Books: Signals that female execs often miss

This book makes many points that will resonate with struggling women managers, says Val Gooding, who advocates persistence.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A Woman's Place is in the Boardroom: The Roadmap
Peninah Thomson and Jacey Graham (with Tom Lloyd)
Palgrave Macmillan

Before I became a company director, my CEO of the time asked me to give a presentation to the board about a part of the business where I had influence but little direct responsibility. I demurred and suggested an alternative person to do it. I didn't realise that I was being offered the chance to establish my credentials with the board and so further my career. My stand-in was asked to start a subsidiary company, and went on to further successes. I could have kicked myself!

Peninah Thompson and Jacey Graham tell a similar story in their book A Woman's Place is in the Boardroom: A Roadmap, where a female manager fails to pick up the reasons for a senior colleague's enquiry about the appeal of a job-change. Not a mistake a man would make! The authors' premise is that women don't actively look for advancement opportunities, and often miss the signals. Women are not natural hierarchy climbers.

The Roadmap is a follow-up to A Woman's Place is in the Boardroom: The business case (2005). This earlier book argued the case for more women in the boardroom and suggested a gender target of 50/50. The Roadmap tries to provide practical advice and guidance to help women and board chairmen. The most interesting parts are real-life anecdotes and quotes, which will resonate with many career women. Even Nancy Astor's experience as the first woman MP to take her seat strikes a chord. Helpful suggestions from senior business figures are included, some of which are gender-specific, some not. Aspiring male directors will find useful advice here as well.

There is straightforward advice on planning, on learning about board process and governance, networking and cultivating board qualities. One quality cited by the authors is 'gravitas', defined as 'dignity and solemnity of manner', and associated with wisdom, self-confidence and authority. It can be harder for a high-pitched female voice to be heard as weighty and authoritative - what career woman has not had her sensible idea talked over or ignored, only to have the same proposal seized on enthusiastically when made by a man later? There are tips on how to overcome this, plus ideas on raising your profile and looking the part.

There's a whole section on 'Setting out your stall', including writing a CV. Now, I accept that, generally, women are poor at self-promotion, but, as a CEO, I preferred straightforward, factual CVs outlining job history, experience and achievements, rather than the style advocated here. To describe yourself as a 'commercially astute and energetic leader' sounds self-serving; better to let your referees say that and stick instead to relevant experience and expertise. And be careful that your CV looks like your own work: if it's too polished, it may be assumed to be the product of an outplacement firm and imply that you have been looking for some time.

Helpful though the advice is, I felt slightly uncomfortable at the emphasis on presentation. True, the authors add that women should devote sufficient time and energy to their careers in order to 'make a major impact'. But this aspect is given insufficient weight.

And I'm not sure that well- intentioned chairmen are being truthful when they say: 'Yes, of course we want more women directors, if only we could find them!' Merit and quality will usually be the priority and there are simply more men with relevant experience. So there are going to be more male candidates on the shortlist. In addition, some chairmen may feel that there is a natural limit to the number of women board members. I recently heard one female-friendly chairman refuse to see a female candidate on the grounds that 'I already have three women'.

So how can the pipeline be improved? In addition to the techniques suggested, I'd urge women to place far greater emphasis on getting solid, relevant long-term experience, evidence of lasting achievements and an excellent reputation. These are indisputable; no-one can take them away.

So if you can demonstrate experience of most of the following: a major company turnaround, an IPO, a debt issue, a privatisation or M&A activity, long-term P&L accountability, downsizing, restructuring or creating a new business, a hands-on operational decision-making role, leadership in crises, corporate strategy, change management - these will cause board search consultants to seek you out.

I'm afraid there aren't any shortcuts. Gaining the experience relevant for boards requires time and exceptional commitment. But a career built on these experiences will be so rewarding and exciting that you may lose interest in the boardroom anyway.

Val Gooding stepped down as CEO of Bupa in May.

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