Q: I've just been made a director - the first woman to reach the board in the history of the company. I feel honoured, but also scared I won't add any value. I was completely tongue-tied at my first board meeting. Perhaps I'm not ready for this?
A: Congratulations! You've made it to the top - or at least very near to it. Now all you have to do is have the same confidence in yourself and in your abilities that the people who elevated you to that position have in you.
Why do you think you were promoted? Could it be that your skills and experience are needed on the board? Perhaps you head a function that is seen as increasingly important within the firm - IT, HR, marketing? Perhaps the board feels it important to reflect the company's customer base in senior management. Or was your promotion an attempt to keep you from leaving? Whatever the reason, there's something you've got that the board needs, so be assured you have the potential to add value.
Next, let's look at your fear, which kept you tongue-tied. In a situation where we feel threatened, our pituitary gland secretes adrenaline to trigger a fight-and-flight mechanism, enabling us to take appropriate action - it's something we humans have been doing for thousands of years. Unfortunately, it takes our rational minds three times as long to receive the message of potential threat and then discount it. So, by the time the frontal lobes of your brain have recognised that your fellow board members are not sabre-toothed tigers about to pounce, it's too late - your body is already in an alert, anxious state.
What can you do about this? Two approaches can work. The first is a logical, left-brain solution. Remind yourself that joining the board is a new experience and requires some learning from you. Think back to when you first started work and everything was new. You had to acquire not only the skills and techniques associated with the job but also the rules of the organisation, written and unwritten. Who were the people who needed careful handling? What were the protocols associated with the canteen and petty cash?
No doubt you discovered all the things you needed to remove obstacles to progress and propel you up the ladder, and you'll do exactly the same with this new challenge.
Some years ago, I did some research into what makes a good board member. The top characteristics were demonstrated by directors who submitted and read board papers before the meeting; who listened carefully to what was said and commented only when they had something different to say, whether a wider observation or a contrary point of view. As a generalisation, female board directors were seen to be good at considering the human impact of policy decisions, and the presence of a woman at a board meeting seemed to encourage better behaviour from the men - a counterbalance to the testosterone-rich ambiance of many boardrooms.
Most executive team members have an unofficial role alongside their functional one. The operational director may be the one who lightens the occasion by telling a joke; the marketing director introduces ideas that may not chime with the current status quo but prove a solution to a recurring problem, and so on. At your next board meeting, notice what informal roles your fellow board members play, as well as where the power really lies - it's not necessarily with the chief executive. Shifting focus from yourself to the rest of the board will reduce your anxiety and help you to see where you can add most value.
The second way to increase your sense of wellbeing is to take advantage of recent insights from the world of neurochemistry. It involves increasing your production of serotonin, one of the body's natural opiates and a useful antidote to adrenalin. You can do this by getting plenty of sleep and daily sunshine, eating well and taking exercise. But you can also boost it just before the meeting by bringing to mind someone you love or a time when you felt very happy, and really imagine yourself in that moment. These recollections will stimulate serotonin production in the way that the special person or the event did at the time, and you'll begin to feel happier and more confident.
Interestingly, it is usually women who worry most about their capability for a new challenge, but if this makes you more thoughtful than a potentially over-confident man, this tendency may work in your favour.
Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org