The evidence is that more diverse boards make better decisions. But while women are the majority of the workforce at entry level in the UK, they are still losing out on top positions and the pay that comes with them, notwithstanding recent efforts to change the FTSE 100. The important question, therefore, is how can more women get a seat at the top table?
Stepping outside of the debate about quotas, for those aspiring to a directorship I believe that preparation and getting yourself ‘out there’ are everything. Here are my three dos and don’ts for becoming board-ready.
1. Stretch yourself
In my experience, finance and digital skills are the two most sought-after areas of expertise for board members. If that’s your functional background, great. If not – and accounting and tech tend to be male-dominated areas – you need to stretch yourself.
Whether you’re in marketing, HR, legal or elsewhere, try to gain general management experience by getting involved in different projects, whether in or outside of your company. Boards do require functional expertise, but they also need those who bring with them a broader background.
2. Practice and prepare
Practice makes perfect – and it’s not as hard to do this as you might think. Taking on charity, governmental or university advisory and trustee roles is a great way to train for a paid plc board appointment, and something that’s benefitted me as well as managers I’ve mentored. It will get you used to the boardroom environment where you’re not leading but asking questions, probing and stewarding the management team.
To make the most of what you learn, you have to be clear about the sort of business where you’d like to be a director. FTSE or AIM-listed? Private equity owned? Entrepreneurial start-up or social enterprise? B2B or B2C?
Once you’ve defined your target, take a look at the boards. Look at the other directors and think about what they might be missing – and how your profile could add to it. I find drawing up a checklist of what the profile is and how your experience fulfils it is a real confidence booster and signals to your interviewers you’ve done your homework.
3. Network with the end in mind
It’s never too early to start building your network. I got my job at P&G thanks to networking with an old classmate. But getting in the door is just the start. On day one, I said hello to a senior VP on my first day at P&G, and ended up drinking tea in his office. It was mainly small talk about my excitement at joining the company and the challenges it faced, but from there on he took an interest in my career and helped me with some great opportunities.
The same approach has to apply when you’re actively hunting for a board role. Talk to anyone appropriate about your interest and your targeted areas. Ask your existing network who are non-execs, or those in your circle of friends, how they got their roles. Reach out to any head hunters, chief executive and chairmen (or women) you know. Again, my current non-exec came about as a result of going to a company reunion.
And make sure you advocate for yourself. I was the first female management board member at both Boots and Yell, and I’ve seen the difference that confidence and positivity can make. Of course it’s a truism that men remain louder self-promoters than women, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I still hear too many women using ‘sorry skirt’ language – being apologetic or embarrassed by their ambition. Never say ‘well, I know I’m probably not qualified’, or ‘I guess I’m a longshot, but I was thinking maybe…’ – invest some confidence in yourself and others will too.
1. Expect anyone to tap you on the shoulder
Unless, of course, you’re a female CEO or CFO, in which case you’ll be inundated! For everyone else, being proactive in finding your first board appointment is vital.
2. Think you aren’t qualified
The chances are that you are. Too many women hesitate where men would chance their arm and see what happens. When you see a position or opportunity that excites you, go for it.
If you don’t get it, ask for feedback on what you could do better next time, so you will at least have learned something. And you’ll have put yourself in the mind of the person recruiting for next time. Learning how to go for things and not get them is a vital skill- and something women can get better at—don’t be afraid to fail. I have, many times, and I’m the better for it.
3. Be too ‘hands on’
You wouldn’t think it from most of the interview advice you’ll have heard – but there is such a thing as having too many ideas for the company. I’ve seen candidates who are brimming with ideas and enthusiasm, but who would have been better off dialling that down in their interview. The risk is that you’re seen as having executive rather than non-executive qualities.
If you want to be a non-exec, remember you’re not there to run the company; you’re there to guide and assist the management team as they run it. Frame your points as questions rather than opinions on the company’s strategy.
Want more advice on getting board-ready? Meet Ann at our Inspiring Women event on 20th November. Fellow speakers include Thomas Cook boss Harriet Green, Ann Summers CEO Jacqueline Gold, Links of London founder Annoushka Ducas and M&S style director Belinda Earl. Check out the programme and book tickets here.
Ann Francke is chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute and has enjoyed a career that’s taken her from P&G to senior roles in two FTSE 100 companies. She’s also currently a non-exec director for US social media platform Tongal.