Three Ways Executive Search Firms Can Boost Women on Boards

iStock_000006262297XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

According to a new report by executive search firm Egon Zehnder International, increasing the number of women on boards may become more difficult in the near future. While the spotlight on hiring more female directors has shone more brightly in recent years, the percentage of women in those seats has stagnated.

Not only that, new research shows, the pool of women traditionally considered for these jobs may be shrinking. The report says:

“Over the past five years, the number of women reaching senior executive roles has decreased by 12 percent, shrinking the talent pool from which most female directors are likely to be drawn. Despite some recent high-profile appointments, only 4percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and – as any board search professional can attest – boards still almost reflexively seek sitting or retired CEOs to fill board seats.”

Based on EEOC labor statistics, the number of women reaching the C-suite has decreased by 12 percent between 2000 and 2010. And because fewer women seem to be making it to senior management, it may become harder in the coming years for companies to diversify their boards.

As Claudia Pici-Morris, co-author of the report and US Head of Research for Egon Zehnder, explained, “It is surprising to see the number of women making up the future pool shrinking, and shrinking steadily.”

There’s clearly a disconnect between boards’ desire to increase their percentage of female directors (as well as the dialogue and debate around the issue of female leadership within the general public) and the groundwork being laid to prepare women for the director role.

Fortunately, Pici-Morris explained, more can be done to prepare and locate women for board positions – and executive search firms, companies, and women with their eyes on a board seat all have a role to play.

Executive Search and Female Directors

“Our role as a search firm is to have a deeper discussion with our clients to really uncover their true needs,” Pici-Morris explained. For example, many boards will have a bias toward a director with P&L experience. Of course, P&L experience is important, but their actual needs may be more nuanced than that. “Often, these discussions lead to a broader acceptance of alternative candidate profiles that align to the needs of the company.”

Secondly, she continued, “Typically we do a lot of research to identify executive profiles that test those boundaries on a long list of approximately twenty-five executives who we feel would best align with the needs of the board. As a result we make sure senior women are represented on every list.”

Succession Planning

Boards can also improve the diversity of the candidate pool as they plan for succession, Pici-Morris explained. If a company knows that it will have a board vacancy in the next few years there is an opportunity to align its technical and business needs with its diversity objectives.

But that means planning ahead, she explained. “It means identifying the company’s long-range needs and joining them with appropriate strategic and functional roles that typically have a larger percentage of senior executive women. This will broaden the pool of board-ready female candidates”

Women and Networking

Pici-Morris encouraged women to take a holistic view when looking for a board role. Rather than simply boosting your resume, make sure you’re doing real-world leg-work as well.

“Women can take much more ownership and demand more in establishing mentorships with influential people. Build relationships in your organization to help identify and evaluate opportunities as they are presented. This can also help you strengthen your networks internally and help you expand your network externally.”

She explained, “With corporate boards, there’s always an interest as to who knows the individual before even pursuing them.”

Therefore, working to make yourself an attractive candidate to executive search firms isn’t enough – you also have to build relationships with directors. “If women are good at networking and leverage that network, it can help connect them to a board when needs arise”

As the saying goes, it’s not who you know – it’s who knows you.

She also encouraged women to begin thinking about board service earlier in their careers – not just when they think they might be ready. “You should recognize that it’s a building block scenario – not a big bang. There’s a long preparation cycle. Women early in their careers need to think where they want to be in ten years.”

“We can help advise young executives early in their careers on the various roles and/or career opportunities to consider that will advance them into the boardroom.”

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