How Networking Can Help Women Secure Board Seats

Networking is a crucial component for women striving to attain board seats in health care – or any sector.

If you are a woman whose career aspirations include securing a seat at the boardroom table, it’s important to hone your networking skills. This is because your professional contacts may lead you to those coveted board opportunities that best match your experience and skills, according to Ellen Zane, a nationally known health care expert and former President and CEO of Tufts Medical Center in Boston, where she was the first woman to obtain this leadership position in the organization’s 200-plus-year history.

Zane also co-directs a program through the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health called Women on Boards: Getting On & Adding Value, which explores challenges inherent in women securing board seats in the health care sector and offers participants advice for how to position themselves for success in achieving this goal.

The Importance of Networking

With more than a dozen public and private boards added to Zane’s resume over the past decade, she believes networking is an integral component to securing fulfilling and rewarding board opportunities. While the focus of her board experiences is broad, the majority of these positions have come about unsolicited, thanks to her experience at cultivating a wide group of professional contacts.

“When people look to attain a board position, whom you know becomes an important question. Therefore, you’ll want to be someone people know about, so that you can be considered when they’re looking for a new board member,” Zane explains, adding that this premise isn’t limited to women; in fact, it holds true for everyone.

At the current pace, researchers predict that women won’t have equal board representation with men until 2055.

How Networking Translates into Offers

To illustrate this concept in action, Zane shares the story of one of her board appointments (she typically holds four public company corporate board positions at any one time), which actually came about on a break during a meeting of another board she sat on. She was walking down the hallway outside the boardroom when she was approached by a fellow board member, who mentioned interest in having her participate on another Fortune 500 board. Zane recalls that within 72 hours, she had been interviewed by all of the decision makers for that new board and had a formal offer in hand. While such a fast turnaround is certainly not common—many board appointments can take a year or 18 months to go through—it demonstrates the advantage that comes when someone knows you on a professional level and is familiar with your experience and performance first-hand.

“That is the ultimate networking example,” she says.

The Great Gender Divide

With women historically underrepresented on corporate boards—despite movement over the past few years that is starting to tip the scale—Zane stresses that women need to be strategic in their efforts to make their names and expertise known without seeming over-eager to secure such a role.

To understand just how strongly the odds stack up against women and what they must overcome, consider the results of a 2015 study conducted by MSCI ESG Research, Inc., which reveals that women hold fewer than 20 percent of board seats among Standard & Poor’s 500 companies surveyed, despite the fact that women make up over 50 percent of the U.S. population. The research also found that women hold only 15 percent of directorships among 4,200 global companies they explored. Even more concerning, an article published in the Harvard Business Review on Oct. 16, 2017, notes that female representation on corporate boards has declined for the first time in the past eight years, providing further evidence that more work needs to be done in this area. The paper’s authors call on CEOs to help change the culture of their organizations, and in the process, hopefully influence other organizations to follow suit toward achieving gender parity. At the current pace, researchers predict that women won’t have equal board representation with men until 2055.

You’ll want to be someone people know about, so that you can be considered when they’re looking for a new board member.

Looking to the Root of the Problem

This gender inequity in board representation can be traced to a number of causes, explains Laurie Pascal, a consultant and Lecturer on health and policy management at the Harvard Chan School, who co-directs the school’s Women on Boards program with Zane.

You can look to the results of another survey conducted by Harvard in conjunction with the WomenCorporateDirectors Foundation and Spencer Stuart, an executive recruiting firm, which asked board members for their opinions about why women are so poorly represented on their boards. Older male respondents blamed this occurrence on the fact that there weren’t enough qualified females for the job. Females and younger males, on the other hand, said that directors tend to network within largely male-dominated groups, so qualified women often get overlooked for these jobs.

Pascal points out that compounding the problem is that many boards want to limit their membership to people with CEO experience. A 2017 article in Fortune magazine shows that only 6.4 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. are female. Although this is the highest percent in the 63 years Fortune has compiled this list, it also means that when boards make CEO experience a prerequisite for board membership, they are making it more difficult to find qualified females for such positions and are missing out on talented candidates.

Benefits of Female Representation

The good news, though, is that when boards do have strong female representation, there may be tangible organizational benefits. For instance, in MSCI’s report, researchers found that MSCI World Index companies with strong female board representation[1] outperformed other companies with a 10.1 percent return on equity, compared to 7.4 percent. Another study, this one from Credit Suisse in 2012, found that among companies whose stock had a market cap of more than $10 billion, having women on their board was linked to a performance increase of 26 percent over a six-year period. These types of findings coupled with growing investor pressure for more diversity brings hope that, moving forward, more opportunities will arise for women to sit on boards.

When boards make CEO experience a prerequisite for board membership, they are making it more difficult to find qualified females for such positions and are missing out on talented candidates.

How Women Can Enhance Their Candidacies

This means that women need to be positioning themselves strategically by developing an effective network and, most critically, by being seen as adding value for others. In other words, Pascal says that women need to remember networking is as much, or more, about giving as it is about getting.

“Women who want this for themselves will be roundly disregarded,” Zane stresses, adding, “They MUST demonstrate how they can add value first and foremost.”

For instance, Zane has also been on the other side of the networking spectrum, helping to make valuable connections between board representatives or recruiters looking for new talent and qualified female candidates who are on her own contact list. One such example is her colleague Robyn Davis, managing director of Angel Healthcare Investors, LLC, who has broad experience in strategy, finance, and life sciences. Although Zane did not know Davis well, this specific skill set was a match for one of Zane’s current boards, prompting Zane to reach out and see if Davis was interested and available. This connection ultimately led Davis to attain a corporate Directorship at the company.

Women need to be positioning themselves strategically by developing an effective network and, most critically, by being seen as adding value for others.

“While I am very fortunate to have a strong network from work and education, that network comprises many investment and private-equity professionals rather than public-company CEOs and board members,” Davis says. “However,” she adds, “through my role leading a successful health care investment group, I was fortunate to meet Ellen Zane and have her introduce me to public board opportunities I would not have had on my own.”

Ten Steps to Networking Strategically

As Zane’s and Davis’ experiences illustrate, the answer for women who desire a seat or leadership role on a board goes back to developing a network of people who have some common skill sets or interests with you. This requires stepping outside your immediate circle and finding other professionals who have relevant connections. “You can think of it as connectivity, or forming a web of people,” Pascal says. By broadening your network, you are increasing the likelihood that a broader array of people will be familiar with the value you can bring, and this can ultimately increase your opportunities.

To position yourself effectively and to help your reputation be known, Pascal and Zane suggest taking the following simple—but important—steps:

  1. Accept speaking engagements at conferences to share your expertise in a broader arena.
  2. Publish an article or become a blogger in order to let people get to know you better.
  3. Tap into the wealth of virtual networks that exist. The internet makes it possible to maintain a presence through social media and networking websites. Make yourself visible by participating in online conversations or sharing expertise about timely topics and issues.
  4. Share the fact that you are available, capable, and interested in a board position. But don’t seem over-eager or desperate in the process. Finding the right balance can be key to getting the offer you desire.
  5. Be prepared to wait. The recruiting process for a board seat can typically last a year to 18 months. Much of that time you may be waiting without knowing where things stand, so you have to be patient until the company is ready to move forward.
  6. Realize that there will be board opportunities that aren’t the right fit for your background. Don’t take it personally! Boards are constantly reevaluating what they need next, so never cut off your options or close the door completely.
  7. Prepare a current bio that gives a good overview of your experience, metrics of what you’ve been able to accomplish, and the strengths you bring to the table. Also draft a second, longer version that presents additional details including awards and other recognition. Always keep both these short- and long-form bios updated so you’ll be ready to share them when an opportunity arises … or to adapt them for a current opportunity.
  8. Join local chapters of networking groups tailored for people with board aspirations or experience so you can make valuable connections. The American College of Corporate Directors, the National Association of Corporate Directors, and Women Corporate Directors are a few such options.
  9. Always present yourself professionally so people will take you seriously, selecting boardroom-appropriate clothing. Keep current in the industries you are interested in, and ask thoughtful questions. All of these factors will impact how you are viewed. Remember that first impressions are lasting impressions.
  10. Expand your contacts outside of your familiar comfort zone and reach out to other colleagues to help them make connections they may not be aware of.

Working toward Board Gender Equity

Davis also points out that while engaging in professional networking is key for women who want to secure new opportunities, other people who already hold leadership and board positions also need to do their part to bring in more women to achieve better gender equity and other attributes of board diversity.

“I really encourage all directors currently sitting on public boards to help change the conversation one-by-one when director pipelines are being discussed. Candidates absolutely must have the right fit and qualifications,” she says, but adds that there are lots of talented women out there who should be considered since, when given the chance, they will bring much value to the board table.

[1] Defined as having three or more females on the board, or as having the percentage of females on the board be above the country’s average, or having a female CEO and at least one female board member.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value, a leadership program for women aiming to sit on a health care board of directors. To learn more about this opportunity, click here.