why Senate Bill 826, California’s pivotal women on boards law, has been so instrumental in moving the needle towards more equitable female representation at the highest corporate leadership level. While the law is currently inactive and an appeal is in the works, employers can keep up the good fight by encouraging, mentoring and supporting their rising female leaders for corporate board seats.

What does meaningful support and mentorship look like?

It's well known that the route to the boardroom for most corporate directors is through personal networking. If a CEO or board member of a company recommends an employee for a board role, their status is quickly elevated. While most forward thinking boards are realizing the benefits of ethnic and gender diversity, the legendary “old boys network” still hinders the ability of women and diverse leaders to get noticed, trusted and invited to the table. Advocacy on behalf of deserving candidates who may not yet have the board experience to get them noticed on their own can go a long way in breaking down the barrier of entry.

Another way to support employees on their board journey is to share and encourage them to take advantage of continuing education opportunities. Training programs such as the How Women Lead Board Readiness Program and membership and conferences in board-focused organizations like National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) are great examples.

I’d be remiss not to point out that supporting deserving professional women on the path to board membership is not an entirely altruistic act; there are very real perks for companies whose employees serve on boards; in fact, the benefits returned to the business, regardless of industry, are vast. After all, CEOs and CFOs of companies have been sitting on other company boards for years. Why? Because they know it provides them insights that help their own businesses. So, in addition to bolstering an employee retention strategy, sitting on a corporate board assists employees to become better stewards of their own company’s best interests. Here’s how:

  • It improves strategic and business acumen through exposure to the interdependence of all aspects of business operations.

  • It increases governance skills and how to implement best practice methodologies at their own company.

  • It improves interpersonal politics by experiencing them first-hand in the board environment.

  • It provides a deeper understanding of the difference between strategic and operational matters.

  • It teaches how to ask strategic questions in the right way, typically about an important oversight or future path approach.

  • It improves active listening skills, as board members must listen more than talk in meetings.

  • It improves decision-making ability and processes.

  • It teaches how to evaluate and manage risk from different perspectives beyond their own companies’ approach.

  • It broadens their influencing capabilities, as board members don’t ever prescribe actions, they provide perspectives.

  • And most importantly, at the heart of excellent leadership, it teaches how to create a vision and provide direction so that people are moving forward together, something corporate boards must do as a team once a decision is made.

The laundry list of hard and soft skills listed above should convince any company to support their employees in pursuing and serving on public company boards because those skills are assets to any business. Plus, investing in promising employees demonstrates to them that they are seen as valued. And with U.S. employers facing the highest skills shortages in over a decade, the relationship between employer and employee is shifting. In-demand workers are in control and companies need to not only understand their employees’ priorities to compete, but help deliver on them. Women and minorities are increasingly asking for the opportunity to serve on corporate boards, and employers would be wise to offer their support.

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