A favourite Catch 22 used to be that you couldn’t be an actor without an Equity card but you couldn’t get an Equity card until you were an actor. A similar conundrum faces many now wanting to become non-executive directors. The boardroom door may be open – but only once you are already sitting on a board.
Several chief executives of major companies have told me that despite often being typecast as happy to run “male, pale and stale” boards, they were, in fact, acutely aware of the desirability of making their boards more diverse. Their solution was more constructive work by HR departments and executive headhunters. I sympathise with this although a chief executive’s determination for change is the most important factor behind creating a successful female executive pipeline.
So what can would-be non-execs do to make that crucial first step towards the board? I attended a fascinating workshop organised by Women on Boards UK (WOBUK) designed to help potential candidates not only prepare for the board but find ways of making themselves more visible – not just to headhunters but also to pro-active chief executives.
A good starting point is to ensure that there are no glaring skills gaps. Here, the attendees were encouraged to take professional development courses. Not only do these broaden the range of abilities but also, for women, they help build confidence. WOBUK says that about half of the 150,000 UK?charities have a board vacancy at any one time. Although these posts are unpaid, they can provide valuable experience and also offer the chance to work with an organisation whose aims might dovetail with a personal passion.
State-owned organisations and government departments – everything from Sport UK to the Low Pay Commission – employ non-execs. The pay is usually low and the application process gruelling. But most of these bodies have ambitious gender equality targets for their boards. And, while working for nothing, or next-to-nothing, may not set the pulse racing, the chance to meet and network with other non-executives can be invaluable.
WOBUK states that women are poor at realising they even have a network of business contacts, let alone understanding how to use it. They fail to let people know they are looking for NED roles and they are conspicuously bad at identifying elements of their executive job which would be valuable to a board.
Top female executives I know find it hard to list the skills they need to do their jobs. They are liable to say they “just do it”. They are as bad at identifying their leadership talents.
Without lessening the pressure on chief executives and headhunters for improved board diversity, there is much that can be done by aspiring non-execs to better their chances of selection and helping to continue the gains being made by UK plc.