Want to increase your credibility, boost your business skills and gain valuable networking opportunities? You can do all that and more by becoming a corporate director, says Carol Stephenson, dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.
There’s just one catch: gaining a directorship isn’t easy-especially for women. According to Catalyst, a New York-based association devoted to expanding opportunities for women in business, women account for just 11% of board positions at Canada’s largest corporations. What’s more, some 51% of Canadian companies have no women directors. What’s behind the low numbers? Many companies say it’s simply hard to find experienced women executives. Stephenson, who sits on the boards of Sears Canada, ING and the Ottawa Airport Authority, wants to change that. “Women absolutely merit a place at the board table,” she says. “They have the talent, knowledge and experience a board needs to be effective.”
Here’s Stephenson’s advice on winning a place at the boardroom table:
- Establish your leadership credibility beyond your job. Find an issue and champion it. Stephenson, for example, was very vocal in airing her views about the dearth of women on boards. She wrote articles and spoke at conferences and events in an effort to raise awareness of the issue — and her own profile.
- Network both formally and informally. Keep in touch with old colleagues, friends and acquaintances. Stephenson’s appointment to the board of Sears, for example, came through contacts she made while heading up Stentor Resource Centre Inc.
- Participate on volunteer boards, such as hospitals or non-profits, to gain valuable experience. These boards are a great place to meet interesting and influential people who can open doors to other opportunities.
- Get your name out to nominating committees. Executive recruiting companies often lead the search for directors, as do venture-capital companies. Get listed in “Women in the Lead,” a Canadian directory that features some 500 women whose professional expertise and experience qualify them as corporate board candidates.
- Hone your skills. Ensure you understand financial concepts and reporting and are current on business trends. Assess your strengths and weaknesses and, if necessary, get board training. Many universities and leadership institutes offer courses to help you prepare.
Still, don’t rush to accept the first directorship you’re offered, says Stephenson. Do your homework to ensure the board is right for you. Consider the makeup of the board. Do its members reflect your skills and experience? Do opinions flow freely? Is there a diverse mix of backgrounds? Ask what your role will be and what will be expected of you.
Once you’re on a board, take your position seriously. Be prepared to invest time. Read all background reports and papers before every meeting. And speak up. Don’t be afraid to contribute your ideas.
There are board opportunities for women out there, says Stephenson. “Women need to seek them out. They won’t simply come to you. You must take steps to succeed.”