I do a lot of reading about women and leadership and always make it a point to scrutinize the numbers. I’m happy to report that confirms what many of us have known all along.
In study after study, when women serve as executives their organizations see a better return on equity and operating capital, better operating results, and better profitability.
Those kinds of benefits extend to the boardroom. When women become directors there is a better mix of leadership skills, more diverse views leading to better decisions, and an overall improvement in governance.
So how do we get more of us into these seats?
It’s why I convened a panel of women who have traveled that path. Not only do they lead their own companies, they serve as directors for high-visibility brands ranging from Rosetta Stone and Tripadvisor to Fossil and the software-development powerhouse Puppet.
Sponsored by Dell and DocuSign, this kind of mentoring session is exactly why I founded UPWARD – so female executives could meet up, build up their networks, and use those connections to move up in their careers. And it’s working. It’s why we have nearly 5,000 members in nine chapters around the world and are launching three more this year.
For their part, my panelists gave a candid and practical take on becoming a director. Whether that’s the next logical step in your career or a long-term goal, the bottom line is this: position yourself, be choosy, then get ready to work and grow in some incredible ways.
Get Ready For The Opportunity
If you’re early in a career and want to wind up in a boardroom, the next step is easy.
“Honestly, be a rock star at your job,” said Sukhinder Singh Cassidy. “You get board opportunities when you’ve reached a certain level of P&L responsibility and leadership capability.” A tech industry veteran and serial entrepreneur, she sits on the boards of Ericsson and Tripadvisor and served on the board of J Crew. All while leading the company she founded in 2011, Joyous.
You also need to let people know you’re looking for opportunities – and give folks who have never heard of you a chance to know you better. “Your career is not just about your day-to-day job,” said Caroline Tsay who led, built, and grew businesses inside IBM, Yahoo!, and HPE and now serves as the CEO of a stealth-mode startup.
It was taking her own advice that got Caroline on a public board. After a speech at a conference she was invited to meet with the CEO of Rosetta Stone and was eventually asked to be a director. She was also just invited to join the board of Morningstar.
When the time is right, you then want to get your name on theBoardlist. Launched two years ago by Sukhinder, it’s a way for the tech community to recommend, discover and connect highly qualified women leaders with private and public board opportunities. Women are nominated to the list by their peer leaders, so you should be seeking out a nomination from someone on the list – or encourage a leader you know to join so they can nominate you.
Again, it’s a matter of being visible enough to get the opportunity. “We really believe the issue is not supply; the issue is demand,” Sukhinder said.
Understand What You’re Getting Into
Jennifer Tejada did her first board director interview in the middle of a factory floor in Australia clad in goggles and a hard hat as she watched a machine squirt out diapers. A former brand manager for Pampers, she was there to perform due diligence for an acquisition and ended up joining the governance team.
Today, when she isn’t running PagerDuty, Jennifer specializes in serving on private boards. But that first interview in Australia gave her a great perspective on what it means to sign on as a director.
“Long-term commitment is one of the things you learn,” she said. “You’re going to be with people for a long time.”
Mauria Finley echoed the sentiment. An independent entrepreneur, her most recent success was the sale of the e-commerce startup she founded and led to Care.com. She likens the process of choosing a board opening to dating: it’s about finding the right fit.
“In the end, you better like the people and like the business,” Mauria said. “Because it can feel like a burden or you can be excited about doing it.”
Watch, Ask And Learn A Lot
Once you’ve been accepted onto a board, you’re part of the team. While there’s a lot to learn remember: you’re there because that group of people believes you bring something special to the table. So do the things that made you successful in the first place.
“I sat on a private board and learned a ton by watching the venture capitalists and the questions they asked and what they cared about,” said Mauria.
The more structured companies – those who are moving away from their wild-and- woolly startup days – will give you a more formal briefing on their operations as a matter of course. But if you’re not getting what you need to make the best decisions possible, just ask.
Because at some point, you’re going to need all of it. And more.
Just six weeks into her role as a director, for example, one of Jennifer’s boards made the decision to transition the founder and CEO. “I basically pulled night shifts to help with the communication and transition,” she said.
Caroline had a similar out-of-the-gate experience. Just one week after joining Rosetta Stone not one, but two, activist shareholders began agitating for change. The board had to sort through critiques, channel the flow of communications properly, and work closely to the management team.
“Things in these companies happen at really inconvenient times,” Jennifer said. “There is real heavy lifting to do. There are hard decisions to make. Sometimes you have to come up to speed quickly.”
Yet if you’re a person who loves these kinds of challenges it’s absolutely attainable. So get going – there is some company out there just waiting for you to help make it better.
In addition to founding UPWARD I am a Managing Partner at the Westly Group and responsible for investments in software, IOT, and the Internet. I also sit on the NVCA Board of Directors, where I’m actively involved in policy and facilitating collaboration between private and corporate venture firms. Prior to joining the Westly Group, I was a vice-president at Intel Capital and the Managing Director of Intel Capital’s Software and Services Fund and the Intel Capital Diversity Fund.