What Women on the Board Need to Know

Business a.m. - - CAREER - An­net Aris

IHAD THE OPPORTU NITY to sit down with two re­mark­able women and fel­low INSEAD alum­nae at the iW50 Sum­mit in June to dis­cuss where we had come from and our suc­cess­ful jour­neys to the board room. In ad­di­tion to our ex­pe­ri­ence at INSEAD, we have cer­tain things in com­mon but none of us have fol­lowed the tra­di­tional board di­rec­tor’s ca­reer path.

A trail­blazer at INSEAD, Hélène Ploix (INSEAD MBA ’68) de­scribed how she went from be­ing one of the first women MBA can­di­dates at the school, to serv­ing as chair of Pechel In­dus­tries, via po­si­tions in both the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors. Her de­sire for an MBA seemed im­pos­si­ble, even in the United States. As she wasn’t ac­cepted into UC Berke­ley’s MBA pro­gramme, she did a master’s in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion in­stead. Ploix took what was of­fered and then kept press­ing for what she wanted. For ex­am­ple, she joined McK­in­sey as a re­searcher (whilst her fel­low male MBA class­mate was hired as a con­sul­tant) and was then pro­moted to con­sul­tant half a year later. It wasn’t ex­actly the path she wanted but as she said, “I was hop­ing that I would turn it into a pos­i­tive step in my ca­reer” and it in­deed worked out that way.

Serendip­ity and learn­ing the un­ex­pected

My own ex­pe­ri­ence mir­rors Ploix’s in some ways. When I joined McK­in­sey in 1986 they also suggested that I join the re­search staff, as Ploix was asked to do, how­ever in my case they luck­ily agreed to my de­mand that I would join as a con­sul­tant or not at all. Dur­ing my 17 years with the con­sul­tancy, I was the first woman world­wide to be elected part­ner on a part­time ba­sis, for which I am still grate­ful.

CEO of ING Bank France Karien van Gen­nip (INSEAD MBA ‘95D), has had other chal­lenges. Dur­ing her ca­reer, van Gen­nip be­lieved that if she worked as hard, put in the same hours and per­formed at the same level, she would get as far as a man who started in the job at the same time as her. But over the years, she found that pro­mo­tions, as­sign­ments and new po­si­tions were of­fered to her male peers in a way that they weren’t to her. She re­alised that “if you don’t find this guy who’s will­ing to get a woman on his team, it’s not hap­pen­ing”.

Look­ing back, van Gen­nip sees how es­sen­tial open­minded men were to her suc­cess. When she was asked to serve in the Dutch gov­ern­ment by the then-prime min­is­ter, van Gen­nip told him she was in­ter­ested, but that she was also go­ing to start a fam­ily soon. His re­sponse was an im­por­tant ques­tion: If I don’t ask you now, what would that mean for the eman­ci­pa­tion of women in the Netherlands? Van Gen­nip went on to be­come the youngest min­is­ter of for­eign trade and first preg­nant cab­i­net mem­ber in the Netherlands in 2004.

After six years in pol­i­tics, van Gen­nip moved to ING, also thanks to an­other man who wanted more than just fill­ing his team with peo­ple who looked like him. She started in the bank­ing in­dus­try in Septem­ber 2008, a very chal­leng­ing time to be a banker – “be care­ful what you wish for” she re­minded us. She has been with ING, flour­ish­ing ever since.

Quo­tas, for bet­ter or worse

Ploix and I used to be the only women in our board­rooms, but that is no longer the case. Now there are very often three or four women on the same board. To get more women on the board, some coun­tries like France, Ger­many and Bel­gium have in­sti­tuted quo­tas for cer­tain com­pa­nies. Other coun­tries like the Netherlands and Spain have soft quo­tas, which don’t in­volve penal­ties if the num­ber of women isn’t met. Van Gen­nip re­ferred to quo­tas as “a last re­sort”. Ap­par­ently, it is a nec­es­sary step: At our cur­rent rate, with­out quo­tas, equal boards will be pos­si­ble only in a very dis­tant fu­ture.

Women di­rec­tors can’t just sit back and be quiet. Con­fronting un­con­scious bias is one way to help. For ex­am­ple, when a woman ex­ec­u­tive presents to the board, it’s im­por­tant for the woman board mem­ber to fo­cus the dis­cus­sion af­ter­wards and per­haps cor­rect any mis­un­der­stand­ing which can arise out of a dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tion style. “I think on both su­per­vi­sory and ex­ec­u­tive boards, you can re­ally make a dif­fer­ence,” van Gen­nip said.

Van Gen­nip also men­tioned ef­fec­tive ways to en­sure that women are hired or at least con­sid­ered for po­si­tions. One method is ask­ing the hir­ing com­mit­tee mem­bers to al­ways short­list at least one di­verse can­di­date among their top three. If you make com­mit­ments, things will change. When ING started its Ag­ile trans­for­ma­tion, it se­lected man­agers with pan­els made up of em­ploy­ees in a va­ri­ety of job func­tions (IT, mar­ket­ing and prod­uct de­vel­op­ment). These di­verse pan­els re­viewed the can­di­dates and “the out­come was there were many more women ap­pointed than be­fore”, ac­cord­ing to van Gen­nip.

Board dy­nam­ics

Once women are on the board, I be­lieve that part of our job as board mem­bers is to sup­port women in the com­pany and to use our in­flu­ence to help oth­ers move up.

“What I did and what I rec­om­mend is to re­ally spend time with new (fe­male) di­rec­tors as soon as they are ap­pointed and tell them about the dy­nam­ics of the board. Who is who, how it works, who has more in­flu­ence on what, and so on”, ex­plained Ploix. This helps them see where they fit. “Sec­ond you dis­cuss their spe­cific com­pe­ten­cies, where they can have a spe­cial im­pact even if they don’t know the com­pany and how they can play a role in the de­ci­sions”, she added.

In bank­ing, Ploix rec­om­mended that new di­rec­tors join the risk (or au­dit) com­mit­tee as an ob­server to bet­ter un­der­stand the com­pany. One woman who took up this sug­ges­tion years ago con­tin­ues to thank Ploix for this ad­vice.

She also suggested that board mem­bers re­quest an in­duc­tion pro­gramme tai­lored to their needs. When Ploix started on her first board, she asked to meet the ex­ec­u­tives one-on-one. This was un­ex­pected; pre­vi­ously “no­body had spent the day with them. But it was ac­cepted,” she said. As a re­sult of these one-on-one meet­ings, she learned more about the com­pany and was able to con­trib­ute to in­formed de­ci­sions.

Ploix also rec­om­mended to have din­ners with the board and top ex­ec­u­tives or with the chair and the nonex­ec­u­tives the evening be­fore a board meet­ing, as this can cre­ate a more co­he­sive work­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Ploix learned this as a board mem­ber in Eng­land. But as this was never done in France, she be­gan hav­ing din­ners at her own home with nonex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tors, “to share ex­pe­ri­ences in­for­mally”.


To get onto boards, the key is your track record, Ploix said. And for her, luck, as she de­scribes it. She had spring­boards into dif­fer­ent ca­reers, which gave her broad ex­pe­ri­ence as an ex­ec­u­tive. This led to her first board mem­ber­ship. The oth­ers fol­lowed quickly. Be­cause Ploix had served on sev­eral boards, she was asked to chair one. After four years as a board mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional Cham­ber of Com­merce, van Gen­nip was in­vited to be­come a vice chair, in recog­ni­tion of her im­pact over the years.

Build­ing that track record takes time. Ploix was in­ter­ested in cor­po­rate gover­nance from the be­gin­ning of her board ca­reer and grew a rep­u­ta­tion as an ex­pert in this field. She said, “You re­ally have to find where you can be rel­e­vant to the board and play with that.” In the cur­rent at­mos­phere, “if you have ex­pe­ri­ence with ac­tivists, that’s a com­pe­tence which would be looked for in boards.”

She re­minded us of the im­por­tance of speak­ing our minds. “Do not hes­i­tate to speak up if you are sure of your­self.” Many years ago, a board that Ploix had re­cently joined was con­tem­plat­ing what she con­sid­ered a dan­ger­ous path in re­la­tion to pen­sions. Based on her work on the board of the United Na­tions Joint Staff Pen­sion Fund, she knew how this par­tic­u­lar prob­lem could es­ca­late, so she spoke up, much to the amaze­ment of the board mem­bers. They lis­tened to her but un­for­tu­nately didn’t take her coun­sel to heart and paid the ex­act price she had pre­dicted.

Van Gen­nip agreed: “Speak up. Don’t let any­body keep you quiet with the man­woman dif­fer­ence”, re­fer­ring to the idea that a man is per­sis­tent, whereas a woman is whiny. Or a man is a vi­sion­ary, and a woman is dreamy. “If there is some­thing that you feel pas­sion­ate about, whether it’s some­thing that is go­ing in the right di­rec­tion or not, speak up, be­cause your gut feel­ing is the cul­mi­na­tion of ex­pe­ri­ence, re­flect­ing and fact”, she said.

She also dis­cussed the im­por­tance of both sides of men­tor­ship. Not only should women act as men­tors, they should also ac­cept help when it’s of­fered. Van Gen­nip re­called times when some­one at­tempted to men­tor her and “out of pride or the idea that I could do it my­self, I didn’t fully ac­cept it and I didn’t recog­nise it as a gift”.

An­other bit of ad­vice from van Gen­nip was the im­por­tance of au­then­tic­ity. “If you had seen me 20 years ago, I was in a man-like suit and be­haved like a man and now I am wear­ing a bright blue dress. Be your­self. If the other board mem­bers find your shoes too ‘fash­ion­able’ – don’t change, they’re your shoes. Be your­self.” Re­main­ing true to your­self makes you more com­fort­able in your role as a di­rec­tor.

In ad­di­tion to the wis­dom of these women, I have three tips. First, work on your per­sonal value propo­si­tion. My own is dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion. You can ful­fil a spe­cific need in a com­pany, but you need to look for it and, as you’ll see in my sec­ond tip, pro­mote it. Sec­ond, if you don’t have a C-suite ca­reer be­hind you, you have to make sure you are known for some­thing. Make speeches, write ar­ti­cles – be­come known in an area. Third, reach out to peo­ple, talk to head­hunters, but only do this after you un­der­stand your value propo­si­tion and then net­work. With­out the first two, net­work­ing won’t work.

What to fight for

At the iW50 Sum­mit, we were asked how to de­cide what to make an is­sue of, that is, what to fight for. Ploix re­sponded very clearly, “Don’t fight. See how you can con­trib­ute to the world to make it more ef­fi­cient and make bet­ter de­ci­sions. You don’t have to fight. You just have to find out how to be ef­fec­tive.”

Van Gen­nip re­minded us that get­ting onto a board is not “the holy grail in life”. Find­ing out what you’re good at and where your place is yields far more re­wards. “It could be a board or as a speech writer or with a char­ity or some­thing to­tally dif­fer­ent.”

The three of us came through INSEAD and had dif­fer­ent paths to boards, but I must echo what van Gen­nip said. Ask­ing your­self how to make the best de­ci­sion about your ca­reer isn’t nec­es­sar­ily about whether or not to join a board, for ex­am­ple, but it is al­ways about choos­ing the right cri­te­ria for that de­ci­sion. An­net Aris is a Se­nior Af­fil­i­ate Pro­fes­sor of Strat­egy at INSEAD. She is also a board mem­ber of Thomas Cook PLC in Lon­don, ASML N.V. in Veld­hoven, Rand­stad N.V. in Diemen, ASR Ned­er­land N.V. in Utrecht and Junghein­rich AG in Ham­burg. Aris was named one of the 50 most in­spi­ra­tional women in the Euro­pean tech­nol­ogy sec­tor for 2016 by In­spir­ing Fifty.

I think on both su­per­vi­sory and ex­ec­u­tive boards, you can re­ally make a dif­fer­ence

“This ar­ti­cle is re­pub­lished cour­tesy of INSEAD Knowl­edge(http://knowl­edge.insead.edu). Copy­right INSEAD 2018

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