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Anne Deeter Gallaher: Be intentional in your leadership

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Anne Deeter Gallaher
Anne Deeter Gallaher

It's a familiar rallying cry: We need more women on boards. We know the problem, but the solution seems stubborn and elusive.

We've heard the reasons for board leadership. It's good for the bottom line, it's good for diversity to be more representative of your customer base, and it's good for talent recruitment. There are task forces, initiatives, trainings, and Facebook forums, but the statistics on women on boards haven’t moved appreciably in years. Women hold 16 percent of director positions in the S&P 1500 and men hold 84 percent. 

Clearly not every woman (or man) wants a director seat, but for those women who aspire to a seat at the governance table, there is a path and it involves being known, being intentional and bringing value.

One of the most important tools in the quest to govern on a board is still old-fashioned networking.

"The 2015-2016 National Association of Corporate Directors Public Company Governance Survey reported that 77 percent of directors who responded said they recruited a recent director through 'professional networking or word of mouth,'" says Michelle Campbell in "Alternate Paths for Aspiring Directors."

"My first tip for women seeking a board seat is networking. I don't think there's any good substitute for building personal and professional connections," said Velma Redmond, board director for Capital BlueCross, High Industries, and past board chair of the Hershey Trust Co. and Milton S. Hershey School.

"By networking, I don't mean walking around at a business or social event handing out a stack of business cards, although you should always have your business cards on hand," Redmond said. "If you are interested in a board, you need to seek out opportunities to meet and connect with current and former board members, business leaders and industry executives. Networking is about expanding one's range of acquaintances and building relationships. If current board members don't know you, they're not likely to think of you when a board seat opens up."

Be intentional, said Patti Husic, president and CEO of Centric Bank, and past chair of PA Bankers.

She was only the third woman chair in the organization’s 123-year history. Husic is also a board member of American Bankers Association, Geisinger Holy Spirit, and Centric Financial Corp.

"Companies, and especially financial institutions, must be intentional in seeking diverse board candidates," Husic said. "We look for diversity not only of gender, but in skills, experiences and thought. For women, that means you must network up the ladder of leadership. Make it known that you want to add value to a board and clearly define what that value is — profit and loss expertise, legal expertise, HR expertise. Do your research and ask for introductions to influential people."

Are you a champion for your industry, have you written articles or op-eds, do you add your voice to policies and initiatives that define the future of your company?

"Don’t be shy about self-promotion. Find ways to bring attention to your professional achievements and expertise," said Redmond. These experiences prepare you for board service and put you on the radar of directors.

Kathleen Pavelko is president and CEO of WITF Public Media Center and a member of its board, as well as a board member and past vice chair of The Salvation Army Harrisburg Capital City Region advisory board.

"Our WITF board currently has 23 members, 13 of whom are women," said Pavelko. Her advice for women seeking service on a corporate board is to start by serving on a small, nonprofit board, adding scale and reach with each organization you serve.

"Volunteer for an organization you care about and make your interests known. The skills needed on nonprofit boards, which prepare you for service on public and private boards, always include financial acumen — both accounting and investments — and having a good, influential network. A willingness to fundraise is the single biggest calling card a prospective board member could offer a nonprofit board. Many board members are reluctant to fundraise, but those who are willing are highly valued. Experience in strategic planning, data analysis and IT are also attractive attributes," says Pavelko.

Participating in multimillion dollar capital campaigns introduces you to fundraising at a high level. The people you connect with and ask to donate are generally the most influential leaders and decision makers on boards in your region. With each fundraising ask, you are expanding your network and personal brand.

In addition to building your circle of influence, serving on chamber boards and committees can help you advance in leadership. Board nominations are often discovered through chamber recommendations and social organizations like Harrisburg Young Professionals. Distinguishing yourself keeps you top of mind when boards are seeking candidates.

"Don’t let the under-representation of women on boards hold you back, and don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder. Determine where the opportunities exist and develop a strategy to position yourself," said Jessica Meyers, owner of JEM Group, a Pennsylvania-headquartered construction firm. Meyers is a board member and past chair of AAA Central Penn, board member of The Salvation Army Harrisburg, and the first female board member of the former Metro Bank.

Running one of the most successful leadership training organizations in Pennsylvania, Una Martone is president and CEO of Leadership Harrisburg Area. "Class members and alumni should identify their areas of greatest passion, know their own strengths and skill sets, and be realistic about the amount of time they can give to board service."

Before actively seeking a board position, Martone advises: meet with the executive director, visit a board meeting, and talk to other board members to discover the "personality" of the board. Learn how to say no to requests that do not align with your interests, skills and available time.

Developing a personal brand, creating a board strategy, expanding your network, and serving on the audit, finance, and compensation committees in your organization are all stepping stones to board service.

With a commitment to intentionality, changing boardroom composition can begin today.

Anne Deeter Gallaher is the CEO and owner of the Deeter Gallaher Group LLC in Camp Hill.

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