Advice to women considering a board career


New research reveals that there is no single pathway for women appointed to boards of S&P/ASX 200 companies and that the richness of experience collected along alternative routes to the boardroom could be equally valuable.

Research by the Korn Ferry Institute found that for some female non-executive directors (NEDs), a directorship was the result of careful planning and preparation. For others, it was an unexpected opportunity.

Asked how they planned their first NED role, three-quarters of respondents said they didn’t; rather, the chance came to them. Only 22.2 per cent had actively sought opportunities for a NED role because it had always been part of their career plan.

The importance of a strong network was also a recurring theme in conversations with the female 57 NEDs interviewed for the Korn Ferry Institute’s Beyond ‘if not, why not’: The pathway to directorship for women in leadership report.

The female directors interviewed were appointed to boards after 2010, when the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) introduced changes to its Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations on the reporting of diversity — known as the “if not, why not” disclosure rule.

 The survey revealed that revealed most respondents obtained their first board seat either through their network of contacts (56.3 per cent) or a specific sponsor (18.7 per cent).

 A third of respondents cited focusing on relationships earlier in their career as the thing they would most do differently. Other answers centred on more deliberate career shaping: 21 per cent wished they had been more strategic in their planning and 18 per cent said they should have put themselves forward for senior executive roles.

Korn Ferry Australasia managing director Katie Lahey says: “One mistake we see frequently is women who wish to transition to a board career too early. Our advice is to stay in your executive career as long as you can. Get experience in line roles, managing a profit & loss (P&L), and offshore if possible. Also gain experience on boards – which may be non-listed, government or not-for-profit.”

Survey respondents offered the following advice to women considering a board career:

  • Develop your executive career with an eye on your board career.
  • Be aggressive in advancing in your line management role. Don’t shift out of management too early. Gain as much senior corporate experience as possible, particularly a C-suite position with P&L responsibility. All these help secure high-profile board roles.
  • Ensure you have boardroom skills. Fill any gap in skills, particularly related to financials such as the balance sheet and cash flow drivers of a business. Be prepared not only to understand, but contribute to the debate on key accounting and financing issues. Complete the Australian Institute of Company Directors Company Directors Course.
  • Obtain board experience. While still an executive, seek a seat on a subsidiary and/or not-for-profit board to gain experience.
  • Be a willing and active participant on industry committees and working parties. Consider government boards in which quality NEDs and good governance exist.
  • Know the right people. Networks are extremely important; new director selections are still heavily influenced by existing board members. Find a mentor — or better yet, a sponsor — who will open doors and introduce you to others. Ask senior board directors for recommendations and referrals.
  • Choose a board with care. Research the company, the directors, and their track record of governance. Do not underestimate the importance of board dynamics and personal relationships in determining whether you’ll find a board position fulfilling.
  • Try to select boards in which there is at least one other woman. Being the only woman on a board can be isolating.
  • Market yourself smartly. Have clarity on the kind of board you are interested in, and know what you would bring to such an opportunity. Have confidence and courage to put yourself forward for roles.
  • Display a maturity that is essential in the boardroom.
  • Remain confident in your ambition, and know that more often than not, rejection for selection is structural, not personal.
  • Don’t leave your executive life until you have secured some board seats, as you lose currency quickly. 

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