Despite significant improvement over the past decade, Australian boards are still dominated by male directors.
The latest Australian Institute of Company Directors Board Diversity Statistics report (December 2021) revealed that 34.2% of ASX 200 board members are women, while women comprised 41.8% of new appointments. Encouragingly, there are currently no boards in the ASX 200 without women.
Interest in joining boards as a Non-Executive Director (NED) is clearly rising among talented women, but for many of us, it isn’t always clear where or how to get started.
After participating in an initiative developed by a group of insightful women at the University of Newcastle about all things related to board recruitment, I have put together the following guide about board skills matrices, understanding your own strengths, how to build advocacy and get noticed, and some practical steps for starting your journey towards becoming a NED.
But first, why is it important?
Benefits of gender-diverse boards for companies and for women
Having diverse board membership has several benefits both for organisations and for participating female NEDs.
Organisations enjoy several benefits from having more women on boards:
Bringing different experiences and perspectives into the mix results in more rigorous debate and better-quality decisions.
Gender diversity at the board level can improve innovation and support organisational change.
Women may bring different leadership styles into the mix, although it is important to be wary of stereotyping women’s skills.
Representation matters. Organisations seeking to improve the gender balance at every level will struggle to do so unless they address female representation at the top.
Some studies have also reported that companies with women directors perform better financially than those without women.
Benefits for the individual include the chance to enhance your prestige and credibility, develop leadership skills, grow your network of talented and ambitious people, learn how other businesses operate (and apply those learnings at your own organisation), and know that the decisions you make have a real impact.
How to get on board
Understand what a board is looking for
Just like a head of recruitment works to understand the skills their organisation currently possesses, identify the gaps and forecast future requirements, many boards use a “skills matrix” to profile their directors’ skills and experience.
A board’s focus is usually to ensure adequate coverage across the technical skills relevant to the organisation’s purpose and strategy – for example, executives with deep skills in legal, HR, technology, digital transformation, governance or risk could be highly valued at board level. But boards are increasingly looking beyond hard skills to consider “soft” skills such as communication, strategy development, problem solving and conflict resolution.
The good news is that boards are actively seeking talented women, along with several other types of diversity – age, cultural background, linguistic, neurodiversity, socioeconomic diversity, and more. Don’t hesitate to use any intersectionality to your advantage when applying for board membership.
Once you’ve understood what a board is looking for, the next step is to know yourself. Be able to clearly articulate your hard skills and experiences, along with the soft skills you bring to the table. When someone asks you what you might bring to a board, frame your answer in a way that speaks the language of a high-performing board.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
There are several avenues to preparing for a NED role. Many choose to gain experience by sitting on a non-profit or government board. Advisory boards and involvement in committees is another avenue to gain experience. The Advisory Board Centre reports that advisory boards are on the rise. “Since 2019, there has been a 52% increase globally in organisations utilising advisory boards as part of their governance structure,” says their State of the Market Report 2022. The research indicates that global uncertainty, volatility and individuals wanting to contribute at board level but reduce their personal risk is in part responsible for the shift to advisory.
Others pursue corporate roles to gain experience that will be valued by a board. For those looking to expand their knowledge, build a wider board network and gain a recognised board accreditation, the AICD Company Directors Course is a popular and credible choice.
We are still in an environment where people find board opportunities based on “who you know.” The overwhelming majority don’t go looking for their first board role: rather, someone from within their network reaches out to them to see if they are interested. For those looking to build a board career, it is important to invest in your professional network, add value to your industry, participate in thought leadership and manage your public profile. Specific strategies include engaging in public speaking, joining industry events/panels, building your network and connecting with other board members, improving your social media profile (executive search firms will be looking for LinkedIn visibility), publishing research or thought-leadership, and collaborating with other experts. Doing the AICD course can also be a great way to start building a valuable network.
Executive Search firms also take on board recruitment projects and it is important to develop relationships with those firms.
Research the organisation before applying for a NED role
Research is vital because directors will be held responsible for decisions made during their term in office. Make sure you do your own due diligence rather than relying on assurances from others.
Use the resources available at ASIC for your research, such as obtaining company documents such as its constitution, financial statements, changes to officeholders, and more. You can also purchase a record of someone’s directorships and check the records of anyone who might be a disqualified director.
Finally, think about whether you are a good fit for the organisation. Ask yourself:
Do you want your name associated with this company?
Do you have any conflicts of interest?
How will you add value?
Do you have the time and energy to spare for this role?
A powerful question to ask yourself before joining a board is: “Would I invest significant amounts of money in the organisation?” If you are unsure about this, you need to do more research or consider opting out.
Action steps - Ready to get started on your board journey?
1. Start with your goals: what do you want to achieve? Is board membership the end goal or is it the springboard for something else?
2. Update your LinkedIn profile and your “Board CV” to make them relevant to boards and executive search firms.
Write a compelling professional summary about what you specialise in
Provide a complete work history, including anything that is board or advisory related
Post updates - knowledge sharing article
Connect with people
Use keywords such as Non-Executive Director, Sector Expertise, AICD
Provide a professional photo
3. Consider undertaking the AICD course or if you are interested in advisory boards, you might look at the Advisory Board Centre as a resource.
4. Check out https://www.boardlinks.gov.au/: a database that connects industry-leading women with opportunities to be considered for Australian Government board appointments.
5. Know yourself. Be able to articulate how your technical and soft skills would benefit a board.
6. Reach out to executive search firms and companies that are of interest to you about board opportunities.