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25 October 2018

Beating the odds to become a company chair

Orna NiChionna, experienced Senior Independent Director

Women unfortunately need to be twice as good as men for the chance to chair a large company

Women in workplace
Women in workplace

This blog is adapted from a speech to the Board Network, 23 May 2018.

How can women beat the odds to become chairs of large companies? Chairship is only one piece in the jigsaw of pushing female empowerment in business. It may not even be the most important piece. But the chair is the person with the most power to change culture at the top, around the board table; and the chair is highly symbolic in the outside world. A chair gets offered platforms on which to speak – whether inside or outside the company – and from such a platform, you can promote the cause of women in business and in society.

There are more female chairs than 10 years ago. And there are a lot more female non-executive directors than 10 years ago, so perhaps that will feed through, but I’m doubtful. Women are getting into the non-executive roles with a reasonable degree of momentum. But we are not getting the very biggest roles.

Now it may be that the men who get the roles are simply much better chairs. But I doubt it: while I have worked with some excellent chairs, I know that many men who are currently chairing large companies, or have done in the past, are not that good at it. I know of many women who would do a better job. I know that that would be better for us, for the boards, for society. But women are not getting the chance to demonstrate that.

Walking through the process I see barriers arising from three sources: the nomination committee, led by the senior independent director (SID); the headhunters; and ourselves.

In theory, selecting a new chair is a measured, sophisticated process. In practice, it is often done under some time pressure, and usually led by someone who has never done it before, so it can be quite amateur. A headhunter will get chosen. The nomination committee will produce a brief. But that brief is often shallow: they default to wanting a recent CEO, and/or someone who is already chair of a big plc. The SID is under no pressure at all to produce a woman: he or she is under pressure to produce someone good, so he, or even she, is seriously risk-averse. Hiring a woman who has not been a CEO or a chair is a risk too far.

Now to the headhunters. The headhunters are skilled and networked and in tune with the strongest potential candidates. Perhaps there really were no suitable women out there who were not already chairs. But it is a surprisingly fragmented industry at the top. You may not be known to the headhunter – or only quasi-socially. And here is where we may let ourselves down: headhunters, understandably, are gatekeepers rather than mentors. If the headhunter’s experience of you was not deep enough – in part because you didn’t present yourself totally compellingly as a potential chair to that headhunter when you last met them some years ago – they will not envisage you acting as a chair.

But imagine that we do get onto the shortlist by some miracle, and thus get to interview with the company. The risk-averse dynamic applies: unless we perform perfectly at the first meeting, and in each subsequent interview, we will not get the role. They will choose the safer option – the man. They will choose him even if he too has never been a CEO or a chair, because he is a man and therefore less visible, less risky.

At interview we need to be twice as good as the men, to overcome the gaps in our CVs and the perceived risk in being different. I don’t think we quite realise that.

And finally – even if you get down to the final two, and references get taken – those references can be unintentionally counterproductive. I hear, or read, that women are diligent, hard-working, well-prepared, 'would be a great chair' when it should say 'will be a great chair'.

'Ready to be chair'. I have heard that several times. A patronising phrase, and I don’t recall reading it in any man’s reference.

So if these are the reasons – what can we do about them?

Well, do not sit waiting for things to happen. Change does not just happen – it needs to be managed. And at this level it is not being managed at all. In fact, we risk deluding ourselves that a machine is now grinding through and that female chairs will pop out; whereas in fact the odds of that are very low indeed.

Changing the odds of it happening means thinking and acting within some sort of systematic process and I have suggestions on three fronts about what different interested parties might do

First, change the context: turn up the volume on what it really takes to be a good chair. Those giants of men who want this to change can help. They can talk compellingly about the requirements of the role. Meanwhile, someone could survey boards and find out what they really think of their chairs – now and in the past – and how that correlates to whether the chair was, or was not, a CEO before. Define and discuss the qualities of excellent chairs. Train the SIDs in best practice when writing a brief to choose a chair. Nobody is doing that at present.

Second, headhunters should consider whether they could do more. Have they truly understood the talents and skills of all those lovely women with whom they have had desultory chats; have they filed the talents and capabilities of those women correctly, and updated them regularly? They should review their reference gathering and summarising process to check that they are not falling into some hidden traps.

Third, women who have the ambition to be chairs need to step up. You should work out what companies would be the best fit with you and who is the headhunter for that company – and call or write to the headhunters saying that you would like to be considered. That is what some men do. I bet most of us do not.

This is an important issue, in substance and in symbolism. We need a tsunami of change – not a temporary ripple. The steps that I have outlined above have no downside – they will accelerate the rise of women on boards as well as the rise of women in chair roles. They require action from the men who want to help us, from the headhunters, and from ourselves. So I do hope that some of you will have the time and energy to work with me to help make this important change happen.

Orna NiChionna has served on the boards of HMV, Bupa, Northern Foods, Saga, Royal Mail and Burberry plc, and has led, or been involved in, chair selection at each of those companies.