As the co-author of Women in High Gear and the owner of a company celebrating 20 years, I constantly survey women’s achievements—as entrepreneurs, on the op-ed pages, as leaders in our communities, and changing lives for the better on boards.
While we’ve made progress on the gender gap for boards of directors, we’re still playing catch-up with male executives. “But I haven’t been invited to serve,” you might be thinking. Invitation is no barrier to entry. If you want to effect positive change in your career and community, serving on a board is one of the best ways to make a difference. Here are five steps you can take to prepare to serve in 2020.
1) Start with nonprofit service. Women are reaching gender parity more quickly on nonprofit boards. They’re a solid training ground for learning board expectations and responsibilities. The Salvation Army Harrisburg has 19 women and 18 men serving on the board; the Central PA Food Bank has 11 women and 19 men serving; and WITF Public Media has 11 women and 9 men. Sitting at these decision-making tables allows you to showcase your strengths in strategy, influence, and finance, as well as help prepare you for future board positions.
“Many women are given consideration for human services boards, but fewer are given consideration on private or corporate boards. However, I’ve seen a shift recently in corporations making an effort to have more overall diversity on boards,” says Jessica Meyers, CEO of JEM Group, a construction firm headquartered in Harrisburg, who has served on boards of private companies, nonprofits, and higher education. “Women should identify boards they want to serve on and work to make strategic connections within those organizations. Understanding the nomination process, developing strong networks, and self-promotion are all keys to being considered for board seats.”
2) Master self-promotion. Create a list of intentions and choose two boards where you feel you would add great value. Look at the directors who are serving currently, and be prepared to explain how your skills would be impactful. What skills do boards require? For a publicly traded corporation, visit The Hershey Company’s board page. Their directors’ qualifications, attributes and skills are highly visible.
In the public relations industry, women often shy away from a personal PR campaign because they don’t want to appear like they’re bragging. But if no one knows how capable you are, or the depth of your skills, don’t expect any consideration. There is no board of invisibles. Companies and nonprofits need confident, smart, diverse, capable directors who bring tomorrow’s skills to the board today. And the first requirement is to believe in yourself!
3) Build diverse networks. In Coco Brown’s “5 Barriers to Gender Parity in the Boardroom,” she notes the differences in how women network and convene. “Women aren’t always visible, or aren’t visible in the right ways. … Women professionals spend too much time in circles of women and fail to realize their own worth.” Rather, Brown advises women to build networks that include men in leadership and the C-suite.
HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, uses a matrix to ensure a balance of race/ethnicity, age and profession. “The board and I regularly engage with individuals in our communities who may have already expressed an interest in serving as a College Trustee or Foundation Board member,” says John J. (Ski) Sygielski, president of HACC. “In addition, we advertise the position in traditional and non-traditional ways (social media) and, once a robust applicant pool is identified, the boards conduct thorough interviews ensuring the applicants at least meet or exceed the expectations established for these important positions.”
4) Be comfortable as the only one. I joined Urban Land Institute, an international land use planning organization, years ago and quickly became involved. I volunteered for Technical Assistance Panels and committees and was often the only female or one of a few in our groups. At the economic forecast breakfasts held at the Union League in Philadelphia, there were few women among the hundreds of dark suits. I looked at this as a marketing advantage, a chance to stand out as I introduced myself and networked.
Patti Husic, president and CEO of Centric Bank, is no stranger to being the first woman at a board table, and many times she has served as the only woman. She was the third female in 125 years to chair the Pennsylvania Bankers Association, and founded its Women in Banking conference—a sell-out event each year. One of American Banker’s 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking in the U.S., Husic is also recognized nationally for building a powerhouse female executive team with 60% of the C-suite female.
“Banking remains a male-dominated industry, but as I advanced in leadership and founded Centric Bank, I created opportunities and initiatives that provided a statewide platform for women to find their paths to the C-suite and the boardroom,” she says.
5) Be the example for the next generation. Last year, I was a judge for the Harrisburg Young Professionals’ inaugural 20 in Their 20s Awards. The 81 nominations revealed a remarkable cohort of young leaders, all rising stars, who are intentionally seeking leadership positions in business and philanthropy. And the women were excited to promote themselves. We need to be conscious of our leadership for these up-and-coming women professionals. They are looking at today’s women leaders for examples of how to navigate a path forward in business and service.
As you increase your influence, continue to develop board-ready qualifications. Attend executive education programs where you meet CEOs from around the world and expand your global network. And look for the next young woman whom you can mentor and prepare her for a seat at the table as well.
Anne Deeter Gallaher is owner/CEO of Deeter Gallaher Group, a PR firm headquartered in Camp Hill, PA and Nashville, TN. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.