There is a great scene in the Margaret Thatcher biopic, Iron Lady, when "Maggie" is contemplating a run for office and her two male political cohorts (all the cabinet members were male at the time) try to convince her she can win. She tells them how she feels she doesn't fit in, to which one of her cohorts proclaims "If I may say so - I think that’s your trump card."
What struck me while watching that movie is how Maggie felt she didn't fit in with the all-male cabinet in the 1970s and here we are in 2015 with so many women and minorities feeling the same way regarding Board of Director seats, C-level positions and sometimes entire industries (yes, I’m looking at you, gaming).
In the Bay Area and probably the world over, we know the slogan, "Think different." It is Steve Jobs’ singular message for success. And yet, when it comes to women on Boards, somehow this message is getting lost, particularly in tech and other Silicon Valley sectors. Many of us in the recruiting industry are striving to change that, not because of some nebulous concept of fairness, but because the companies we work for need diversity in their executive suites and boardrooms to remain competitive.
When working with public and private technology companies to attract women and minorities to their Boards, I am now deeply averse to creating fancy charts with check marks for education and skills. In the past, headhunters have been told, "This is what companies want and expect!" When I asked CEOs and seasoned Board members what they need in order to appreciate my diverse candidates, I learned they prefer the subjective narrative; they want to know the person they are getting.
For me to share the most qualified candidates with them I needed to showcasetheir differences and more importantly, I needed to be authentic. It wasn’t about showing the stakeholders how my candidate was exactly like everyone on their Board, it was about sharing the value a diverse candidate will bring. When solving a complicated problem, who would you rather add to the team – a fifth Ph.D. from the exact same school and background as the four you already have, or someone whose perspective is so new and fresh she can think of solutions that wouldn’t occur to anyone else in the room?
If you are a diverse candidate for a Board seat, you need to see your difference as an advantage. You may get sucked into believing you need some specific background; you may be told you need training to be on a Board. Is there some secret knowledge white males intrinsically have? For some reason, they are not expected or required to get training to secure a corporate Board seat.
Are we teaching women and minorities to be just like the majority Board members (typically, white males)? If so, that throws the intention of diversity, equity and inclusion out the window. Anyone can get training before, during or after securing the first Board seat, but nobody needs it to get there.
Here are three tips to secure that first Board seat, and beyond:
1) Position yourself - spend time with CEOs and individuals already on Boards. Ask them to consider you for Board opportunities. Let them know your value-add and strategize your career by adding skills and perspectives you don’t already have (e.g., P&L experience on the job, etc.).
2) Be willing to take risks, make decisions, and defend those decisions confidently. As author, Valerie Alexander, explains in How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace (Despite Having “Female Brains”), risk taking and quick decision-making are highly valued in corporate organizations, going back two million years when, in the face of great uncertainty, the hunters of the tribe had to throw the spear to kill the wooly mammoth or the tribe didn’t eat. We reward risk, we admire leaders; we value the one who puts out the fire much more highly than the one who prevents the fire from ever starting, so if fire prevention is your specialty – keep doing that! It’s important and brings a great deal of real value to the Board, but also be willing to step up and put out the fire when needed to get the recognition you deserve.
3) Recognize “Stereotype Threat.” It is exhausting spending all of your time trying not to "be" the stereotype, e.g., women in gaming working to be just like the men in gaming. Worse, this constant attempting to fit in has two negative outcomes: women and minorities fail to provide the alternative perspective the company truly needs, and ultimately they exit the industry, because it is too draining to constantly be playing a role instead of just naturally doing what you are already great at. Be yourself; work with your CEO or executive team to see the value in your difference.
If you want to achieve a seat on a Board of Directors and thrive once there, and bring the most value to the company or organization, don’t try to hide your difference, embrace it! Just like Maggie Thatcher did.