More women are being appointed to a public company’s board of directors than ever before. Yet the number of women who are chair is still low. Between the Fortune 500 and FTSE 100, there are only 30 female chairs even though women hold 22.5% and 29% of the board seats respectively. To learn more about this, Heidrick and Struggles conducted a study, “Moving from a seat at the table to the head of the table: Lessons from female board chairs.”
It should come as no surprise that cultural norms play a part in the process. There is a disconnect between the degree of self-assertion required for a board chair and the expectations of how female leaders should behave. Per Cressida Hogg, chair of UK-based Landsec, “How, as a woman, do you voice a strong opinion or insist on a point without being thought shrill?” It’s a fair question and one that doesn’t have an easy answer.
Additionally, some women are faced with self-confidence issues as it relates to a lingering “impostor syndrome” that keeps them from overcoming perceived limitations and realizing their true qualifications. Male counterparts have shown fewer qualms about their abilities. No matter the cause behind this, hesitation by females can signal to others that they are not ready for the responsibilities of chair, whether it’s true or not.
And while larger companies experience turnover less often, that is not the reason for fewer women in the chair’s seat. Part of the reason could be attributed to nominating committees who prefer to appoint chairs that have been either CEO or a chair in the past. And while the number of female CEOs is growing, if this is a criteria of committees, it automatically limits the number of female candidates in consideration.
Two ways to address the shortage of female chairs is through role models and board experience. Women who connect with other women in similar positions can learn from each other, be it a peer relationship or a mentoring relationship. The benefits of sponsorship helps everyone involved, including companies.
Another area that has proven successful in developing female chairs is board experience. With one in four board members being female, there is a large group of potential future chairs gaining the confidence from serving on boards now. One recommendation is to chair a board committee. This provides a chance to show leadership skills and be considered when the chair position becomes available.
Female chairs provided the following three leadership skills as the most critical to success.
- Listen First
According to Elizabeth Ashburn Duke, the current chair of Wells Fargo & Company, “As a chair, I find my best advice would be to be authentic as a leader, always com prepared, and be a phenomenal listener.”
- Build Relationships
Per Sheila Penrose, the chair of global commercial real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle, “An effective boardroom is all about candor . . . the ability to discuss openly as a group fosters transparency and builds trust.”
- Reach Decisions Consultatively
Jane Shaw of Intel aptly notes, “no matter how smart you are, being dictatorial is not going to get the kind of results a collegial board—which is most likely to be a successful board—is going to embrace.”
Heidrick and Struggles provides the following recommendations for women who aspire to the board chair:
- Assess yourself. Listen carefully to your annual board reviews as well as any other feedback on your performance as a board member, and determine your strengths and what board skills you need to develop further, such as listening or consensus building.
- Come to play. Ensure that you are engaged, prepared, and diligent, and set the standard for board commitment.
- Raise your hand. Volunteer for and take on board-committee leadership roles.
- Signal interest in moving up. Express interest in the board chair role and advocate for a thoughtful selection process.
- Seek counsel. Ask other chairs for advice about how they got there and how they achieved success.
If you’d like to learn more, or discuss how to ensure diversity on your board, send us a note. Our team of executive recruiters can help provide further guidance in helping you create diversity on your board which studies indicate provide greater financial returns.