Business Schools Create Programs to Make Women Board-Ready: Will it Work?

business schoolBy Irene Solaz

Can you teach the skills required to obtain a seat on a board? London’s University of Westminster believes so.

The University’s new intensive Women For The Board program, taught by Dr. Ruth Sacks, lasts six-days and purports to teach women the skills and tools required to be considered board-ready.

According to Sacks, the goal is to offer women who are a few steps away from a board role a broader and deeper understanding and awareness of the skills, competences, tools, and techniques that will enable them to become effective members of executive or non-executive boards.

Specifically, the program focuses on something Sacks calls being “board wise,” which includes Emotional Intelligence, self-presentation, chairing and managing meetings, and creativity and risk in strategic decision making. Finance at the board-level is also covered extensively, among other important topics.

“There will also be sessions on corporate social responsibility, governance, and due diligence, as well as the legal responsibilities of being a member of a board, including anti-bribery,” Sacks said. “The program also includes a session with a recruiter for board-level positions to explore the application and interview processes for such roles.”

The Strength of Weak Ties
Clearly, having the experience, skills, and knowledge are of the utmost importance, but as we’ve all heard: sometimes it boils down to who you know. This is why Women For The Board also emphasizes the importance of networking. More and more we’re hearing about the benefits of women-only networking groups, which is why Sacks is confident that just by participating in the course and meeting other women on the quest for obtaining a board seat, women are expanding their networks.

“They will not only develop new networks among themselves, but also be able to link to the networks of the facilitators and speakers,” Sacks said. “Networking is key to all careers, they support the development of professional relationships, creativity, and learning opportunities.”

There is something to connecting with other women. In a recent Forbes post, executive recruiter Stacey Gordon discussed how the benefits of networking arise from differences rather than similarities, saying those differences have nothing to do with race, gender, or nationality. Gordon says they have to do with the strength or weakness of the “ties” in the networking group.

“Strong ties are those you have with your friends and families. Weak ties are those you have with acquaintances or friends of friends,” Gordon wrote. The executive recruiter drew on recent studies, Strength of Weak Ties and Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers, which demonstrate that weak-tie networking is far superior to strong-tie networking. By encouraging women to network amongst themselves, Women For The Board is teaching women a critical skill that can have a huge impact on their career.

Clearly, there are structural challenges women face when it comes to getting a seat on a board, but Sacks argues that it’s important to address the personal barriers that may be hindering them from reaching the top levels.

“Some women lack confidence, others feel they do not know enough about the roles’ responsibilities or the skills required to perform effectively at this level. This program is designed to bridge these gaps,” Sacks said. “We often develop our skills through the experiences we have. Taking the time to reflect and review through a development program can consolidate those skills as well as take them to the next level. It is not about teaching or experience, but a holistic approach that combines learning reflection and development.”

Sacks encourages women to dream big. “The most important advice for women is to believe in yourself, and create and use your support networks as well as your professional ones,” the senior director said.

Things Can Only Get Better
The ultimate question is whether a program that lasts just six-days can achieve Women For The Board’s ultimate goal, which is getting one out of every two students on boards within six-months of leaving the program. It seems ambitious, but the university’s program is part of what appears to be a growing trend of university’s and business schools re-shifting their focus to foster female advancement and creating programs that will help women already in corporate America get to the next level in their careers.

The Kellogg School of Management offers a Women’s Director Development Program for senior-level female executives who are interested in working on boards.

George Washington University School of Business also recently launched On the Board, taking a two-pronged approach to the issue of women on boards by helping women get shortlisted to be considered for open seats, and training women to be ready to step into those roles.

Many of these programs and initiatives intend on tracking their progress, but for many it’s too soon to tell just how big of an impact these efforts will have on the corporate landscape. Given that the number of women on boards hasn’t moved an inch in over a year, it’s safe to say we can only go up from here.