The Risks and Realities of Being on Boards:
 Advice from Beverly Topping

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Beverly Topping, founder of Today’s Parent magazine and former president of the Institute of Corporate Directors, gave a rousing and informative talk at Women Get On Board’s inaugural roundtable event on February 10th, 2015.

Women in today’s business environment are standing up and speaking out but there’s still a long way to go towards achieving gender parity on corporate boards in Canada.  Beverly gave sound advice to the roundtable on how to get on corporate boards and how to be an effective board member.

Here are the highlights from Beverly’s talk:

Being Visible

Canadian boards are becoming more diverse and data shows that companies with women on their boards are more effective. However, real work still needs to be done so that more women and minorities can become directors, as it’s easy for people not to notice when boards aren’t diverse.

Speaking Up

“Don’t underestimate what you already know” — that was one of Topping’s most prominent pieces of advice. “Women often don’t trust their intuition when it comes to corporate governance,” Topping said. However, women should be comfortable with being leaders. These individual skills are recognized as essential to business success.

Clear, effective, and considerate communication is key. Speaking deliberately, using silence to good effect, and staying focused; taking part in a thoughtful conversation helps conversations form and contributes to an atmosphere of respect.

Beverly recommends using the W.A.I.T. (Why Am I Talking?) method. This method of evaluating your own comments before you speak can help make you more effective during board meetings. When you speak up, you want to be taken seriously and heard. Talking too much dilutes the impact of your words.

Standing Out

True success on boards comes from planning and achieving goals. Topping recommends that women who want to become corporate directors take a broad look at the operational aspects of their jobs, like implementing new payroll systems, initiating IT transformation and developing company-wide IT strategies.

Boards look for and seek out candidates that get things done, “You have to put in the work of a CEO to get to the board level,” she said. “Boards are looking for working CEO experience. You have to put in the work of a CEO to get to the board level. You have to want to get things done.” So looking at, and being able to communicate your operational experiences, indicates that “you can get things done”.

However, women also need to be aware of the difference between what skills they offer and what the company’s management can benefit from. When interviewing for a board position, it’s important for women to be clear about what skills they offer and how those skills meet the company’s needs.

Having a mentor relationship is also extremely important to being successful on a board. Having a senior member of the board act as a mentor to provide advice and context will help lead to long-term success.

Avoid the lure of your smart phone. Do not pick it up when you are in meetings!   This is an important nugget to remember in the boardroom and in any business situation. Instead of looking at your phone, engage the people at the table with conversation; learn about them and their lives —there is a fine balance in accomplishing this.

Being Committed

One of the biggest risks of being a board member is that a person’s individual reputation is tied to the company. When the company’s reputation suffers so does the board member’s. Successful board members need to care passionately about their companies and be committed towards improving and maintaining their company’s reputation.  The board must work as an effective team and even, at times, as a functional family.

Good media management skills are also important. This involves engagement on social media, such as staying on top of industry news through Twitter and Quartz, and being aware of executive bios/opinions on LinkedIn and trending discussions. It’s also incredibly important to be aware of what employees are saying outside of the workplace about the company — their comments affect what the rest of the world sees.

Our next event is on April 8th, Seek Out Mentors and Sponsors.

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