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Ruth Sacks

Westminster Business School

Senior Lecturer

Read more about Ruth Sacks

Women at the top: How to excel in the boardroom


On 26 June, a new era for the boardroom was supposedly heralded. The appointment of Patrice Merrin at commodity trading and mining company Glencore Xstrata meant that there is now at least one woman on the board at each of the FTSE 100 companies.

This announcement was trumpeted by the government with much fanfare but, as with all statistics, it’s only when reading between the headlines that the real picture becomes clear. A further 48 companies in the FTSE 250 have a male-dominated boardroom.

According to Boardwatch (BoardEx May 2014) – a professional boards forum which tracks the appointments of women to UK boards – in the FTSE 100, only 18 of these companies have 30% women board members and in the FTSE 250 this increases to just 31 organisations.

The Davies Report, which was compiled by former minister Lord Davies of Abersoch, urged FTSE 350 companies to boost the percentage of women at the board table to 25% by next year. The Female FTSE Board Report 2014 shows that we will exceed this target, but we need to keep on working to have better representation and greater diversity in the ‘C suite’ of all companies – 25% is just the start, we need to maintain the momentum to broaden representation so that it is no longer challenged but is part of the recruitment and nominations process.

Be 'board-wise'

Success on a board is about who you are, not just what you know. Female employees with their eye on a boardroom position need to feel they are ‘board-wise’  to boost their confidence, and achieve a sense of  knowing they are giving their best and are making valuable contributions. 

Competences, behaviours and skills make up this sense of being ‘board-wise’. They include communication skills, the ways in which women use their emotional intelligence to work with others, persuading, influencing and asserting their views; being able to disagree and challenge effectively; a knowledge and understanding of the issues at stake and their own self presentation.

It is a great achievement to gain a place on a board and, as with any new role, a different set of responsibilities apply.

There is of course a rigorous selection process – whether this is an executive or non-executive appointment following the guidelines set out by the UK Corporate Governance Code (2010) and the recommendations of Finance Reporting Council (2011). The need for diversity at board level to increase effectiveness and avoid group think is clearly stated.

Three key areas

Diversity is defined as psychological type, gender and background. The foundations on which future boardroom members must apply themselves include three key areas: understanding legal responsibilities, being clear about the role and responsibilities and developing a network with other members of the board.

Firstly, there should be an induction process, which will give an overview of legal responsibilities, as well as how the Companies Act (2006) and common law present fiduciary duties of good faith and loyalty. It is the individual’s responsibility to be clear about their role and how it fits with the other roles on the board.

The second area includes how much time an employee should spend on a boardroom role. As most employees are probably aware, this role may take more or less time each month depending on the agenda. The meetings are only one part; preparation for them, reading and understanding the company papers, being clear about the decisions which will be made and their implications are equally important. There may be pre-board meetings which employees will need to attend, and it is likely that they will be asked to become a member of a particular committee as well.

Thirdly, women who are selected for a boardroom role should remember the board believes they have much to offer and believes in them personally. As with joining any new team, there is a settling in period. Other members may have been on the board for a while and have ways of working that are comfortable for them.  The arrival of someone new may challenge this. The best way for newcomers to establish themselves is to make time to get to know the other board members. As a team, they will have to address some challenging issues so understanding different ways of working, areas of expertise and interests of the other members will be key to contributing effectively to the decision-making processes.

Different skills and approaches

Upon these foundations, women will build a boardroom sense of ‘self’. Females bring a different skillset to the board and have different approaches to leadership and problem solving. They look for a win-win approach and are very good at maintaining a focus on the strategic goals of the organisation – key competences at board level. They value making connections and collaborating, influencing without control and basing relationships on trust.

An individual’s professional experience will develop a preferred style of working,  so they will have a sense of what they can do and what their aims and objectives are within this role. Being ‘board-wise’ should assert this in the ways in which the employee is most comfortable.

Female board members may encounter discrimination, there may be an unconscious gender bias expressed through, for example, opportunities for networking – golf course conversations, late evening meetings which compromise family arrangements or meeting menus that do not take dietary requirements into account. But this is unacceptable and there are strategies for addressing this. The first is to assert your own perspective by talking to the boardroom chair and suggesting alternatives. Every step forward in this respect will create a better board.

Success breeds success and, as part of that, women need to encourage other women to follow in their footsteps. Promoting the experiences of being on a board, mentoring and being a role model inside and outside an organisation will raise awareness and interest in the opportunities at this level and, importantly, progress equality and diversity at board level. 

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Ruth Sacks

Senior Lecturer

Read more from Ruth Sacks

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