All a board

The one phrase guaranteed to raise my blood pressure in any discussion about the underrepresentation of women on boards is “glass ceiling”. Why? Because in my opinion there is no such thing – and while women are encouraged to blame others for their failure to rise, there continues a criminal waste of educated and experienced minds that could be serving corporate governance.

The 2011 government-commissioned Davies report recommended a target of 25 per cent female representation on the boards of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies by 2015. In order to achieve this, Lord Davies said, 33 per cent of new board appointments would need to be women. But in the six months following the report’s publication, just 27 per cent of such appointments were women. Furthermore, the number of women with executive board positions has gone down overall.

So we are not yet there. Why not? Those unhappy with the pace of change tend to blame the demand side of the equation, from blinkered chairmen to old boys’ networks and lazy headhunters.

I sit on the steering committee of the 30% Club, which seeks to secure the commitment of individual chairmen to increasing the proportion of women on their boards. As its name suggests, we are aiming for a figure of 30 per cent by 2015.

But, crucially, the 30% Club is passionately anti-quota. Quotas won’t help anyone; female appointments made under a quota regime are so easily undermined as being “token”. Yes, demand is important, but so is supply. And it was to deal with this, the supply side of the equation, that I wrote Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women, which has just been published.

Women who are serious about getting to the top need to look at themselves as much as at the system and get themselves “board-ready”. With that in mind I thought it would be useful to look at some recent female board appointments and see what it was about these women that appealed to company chairmen. I invited eight such women to talk to me together about the key steps they took en route to the boardroom.

Get an MBA – but not just from anywhere

It’s not just the number of postgraduate degrees in management these women have that sets them apart, it is also the quality of the establishments where they studied. If you are an ambitious young woman thinking of doing an MBA, in my opinion you need to go and do it at the very best business school you can get into. I did mine at the London Business School.

Johanna Waterous, non-executive director of the FTSE 100 companies RSA Insurance and Wm Morrison, has one from Harvard, as does Alison Wood, global corporate development director at National Grid plc and board member of the aerospace and defence company Cobham. Credit Suisse’s Susan Kilsby has one from Yale; Helen Weir, a non-executive director at international brewer SABMiller, got hers at Stanford.

That’s not all, of course. Personally, I would like to see many more women getting a financial qualification, although in this group only Weir, who has a Chartered Institute of Management Accountants qualification and is a former finance director of both Kingfisher and Lloyds Banking Group, has used that route. However, it is one that many women have found very successful.

Waterous also advocates learning a language: “preferably Chinese”. Well, no one said it was going to be easy, but that’s the thing about postgraduate study – it helps push confidence to levels that men tend to take for granted. Wood says she has noticed that female graduates starting out are always asking the question “Am I capable?”. That’s a question most men wouldn’t even think of asking. So banish it!

Get specific experience – it counts

When Wood joined Cobham’s board, I remember thinking that the only surprising thing about the appointment was that it had not been made earlier. Prior to joining National Grid she had spent 17 years at British Aerospace and its successor companies, during which time she had worked extensively with defence procurement.

Similarly, Angie Risley’s appointment to Serco’s board last year made complete sense. Serco has more than 100,000 employees and Risley has spent her entire career in human resources: more than 15 years with Whitbread and now group director of human resources at Lloyds Banking Group.

The same goes for Judy Gibbons. She has built up experience and responsibilities across the internet from the start, including stints with HP, Apple and Microsoft’s entire MSN division. This route made her the perfect choice as a director for Guardian Media Group, which embraced digital far earlier than any other UK media company.

Always think long-range. “Be prepared and realistic about a first non-exec position and take roles at smaller companies, even if it’s not exactly the size of company you would like,” says Risley. “This will lead to more profile and better contacts, which in turn will help you to progress to the next [role]. It’s important that you are really interested in the business and believe you can make a contribution.”

Network, network, network

I do this mainly with a shotgun, but you don’t need to shoot game to get ahead. You do, however, have to really work at building networks and keeping them going. “Never underestimate the importance of maintaining relationships with people,” says Gay Huey Evans, a non-executive director of the London Stock Exchange and Aviva. Huey Evans helped set up the markets division of the newly formed Financial Services Authority in the late 1990s, and will have made contacts throughout the capital markets.

Of course, it helps if you have a job where you meet a lot of senior people – Kilsby was planning to be a doctor when she was persuaded to join the M&A team at First Boston straight out of top women’s college Wellesley. As a doctor she might still have met lots of connected people, although possibly not in a condition to help her career.

Kilsby is now a non-executive director at pharmaceutical company Shire. “Most men have natural networks in business,” she observes. “Women have to work harder to build and maintain theirs.” Waterous spent more than 20 years at McKinsey, and both Weir and Wood spent several years in the early stages of their career in management consultancy.

Get your profile out there (aka, advanced networking)

If you’re not out there, meeting people all the time (and, yes, doing your job brilliantly all the while, of course), then the chances are that the people who matter won’t think of you when that critical next-stage role arises. But building a profile doesn’t always come naturally. “Too many women are too modest about what they can do, and what they can and have achieved,” says Risley. “You need to put yourself out there and be proactive and positive in how you present yourself to others.”

This is where something called “thought leadership” comes into play – involvement with industry associations allows your thoughts to be heard while building that crucial profile.

Angela Knight is CEO of the British Bankers’ Association; Gay Huey Evans is deputy chairman of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, an organisation that she was involved with previously. Exposure to government is no bad thing either; Knight was economic secretary to the Treasury in the Major government.

The “third dimension”

This relates to your interests outside your work and home life, and we are not talking just pottering in the garden or painting watercolours. Waterous, a passionate gardener, serves as a trustee of the Kew Foundation. She also spent years, unpaid, helping prepare the Tate’s submission to the National Lottery for the funds to build Tate Modern, and served as chairman of its trading company Tate Enterprises – a clever use of her knowledge of retailing.

The other women here have all served in the not-for-profit world, which I advocate not just for contacts, but because it makes you a more interesting person. “You need to be someone that people want to be around,” says Wood.

You can’t “have it all”

The best way of destroying the glass-ceiling myth is to destroy the notion that women can “have it all”. You have to accept from the outset that, down the line, you will be making some hard choices if you want to get to the top. All of the women in our photo are, or have been, married, and all but two have children.

Weir, who recently stepped down from her position as retail banking director of Lloyds Banking Group after seven years, emphasises that while women will need to “trade things off” throughout their career, they should recognise that in order to progress they may need to make a decision to spend more time on work. “Inevitably you spend less time on yourself, your marriage and your friends, but if you put the time in, the rewards are very satisfying.”

Know what you want

Once you’ve stopped running yourself ragged attempting to have it all, you can sort out what your priorities in life are, and align them with your targets. It’s what Huey Evans describes as “knowing whether you want a job, or a career”. It may be that the corporate ladder is not the route that some women choose; ambition can be fulfilled in other ways. “As women look up they often see a wall of middle-aged men above them, almost a boys’ club,” says Gibbons. “You need to ask yourself if and how you can become part of it.

“If you can’t, or you don’t want to be part of it, starting your own business is an option that many women choose instead.” Interestingly, Gibbons has recently spent time as a partner in venture capital company Accel, helping to fund the entrepreneurs behind companies such as Facebook, Kayak, Spotify and Etsy.

Angela Knight is a chemist and earlier in her career set up her own company, a specialist contract heat-treatment company for precision engineering components. It meant that she could call the shots when it came to dividing time between work, family and her path to becoming MP for Erewash in 1992.

Learn how to say no

Saying no is a life skill, and women are notoriously bad at it when it counts. I consider it so important that I have devoted a whole chapter of my book to it. And it may seem odd to have to mention this, but when saying no, do please remember to include the actual word “No”. Don’t use some other word that you hope does the job. It usually doesn’t. “If you want to succeed you can’t say ‘yes’ to everyone who wants your time, you have to know when to say no – but still keep the business or the friendship,” says Knight.

This advice, of course, should be tempered early on – as Waterous argues, “Early on in your career, learn to say yes; later on, learn to say no.”

Glass ceiling? What glass ceiling?

The recent board appointments of our photo shoot women were not their first, which somewhat undermines the glass ceiling conspiracy theorists. Women, they say, are disadvantaged by the “Catch 22” of companies seeking non-executive directors requiring people with board experience.

But everyone, male or female, has to be appointed for the first time at some stage. That’s why, as mentioned before, it’s important to take roles at smaller companies en route to the top. Risley cut her teeth on the boards of Biffa and Arriva; Knight, a non-executive director of inter-dealer broker Tullett Prebon and private client broker Brewin Dolphin, was previously an NED of the Port Authority. The others have all served on earlier boards as well. “Many of the important breaks in my career have come along by chance,” says Huey Evans. “What is important is to recognise them and take them.”

It is interesting to see that these women have succeeded in worlds where men dominate: financial services, defence, engineering, politics. Perhaps the best advice, given by Susan Kilsby, is to “ignore gender in business. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ between men and women.”

So, ladies, it can be done. And chairmen, take note. There are more where these came from.

‘Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women’, by Mrs Moneypenny with Heather McGregor, is published by Penguin, £16.99.

For extended biographies of the women featured here see

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