“Women tend to see the organization as more of a living thing,” said one former CEO and current board member.
It still surprises me (though it oughtn’t) that women are increasingly found in positions of leadership. Sometimes due to increasing necessity (as in developing countries), sometimes due to increasing opportunity (as in developed countries) however grudginly granted. Norway recently had to be forced by law to accept women on publicly-traded company boards in any sort of real numbers.
Here is an interesting take on the benefits of having women in board rooms, as discovered by Karen Sweetman after a week of interviewing the sponsor of the legislation, then-Minister of Trade Ansgar Gabrielsen, and a host of Norwegian board members and chairs.
July 27, 2009
by Kate Sweetman
It takes an open mind to incorporate the lessons that Norway can teach the rest of the world about the value of women on corporate boards. Two years ago, most publicly-traded Norwegian boards themselves had to be forced by law to accept women in any sort of real numbers. Traditional feminists (if there is such a term!) who believe that men and women are not only equal but the same may be tempted to reject the positive differences between men and women that the Norwegian board members say they experience. And men in charge of corporations everywhere who have genuinely tried to on-board women and either 1) not found them, or 2) found them lacking will have to re-examine how well they actually tackled that task.
In a week of interviewing the sponsor of the legislation, then-Minister of Trade Ansgar Gabrielsen, and a host of Norwegian board members and chairs, I heard them say:
…that women as a group provide particular, identifiable benefits to boards.
Women, in sufficient numbers, change board dynamics for the better. Why? Because as a group, women tend to display a different set of characteristics from men as a group — characteristics that broaden discussions, reduce unnecessary risks that a corporation takes on, and punish people who would increase foolish risks.
For instance, women tend to demand more facts and details. Said one former CEO and current board member: “If I had to generalize about the differences between men and women on boards? Women are more interested in getting the facts. Much more prepared; ask many more questions. Men tend to shoot from the hip. Women on boards are also more interested in how the organization will actually work. Think of an acquisition or a re-org to take a company more global. When women are in the discussion, they ask questions like: ‘Don’t just show me the Powerpoint. Who are these people? What are their responsibilities? Matrix type questions. Women tend to see the organization as more of a living thing.”
Women also tend to be more independent. When Statoil Hydro was confronted with its own malfeasance in Iran a couple of years ago (bribes paid to secure access to oil fields): “The board did not handle it well. The chairman was informed about possible corruption but gave no reaction. The CEO also failed to act. It was the women members of the board who drove the change.”
Women are less about jockeying for position in the group, and more about understanding and solving the problem with as much information as feasible: “In my observation, women don’t drive for prestige as much as men do,” said one experienced male board chair. “They are more frustrated when they can’t get their arms around everything that has to be done — but no executive can do everything that has to be done. Women are more diligent and responsible — they prefer to take on what they can get done, rather than simply take things on. Women tend to be more honest about their shortcomings than men are, and that puts them at a disadvantage.”
…that most women need support to enter the board successfully.
Women need encouragement. Observed one long-time female board member (and former CEO): “Even very successful women need more encouragement.” This includes recognizing their style. For example: “Women need all of their ducks in a row to feel confident. Women spend much more time preparing presentations. Men shoot from the hip more.”
Women need coaching. Jannik Lindbaek, former Chairman of the Board of StatoilHydro, likes to support women entering what he calls “the fraternity of men” on boards: “I help her to identify the stereotypes she will encounter so she knows what she is dealing with. I give her the tools to handle the social process she is entering into. This includes hints for how to handle the first board meeting, advice on what to do and what not to do. I also give advice on how to ask questions — and which questions to avoid…I help them to distinguish between curiosity and relevance.”
Finally, women need to make men feel at ease around them. Many board members I talked to observed that many men feel insecure in the company of women. The women can choose to help to make them feel more comfortable.
…that the leadership task of the Chairman of the Board is harder on a diverse board.
This message came through loud and clear. A very diverse board is much more difficult to lead than a homogeneous one: harder to prepare for the meeting, harder to organize the agenda, harder to manage the group and harder to steer members toward a decision. The advice they share to other chairs:
- Prepare yourself as Chair. The Board Chair needs to think through and act on the dynamics of the diverse team. Be willing to work communications outside of the meeting room. Give feedback that lets members know what they are doing that helps the board (doing their homework, for example), and when they are letting it down (shutting down other board members, for example).
- Be clear about the demands you must make of others. “On a diverse board, everyone needs to be prepared,” as one person told me. “If they are not ready to participate, then the value of their diversity is lost.”
- Make everyone feel valued: build trust. “Diversity on the board changes the job of the leader of the board. The leader needs to let the discussion open up, let the discussion flow. In terms of time, spend less time on the management presentation and more time on discussion. Allow the board members to speak their minds. Let them open up and speak.”
How can we get more women on Boards in the US? In other countries? Do you think that companies would be run any differently?
Kate Sweetman, a former editor at the Harvard Business Review and co-author of The Leadership Code: 5 Rules to Lead By, creates leadership development solutions at the individual, group and organizational levels. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.