Women and the Boardroom: Practice effective networking at all levels of your career to be on track for the boardroom, by Nicki Gilmour

We know that boards have not been historically women-friendly and the numbers of women on corporate boards are still incredibility low despite the strong correlation between diversity of thought and company performance. Specifically, when there is a critical mass of women board members (which is quoted as 3 female seats at the table) a tipping point is created for a successful attempt at inclusion with the desired benefit of breaking groupthink.

Many senior women have made it to the top of their department, and even make it into the executive management team. But they find themselves at a loss because they just haven’t built the network they need to take them from being a respected professional to recognized expert to a formal director of a company on a corporate board.

“No women can be chosen for a job, promotion, a nomination for public office, a seat on a board of directors, a slot in a training program unless women are in the pool of finalists” states Linda Tarr-Whelan in her book Women lead the Way.

This is entirely true. However, unlike a job interview, the process to find yourself in the pool of potential board member doesn’t come with a hard and fast rule book. And HR, for better or for worse (you decide?), have zero influence in this area. Executives are networked onto a Board, not recruited, so to find yourself in that pool of candidates, you must not only have the experience and the reputation, but also the right connections.

Effective Network Building – More Than Socializing

Network building isn’t the same as networking, which conjures up images of attending drinks parties. Chatting to 2 or 3 albeit very nice people is socializing. Networking, to be effective, has to happen in a space where there are lots of commonalities between the people in the room (such as the upcoming Women on the Buy-Side event hosted by theglasshammer.com, for women who are C-level or on the brink of reaching it). In a peer to peer environment, there are likely to be women who can be serious in their recommendation of you and vice–versa; it’s not a place to find your sponsor, your advocate or a mentor.

Using the women’s network in your firm is a great place to start networking (and a more appropriate place to find aforementioned mentor). All good networks provide support but should also provide access to senior members (both men and women) in your firm. Take this path as a complementary or replacement method to succession planning, as it is important to strengthen your network within your firm; ultimately you have to navigate the politics there to get to the upper echelons of the management team and have the caliber of contacts needed to be invited to the boardroom.

How effective corporate women’s networks really are ranges depending on who attends, what structure the meetings take, and if the initiative is really supported by the firm’s leaders.

For example, as Anne Erni, now Head of Leadership and Diversity at Bloomberg, recalled at a recent Forté Foundation event, in 2001, Joe Gregory, then-President and COO of Lehman Brothers called her up along with Jeanne Kane and Nadja Fidelia. He said “Men run in packs, women don’t, go create your pack…” It was August, 2001 and despite losing their building just a month later on September 11th, they were determined to “create a pack.” Ceremonial advocacy just isn’t enough. Because of the hard work of these women, and the commitment from the top, the network became a huge success.

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