As I reflect on my board journey over the last two decades in both public and private company boards, as well as the public and not-for-profit sector boards, I recognize that it can be challenging to find your voice in the boardroom. Whether you are a new board member appointed to a long-tenured board of directors or you are the “token” woman at the boardroom table, it’s vital to feel confident speaking up.
Recently, I read about the power of three—one woman in the boardroom is a beginning, two is a presence, and three is a voice. Let’s collectively step up and build the pipeline for the next generation of women corporate directors.
What’s the solution? I believe that to find their boardroom voice, women must embrace the following four P’s (as written in my blog Elevating Your Board Effectiveness – Finding Your Voice in the Boardroom):
Serving on a board is incredibly rewarding—and it’s one of the best ways to advance your career. Board service has personal and professional benefits, including opportunities to:
- Build your network and personal brand
- Give back to organizations with meaningful missions
- Learn different perspectives that can apply to your existing roles
- Get sponsored for governance education programs (i.e., ICD.D, C. Dir, CDI.D or GCB.D)
- Develop governance leadership skills
- Get access to new knowledge, skills, perspectives, management styles, corporate cultures, business models, mentors and connections.
What is your why? Your purpose is your reason for serving on the board. What is your motivation for serving? Do you align with the organization’s mission? Do you have a higher purpose? Another common purpose for joining a board is to share your skills and expertise with an organization that could benefit from your experience. This is where defining your board value proposition is exceptionally valuable.
Your board value proposition is what you bring to the boardroom table and your unique board offering (refer to my blog, Position Your Board Offer, for more details). You should be able to articulate your board value proposition in a 30-second-or-less elevator pitch. It should include your specific expertise, skillsets the board currently lacks and examples of your governance leadership in their industry (or a synergistic sector). Here is my elevator pitch that I have honed over the years:
“I have entrepreneurial, financial and governance expertise with high growth and transformational companies in technology, retail, consumer and cannabis sectors for publicly-listed companies.”
Spend some time developing and road-testing your board value proposition. Ask yourself, does it convey your purpose?
Your passion is why you care about the board you’re serving. When you bring true passion to the board you are serving, it elevates your voice—and it’s contagious! Suddenly the whole board has higher enthusiasm and excitement for their work.
One example of this in my board career was interviewing for the National Ballet School Board. They asked me, “Why do you want to be a team member?” I said, “I’ve loved ballet ever since I was a young child. I would love to bring value to the board with my combination of financial and governance skills and passion for the art form.”
To elevate your board effectiveness and find your voice in the boardroom, reflect on why you chose to serve on the board. Remember your passion and bring it to your role.
Passion is why you show up and what you stand for. How can you distinguish board members who have passion from those who don’t? These articles from Great Boards detail the essential qualities of great board members, including:
- Passionate, dedicated and committed
- Leadership, stewardship and the ability to influence others
- Straightforward, impartial and collegial
- Knowledgeable and an insatiable learner
- Discrete and values confidentiality
How many of the above qualities do you have? Are you demonstrating that you are a passionate board member?
In a recent blog, Scott Baldwin of DirectorPrep wrote, “When it comes to director engagement, intellectual alignment (head) plus emotional involvement (heart) adds up to discretionary effort (hands).”
Head + Heart = Board Engagement
Your presence is how you demonstrate your purpose and passion to the other board members sitting at the table. The book Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence by Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins provides an excellent framework for finding your presence. Owning the room is the ability to fully capture the attention and engagement of a room by finding your signature voice.
What is your signature voice? The authors write that your signature voice is the perfect balance between “voice for self” and “voice for others” (see diagram below). Note that your signature voice cannot be too passive. This article from DirectorPrep explains:
“The best fit for the board is a candidate who will challenge the status quo, who possesses the willingness to ask difficult questions and the skill of asking them in a respectful, non-threatening way.”
Do you know which voice you need to develop to find your perfect balance? Try asking your friends and colleagues for actionable feedback so you can build your signature voice and bring your presence to the boardroom table.
Source: Own the Room/Amy Jen Su & Muriel Maignan Wilkins
Tip: Bring Presence by Standing Up for What You Believe In
My last piece of advice on presence is to stand up for what you believe. Form a clear point of view and never feel pressured to make a board decision you disagree with.
It’s important to remember that the board selected you based on your expertise, skills, strategic insight and leadership track record. Stand behind your instincts if something doesn’t feel right after hearing your board colleagues discuss an issue around the table. Instead of following someone you disagree with because of a willingness to stay quiet, demonstrate your value by speaking up. Even if it means that you must fall and pick yourself back up, put yourself out there—make yourself visible and be fearless.
It should be noted that board and committee meetings have three distinct phases to them, and in each step, you have the opportunity to speak up:
This is where you have an opportunity to reach out to the Chair of the Board or Committee Chair to ask questions, clarify items on the meeting agenda or express concerns you may have. Use this pre-meeting phase to prepare yourself for the upcoming board and or committee meetings and come ready to have a meaningful presence. To guide your preparation, refer to this blog on how to prepare for board meetings. The author explains:
“Effective board meeting preparation sets the stage for everyone on the board to know what steps need to be taken before, during, and after the meeting. When board members work together to prepare in advance, and everyone knows their specifically assigned roles and expected contributions, board meetings become more productive, and the organization achieves better outcomes.”
As this article outlines, for board meetings to be effective, they need to:
- Have a purpose
- Provide enough notice and appropriate materials for members to be prepared
- Be chaired effectively
- Follow proper meeting procedures and respect the time of board members
- Have clear supporting documents such as an agenda, minutes and other reports
- Ensure all participants have a voice and are respected
- Include some social interaction and networking time
- Accomplish results and have action items
- Be documented with minutes
This is your time to express concerns, provide feedback and lean in to make sure your voice is heard.
According to this article on what you should do after every board meeting:
“Your latest board meeting has just ended, but that doesn’t mean your responsibilities are over until the next gathering. In fact, several tactics should be employed after every meeting to ensure that your board is functioning as effectively as possible.”
Your power is how you influence change at the board level. Your belief is your ability to lead, influence decisions, and lean in when you need to get things done. In my experience, there are three ways for women to step into their power:
- Leaning In
- Learning Up
- Sponsoring Others
1. Leaning In
Many women have difficulty leaning into their power. How can we change this?
First, it’s important to remember you aren’t alone. As Kamala Harris once said, “I want young women and girls to know that you are powerful, and your voice matters. You’ll walk into many rooms in your life and career where you may be the only one who looks like you. But you are not alone.”
With this knowledge in mind, it’s essential to step up and lean into your power.
As I wrote in my 2018 blog Finding Your Voice at the Boardroom Table, leaning in means being assertive and moving toward a leadership role rather than a follower’s role. Imagine a round table discussion; the most active participants physically lean forward into the table and the debate, while those willing to take a backseat approach are usually more passive and distanced.
How does one lean in at the boardroom table? Start by taking a leadership role on a particular topic, issue or governance process on which you have specialized expertise.
For instance, I have been asked to “lean in” on due diligence processes as part of an M&A transaction. Also, you might “lean in” as the Chair of the Nominating & Corporate Governance Committee, where you have the opportunity to lead the process of reviewing Directors’ Compensation. Another example is leading a board renewal process to advance diversity in the boardroom.
Most importantly, remember that the roles on which you “lean in” may relate to your specific board committee but can also take place outside of the boardroom. Make sure to seize these opportunities.
Knowledge is power, and power is knowledge. The fastest way to enhance and amplify your power in the boardroom is through continuous learning. In my blog called “Top 10 Tips to Help You in Your Journey to a Corporate Board,” I detail how you can invest in your ongoing professional development.
The key to embracing continuous learning is recognizing that we have to go above and beyond existing requirements to excel as professionals. That means devoting yourself to mastering a skill. Note that this will not be an easy journey.
Continuous learning requires a commitment to developing new skills or areas of expertise, practicing in the real world, and repeatedly seeking feedback from your mentors. You can learn more by reading Anders Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
I apply this learning model to elevate my board effectiveness on an ongoing basis. For example, when I began serving on corporate boards in the cannabis industry, I soaked up as much knowledge as possible by subscribing to newsletters and attending events and conferences. Then I honed my expertise at industry roundtables and sought feedback from my colleagues. For example, I participated in a virtual event for the cannabis industry hosted by MNP LLP on “ESG: A Journey to Strategic Advantage.” Here is a link to the whitepaper.
Recently, I completed the Competent Boards ESG Designation Program, and I now have my GCD.D. I took this ESG program to further my knowledge as a serving corporate director so that I could become more informed on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) matters. As Helle Bank Jorgensen, CEO of Competent Boards wrote in her book Stewards of the Future:
“Climate Change and other environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues have become some of the biggest challenges faced by 21st-century board directors. Today’s boards must contend with a wide range of stakeholders who can affect a company’s fortunes—investors, customers, suppliers, employees, politicians, and activists, among others…For board members everywhere with the competence, confidence, and courage to be Stewards of the Future.”
- Sponsoring Others
Once you have a seat at the boardroom table, you can work to enhance and amplify other women’s power. For example, you can highlight other women’s work and ideas even when they aren’t in the room. The Harvard Business Review article A Lack of Sponsorship Is Keeping Women from Advancing into Leadership defines sponsorship:
“A sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you. An executive-level sponsor can make or break a high-potential woman’s career, particularly when getting important roles that are stepping-stones to the top.”
Sponsoring others, especially those who are women or Black, Indigenous or People of Colour (BIPOC), has the power to affect meaningful change at the board level and beyond.
In my recent blog, The Power of Sponsorship, I detailed how I benefited from sponsorship throughout my career. I am grateful for all my wonderful sponsors who have believed in me, helped me make great connections and provided me with guidance. My sponsors have been women and men whose trust I gained working alongside them on boards, consulting, as a Chief Financial Officer and in my community.
When searching for a sponsor, remember that it is a two-way relationship based on mutual respect and trust. You both need to be invested. Your sponsor is putting their name on the line by championing you, so you need to follow through on their advice and work hard to keep your sponsor’s good reputation intact.
Sponsoring is about giving back by paying it forward to others. Don’t be afraid to ask for a sponsor or take action as a sponsor for someone else. I was recently sponsored onto a new board by someone I worked closely with on another board. They talked about me when I was not there. It is powerful to have sponsors championing you!
If you ever find yourself in a position where you turn down a board seat, this is the perfect time to practice sponsorship. There are many reasons to turn down a board appointment. You might be overcommitted, it might not be the type of company that interests you, or you may feel it is not the right culture fit. When you decline the board opportunity, don’t forget to recommend three other qualified women board candidates. In my 2019 blog Exploring New Board Opportunities, Being Gracious in Saying ‘No,’ I explain why this approach is a gracious way to decline a board role. It is also a tremendous act of sponsorship for the individuals you recommend.
“Surround yourself with women who would mention your name in a room full of opportunities.” – Unknown.
Finding your voice in the boardroom can be difficult. However, by embracing the four Ps: purpose, passion, presence and power, you will be able to lead with courage and serve with confidence on corporate boards.