Women in the boardroom: Natural leaders

No women have been appointed to the boards of FTSE 100 firms in the past year, yet companies with high-ranking female executives are shown to perform better. Maeve Hosea gathers advice from female high-flyers on how women can increase their chances of getting ahead

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In the FTSE100, not a single woman was appointed as an executive to the board in the past year – a fact that Cherie Booth pointed out earlier this month at an Evening Standard event.

This is compounded by the fact that companies with a female presence at the highest level outperform those with all-male boards, according to a July report by Credit Suisse. It shows that companies with a market capitalisation of more than $10bn (£6.3bn) and with women on their boards did 26 per cent better than those with only men at the top over six years.

H&M, Wells Fargo, Royal Bank of Canada, IBM, Google and PepsiCo are all main players in the global business landscape, visible through their willingness to take risks and desire to make a difference in their sphere.

They also all have women in board-level positions and are present on Millward Brown’s BrandZ list of the biggest global brands.

“We have valued the top 100 global brands and discovered that 77 have a woman on the board,” explains Peter Walshe, global BrandZ director.

“It is clearly the case with more successful companies and this is partly because they are more enlightened and partly because, being bigger, they have a greater concern with a greater ‘universe’ of customers.”

Bigger and broader representation closer to the population means that companies can engage better and businesses that are not deploying female high-achievers could be missing out on a vast array of talent.

“I’m not at all surprised by these figures and to me it’s quite a logical finding that if your board has balanced and diverse opinions, skills and approaches, it will be more successful than if it doesn’t,” says Judith Denby, chief marketing officer (CMO) at Krispy Kreme in the UK. 

judith denby
Judith Denby, CMO, Krispy Kreme

“There are many talented and successful women in the workforce now, so why wouldn’t they be on the board? Customers are both male and female so it makes total sense that the businesses and brands they buy from reflect their customers.”

Denby’s own career choices and progress have reflected both her professional ambitions and what her employers considered her capable of. She started as a pastry chef, moved on to product development and then went into marketing.

“My journey has been anchored in working in roles that I’m genuinely interested in and passionate about,” she explains. “My role today still draws directly on the experiences I’ve gained along the way as I’ve learned my trade from many different angles.”

Kerris Bright is well known for her role in turning around the fortunes of the Dulux brand when she was CMO at ICI Paints, as well as for helping to improve public trust in British Airways with her involvement in its “To Fly: To Serve” campaign. She is clear about what has brought her to the top: “Hard graft, working alongside brilliant people, drive, building good relationships and hopefully some talent.

kerris bright
Kerris Bright, CMO of Ideal Standard International

“Also, the good fortune to start my marketing career in Unilever – a great and generous company that was prepared to believe [someone with] a phD in molecular neuroscience could be a marketer. As a company for which brands are the lifeblood, it was a wonderful training ground for a marketer.”

Bright, now CMO of Ideal Standard International, believes great women leaders have qualities that stand out from those men traditionally possess: “In my experience, women tend to work harder, are more conscientious, so they are often better prepared, are good at dealing with complexity and ambiguity and consider many different perspectives on a problem before reaching a conclusion – so they tend to make better decisions,” she argues.

“They are also brave and not afraid of addressing the elephant in the room, helping the business tackle the real issues.”

Karen Linder, author of ‘The Women of Berkshire Hathaway: Lessons from Warren Buffett’s Female CEOs and Directors,’ also believes women offer something distinctive in the workplace: “They don’t adopt male personality characteristics but instead use their unique personal strengths to solve problems, create a corporate culture and continually evaluate and recognise opportunities as they arise.

“They bring previously untapped insights into strategic planning, personnel management and corporate responsibility.”

“In a world that often lacks strong visible role models for women in business, the women Linder cites – including former Yahoo! president Susan Decker and Cathy Baron Tamraz, CEO of Business Wire – illustrate how women can pursue any field that interests them and lead top companies.

“Successful female CEOs all have what I call the ABCs: ability, belief and courage,” comments Linder. “They possess the skills and knowledge required to perform their jobs, believe and know that what they are doing is important and have the courage to take action and make decisions using their skills and beliefs.”

Carolyn McCall, CEO of Easyjet, started out as a teacher, went on to work in planning and marketing and then moved into sales. “Milestones have always been very clear and I felt I was learning at every step of the way during my career,” she says. “It always felt as though I was adding to my experience and that I enjoyed it – I have never had a job throughout that whole period that I didn’t like.”

Carolyn Easyjet
Carolyn McCall, CEO, Easyjet

She doesn’t believe her gender has any currency in her own career successes but she thinks women are still under-represented at the top and is keen to grow the pipeline of female talent. “I will always mentor and coach because I recognise that there are issues,” she says.

“You need increasing numbers of women in executive senior positions. They don’t have to be CEOs but they do have to have real executive line responsibility to be the next generation of chief executives, chief financial or marketing officers – the people who sit on corporate boards.”

Professor Susan Vinnicombe, who heads the International Centre for Women Leaders at Cranfield University, has research interests in gender diversity on corporate boards, women’s leadership styles and the issues involved in women developing their managerial careers.

She says women in corporate roles tend to be as skilled and experienced as men but have different sorts of career paths, which may hinder them: “Men are more likely to have deeply structured careers in one company and more international and general management experience,” she comments. “Women’s careers often take different tacks and they are often in support positions, such as marketing or customer relations.”

The way to fight the ongoing indirect discrimination against women and achieve more female executive directorships is to have better internal management processes and make it more attractive for women to get to the top, she says.

“Women not only want to work for companies that are good but also for companies where they can see that women get promoted,” says Vinnicombe. “You get better development of women in companies where there are women at the top because there is a sensitivity to the kinds of issues women will face in male-dominated organisations.”

Leading the consumer and commercial marketing teams, Philippa Snare, CMO of Microsoft UK, says her business is continually looking at ways to attract more women to the industry. Methods of doing this include a female leadership development training programme, Women in IT networking events, and annual ‘Digigirlz’ events for local schoolgirls to learn about careers in technology.

Within the framework of the business, she looks ahead to the new generation of women in senior roles who have worked their way through the process and systems to influence change from the top. “This will be crucial in helping to close the gender gap,” says Snare. “Moving to a more nimble economy with more flexible working practices would open up opportunities for women to shine and become business leaders in the future.”

Snare says her own career has been aided by mentors who helped her stop worrying about ‘false’ achievements, such as hierarchy and position and instead concentrate on happiness and fulfilment. “The most significant moves I have made have always been about the topic or the challenge of the next role and never about position or package,” she explains. “That is certainly true of my role now because I’m really keen to see if I can make a difference in the way Microsoft is perceived in the UK.”

Forward-looking companies understand that the culture and spirit leaders build in an organisation is pivotal to its future achievements. Looking back on the past 16 years at Xerox, CMO Christa Carone says the way she has added value to her organisation and achieved her career position is simply a combination of luck with hard work.

Christina Carone
Christina Carone, Xerox CMO

“I have never felt discriminated against because I was a woman or felt that it was a barrier or an obstacle to my success,” says Carone. “That is the good fortune of working for a company like Xerox, which embraces diversity and focuses on inclusion in the workplace.”

Xerox is able to make its working culture part of its business proposition in a way that attracts talent and cradles success. “In recent years, senior management has focused on bringing in a more diverse workforce, and from there we have focused on equal opportunity for promotions,” says Carone.

“We joke that it was some insightful, white caucasian man who looked around and realised that our customer base was much more diverse than the people within the organisation.”

Besides all the common-sense reasons to have women represented in the boardroom, it makes solid business sense – yet the scarcity of women on FTSE boards shows there is still some way to go.

Technological strides

Technology is changing lives and some believe it is making small changes in the corporate sphere, too, by making roles and opportunities available to women that were previously reserved for their male counterparts.

Meg Whitman has taken the helm as chief executive at HP. Since 2011, Blair Christie has been shaping the global reputation and perception of Cisco. This summer, Marissa Mayer, who was Google’s first female engineer and its 20th employee when she joined in 1999, has been named CEO of Yahoo.

Meanwhile, Skype has appointed Elisa Steele as its CMO. “Skype is all about impacting people by bringing them together whenever they are apart, and that is something I am very passionate about,” says Steele. “A diverse group of people making decisions together simply make better ones.”

However, as Zuzanna Pasierbinska-Wilson, the CMO at cloud company Huddle points out, less than 6 per cent of the top 500 companies in technology are run by women. While she calls this figure “depressing,” she hopes that things will change. “I hope that in the coming years, as our society evolves, we will see an explosion of women’s presence in senior roles across all industries.”

Her advice to people who want to make it to the top? “Change jobs to garner experience. Do an MBA. If being a CMO is what you believe you’re cut out for, take no bullshit from anyone and persevere. It just may be worth it in the end.”

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