Chairman of the Future: Diversity at the Top

By Helen Pitcher OBE, IDP-C, President of INSEAD Directors Network, Experienced Chairman, NED and Board Committee Chair

The sustainability of companies and businesses to contribute and benefit all of their stakeholders, is increasingly at the forefront of the minds of Politicians, Regulators, Society Pressure groups and Individuals.

Business of the future

The journey of Boards over the last 10 years towards greater diversity has seen a significant shift and we are starting to see the benefits of these more diverse Boards performing effectively in response to a wide range of challenges.  However, we also need to focus more fully on the diversity drive for the Chairman role, both to reflect these recent diversity gains on our Boards and to provide Leadership and a catalyst for increased change and action from our Boards.  It is time to stop the wastage of talent and get on with the job of facilitating women to achieve the top roles in our companies, we cannot afford to ignore 40% of the potential candidates.

The skills of chairman

The research from INSEAD suggests that there is very slow progress in this area, in the UK for example, if we do nothing, it will take until 2027 to achieve 20% of women as Chairman of our Boards (INSEAD Research by Professor Stanislav Shekshnia).  We need to accelerate the pace of change and ‘skip’ a male generation to drive the appointment of female Chairman more quickly and beyond that 20%.

As you look at the skills and expertise required to be an effective Chairman- the evidence for what makes an effective Chairman is very clear.  The skills that emerge as critical and defining are; an ability to influence others without dominating, having an engaged vision of the future, strong emotional intelligence and coaching skills. These Behavioural-Emotional skills are to the fore are with, the ability to build trust upon which people can rely.

“To be effective, Chairman must recognize that they are not commanders but facilitators. Their role is to create the conditions under which the Board can have productive group discussions. They should recognize that they are not first among equals. They are just the person responsible for making everyone on their board a good director.” (Professor Stanislav Shekshnia INSEAD-Leading from The Chair Programme).

Why do we need to accelerate the pace of change?

Without intervention the progress to women in the Chairman role is too slow; the target should be to get to 35% by 2025 and 50% by 2027.  While the general diversity debate has moved on, advancements towards Women Chairman are pitiful, with still too many active resistors, Headhunters, Chairman, Nominations Committees, and perpetuating stereotypes that you need 10 years Board experience to be considered.

More Women in the Chairman role can help rebuild the trust in our companies and build businesses that deliver business performance combined with social and environmental benefits, leading to greater sustainability in our society.  The social case for women Chairman is clear, ranging from societal benefits, to greater empowerment and inclusion of women, visible role models, as well as access to a broader talent pool and range of diverse skills.

There is a growing and enthusiastic enclave of advocates for the acceleration of progression of Women into the Chairman role across many influential groups, however there is still an inertia of action.  Consequently, in the UK we have started the ‘Diversity at the Top’ initiative as an advocacy group to focus on this Female Chairman issue.

Blockers to progress

Women themselves will also need to bolster their resolve, expressing the ambition to be Chairman and reducing their self-limiting belief that it is beyond their grasp.  They need to overcome the mind-set which causes them to seek to ‘over-qualify’ and be ‘over-capable’ before targeting themselves at the role.

Educating Nominations Committee members in how to formulate gender neutral job and person specifications is key, along with conducting a detailed skills audit of the Board with Diversity as a core dimension. This is best practice, but not universally applied.

Also, a shift needs to be made in the Recruitment-Development processes, moving from a stereotypical view of the Chairman role profile, towards a more creative resourcing, on-boarding and mentoring support process developing more appropriate role models.

There needs to be more active sponsorship and development of women at the Board level to engage with development for the Chairman role.  This needs to go beyond the typical Big Four Information sessions on Audit/Risk/Cyber/Governance, into a more creative development framework of Board level development. This will require women to step beyond the existing Board for their development, recognising that many Boards already have limited time allocated to develop knowledge and the interpersonal dynamics within the Boardroom.

We need to increase our ambition and pace of change; it is time to drive practical and direct action to accelerate the acquisition of more female Chairman right across our companies.

It is time to push through this current psychological log jam and actively discuss the facilitative and revolutionary evolution to remove this limiting mental model and stereotype of a Chairman.  There will need to be a concerted effort from Headhunters, Chairman, the media and the other wide range of interested groups to draw on available mentors and sponsors as well as to challenge thinking and make this happen.

As a practical step in the UK the ‘Diversity at the Top Initiative’ gathered together a group of likeminded people from a range of backgrounds who are committed to increasing the number of Female Chairman, as an exemplar of Board performance and a beacon for the diversity of their Executive pipelines.  This group has focused on ‘The Future of Woman Chairman’, over a series of meetings and discussions, and provided a spotlight on the issues and more importantly the potential solutions to this logjam.

A summary of their deliberations and Action Plan, identifying the most important areas to highlight to ‘move the dial’ can be accessed at here.

 

 

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