The Davies Review in 2011 identified that there were too few women on corporate boards in the UK. In 2010, only 12.5% of FTSE 100 board roles were held by women. The Review, therefore, threw down the gauntlet to companies and their advisers to do all in their power to close this gap.
Fidelio responded to the challenge. To help women succeed to the top table we undertook research into the attributes of effective board directors.
Our first source was our own observations as a board search firm. We have ample evidence as to which profile types are regularly shortlisted, and which profile types remain on the long-list.
But importantly we also interviewed a number of our clients and leading corporates across a range of sectors and geographies, including in the DAX 30 and FTSE 10, as well as fast-growing tech companies.
We spoke with chairmen, non-executive directors and group HR directors. We asked them what enables senior executives to succeed to the top table, and what are the obstacles that prevent female executives from reaching the top table in the same percentage as men. Based on this research, we identified the following five attributes of successful board directors:
1. Understanding the complexity of shareholder and stakeholder expectations for the leadership team
Effective board directors are good at interpreting what key stakeholders want, skilled at aligning expectations, constantly horizon-scanning and sensitive to mood changes.
2. A firm grasp of governance, including formal and informal power structures
It’s important to understand the formal aspects of governance, but successful directors can also read how power flows around the boardroom table.
3. Presence and authority
Personal impact and the ability to influence are considered soft skills, but the importance of conveying confidence and commanding respect should not be underestimated. Mastering the art of being heard and, when necessary, interrupting without giving offence, are also critical. These aspects of presence and authority enable women to develop a board manner which is true to them and, critically, gives them a voice at the top table.
4. Reinforcing networks
Networks of support and networks of reciprocity are essential, and success at board level requires strong networks within the organisation and externally. Some leading companies noted that senior women were excellent networkers but often had a different approach to networking from male colleagues and were frequently reluctant to make the business ask. A successful director will typically be effective at “networking” with purpose.
5. Resilience under extreme pressure
As scrutiny of boards increases, so does the likelihood of negative publicity. Clearly a major issue for executive directors, non-executives can also find themselves in the public glare or hauled before a Select Committee. Those who have experience of pressure and have developed resilience in the public eye are better placed for high-profile board roles.
Clearly these attributes apply to male and female directors, but as with networking, women may have a different approach. There are no rights and wrongs and diversity would suggest we don’t want board members with remarkably similar backgrounds and personalities. But those keen to develop a successful board career would do well to consider the conclusions of this research.
These five attributes of successful board directors have formed the basis of Fidelio’s A Seat at the Table programme for senior female executives and directors, which enables us to track and measure progress to the boardroom table. Technical skills are a given in the boardroom. Above and beyond this, directors require a high degree of emotional intelligence and a sensitivity towards disruption and change if they are to succeed to and at the board table.
This article has been prepared in collaboration with Fidelio Partners, a supporter of Board Agenda.