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

Nicki HeadshotBy Nicki Gilmour, Founder and CEO of

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, 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.

Building Your Personal Brand

When asked at a recent WECNY event about her first board seat (at Dell), Sallie Krawcheck President of Global Wealth and investment Management at Bank of America, replied, “Michael Dell gave me a call.” When pressed to expand on how she got this magic phone call, she explained it because she had a great track record in business and that the introduction to Michael via a third party had happened a few years previous to that call.

She acknowledged that first and foremost boards look for hard skills in finance in areas like risk management, but emphasized that work isn’t just in the office, work is when one is out and about meeting people, “its about being in the flow.” Building your network externally, how you develop your personal brand, is not easy and it certainly is time consuming, but is the only way to get a magic phone call from someone like Michael Dell.

Virginia Gambale
, Managing Partner of Azimuth Partners who has served on over 20 public and private boards and currently serves as a board director for JetBlue amongst others, explains:

“Women are so focused on being extremely competent at their jobs and also as a result become very focused internally. Being on a Corporate Board requires something that is ‘Beyond Competence.’ Still to this day a high percentage of board directors are referrals from existing board directors. This is not because of the “old boy” network. But rather, the role of Corporate Director is a very artful combination of skills. It is the ability to lead by educating and influencing. To be in a position to lead, one must first gain the “respect” of their fellow board members. This seat at the table is earned. These board members want to know first that the individual has this special skill. The other important factor in being considered for these roles, is that you must develop a reputation in a specific area that is required at the board level, and develop a message that you become known for in a specific industry or a function across industries.”

The internet has created a new way to showcase your message to the world and demonstrate your track record and experience. LinkedIn has been very successful at connecting people and is considered as a serious business tool.

Diane Garnick, Investment Strategist at Invesco and upcoming panelist at event for top women on the “Buy-side” also recommends embracing other sites such as Facebook and Wikipedia as a business tool.

“Social media stopped being a generation y playground and became an important tool for discovering, cultivating and expanding business relationships. Bridge the gap between you and your competitors by expressing your best ideas in an electronic forum the entire world can see,” she says.

Nothing replaces interpersonal skills, but I would definitely agree that the rules of the game have changed. In this world where we are always time short I can see the value in finding commonalities online with people who may be or may become fellow board members. A good rule of thumb for using social networks is to treat them like an actual in-person function, don’t stalk or swarm other professionals and only approach them when you have something useful to say. Charm doesn’t go out of fashion, even on the internet.

Join social network. It beats having to pretend you like golf if you don’t, that’s for sure.