By Helen Pitcher OBE, Chair of Advanced Boardroom Solutions
With more women as board chairs, business can better serve society.
Companies should benefit all their stakeholders. This is increasingly on the minds of regulators, activists, politicians, pension investors and individuals of this world. As Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of Blackrock, wrote in his 2019 Letter to CEOs, “society is increasingly looking to companies, both public and private, to address pressing social and economic issues”.
If we want boards to deliver benefits for a wider stakeholder group – and stop focusing on short-term profits – we need to shift the dial on women becoming chair of these boards. Failing that, the corporate landscape won’t change.
While there are excellent male chairs, too many are products of the old boys’ network. These men pay scant attention to their increasing accountability towards stakeholders beyond their shareholders. In the United Kingdom, the days of the Financial Reporting Council (the watchdog for auditors, accountants and actuaries) are now numbered after it was embroiled in one controversy too many.
Why more women chairs is a game changer
McKinsey & Company has a long history of published reports that have established the business case for diversity. Organisations with greater gender diversity outperform others, typically have a healthier risk profile and make better investment decisions. All of this generates greater client and customer satisfaction.
Based on peer-reviewed research, surveys and anecdotal evidence, we now know what makes an effective board chair. Beyond the obvious group of traits including integrity, personal strength, courage and intelligence, the critical skills are:
an ability to influence others without dominating
an engaged vision of the future
strong emotional intelligence
If we schematise the skills of an effective chairperson, it may look like this:
At the base of the pyramid lie the rules-based, measurable hard skills. While they are necessary, they can be taught and learnt.
At the top of the pyramid, we find the intuition-based soft skills that require a high emotional quotient (EQ). Those skills can only be developed through experience, practice and internal focus.
EQ & soft skills are more often associated with women than men. Though differences between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits have little bearing on the attributes of individual men and women, research does not support the notion that men are somehow better suited to the chairperson role.
It should be clear that women are just as capable as men in directing and chairing our companies. Furthermore, they have as much right to succeed, and fail, as their male counterparts do. Our reservoir of chair talent is not so great that we can afford to ignore 50 percent of the potential candidates.
Time to accelerate the pace of change
As the leaders of our companies are called upon to strengthen their engagement with society and all stakeholders, we need to better understand and articulate what a chair role entails. The “job description” must move beyond the domineering CEO stereotype, with its descriptors of drive, ambition and ruthlessness.
The soft skills of facilitation, collaboration, listening, synthesising, defusing conflict and ensuring consensus are the hallmarks of a successful chair. At the other end of the spectrum, directive, overly assertive and antagonistic are the traits of an ineffective chair.
By acting as role models, women chairs can provide additional societal benefits. For instance, they can act as a driving force for empowerment and to promote the inclusion of a broader talent pool. In the UK, advocates of increased acceleration of women in chair roles are multiplying. They include existing female directors, the Women on Boards network, the International Women’s Forum (IWF), Men as Change Agents (MACA), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Institute of Directors (IoD) and the 30% Club.
While the positive pressure for more diverse boards does show results, the action on women chairs is far behind. Too many active resistors – including old-style chairmen and nomination committees – continue to reinforce the false idea that chairs must have at least a decade of board work under their belt. Head hunters tend to say that female chairs are difficult to find, repeating a narrative they used before national targets were established for women on boards. The statistics show this is not true.
Stopping the erosion of trust in business
We need a strong push to free boards held hostage by reductionist thinking. According to research by INSEAD Professor Stanislav Shekshnia, only 20 percent of boards in the UK will be women-led by 2027. This is not enough. It is time to take action to accelerate the acquisition of more female chairs, right across the public and private corporate environment.
In the UK, the new Combined Code with its cap of nine years of service on a single board will create more churn. Investment companies must start asking mediocre chairmen to step down. Women need a greater number of enthusiastic sponsors and more board-level development. I challenge more female directors to aim for the top role.
Having more women chairs will help rebuild the trust in our corporate environment and foster businesses that deliver performance mixed with social and environmental benefits. It may just be the key to a new era of sustainable long-term profit.
To tap the full potential of these agents for change, organisations must listen and push beyond assumptions.
Carolyn was thrilled when she was offered a role in China. A high flyer in her Dutch organisation and fluent in Mandarin, she believed this was the perfect opportunity to get the international experience that she wanted. However, her boss suggested that it would be difficult for a woman to lead a team for this particular project in China. While his intentions might have been good, his comments left her feeling vulnerable to concerns about gender bias and her ability to handle it.
She knew that the decisions she would have to make in an unfamiliar context would be scrutinised. Carolyn could run into difficulties related to language. While these factors risked eroding some of her self-confidence, she was determined to enter this complex negotiation and decision-making arena. Due to her gender and culture, Carolyn was used to standing out and knew how to benefit from different perspectives. She would probably need to be much better than the men who had previously held the same position to be appreciated. Continue reading →
By Benjamin Kessler, Managing Editor; Clarissa Cortland, INSEAD Post-Doctoral Research Fellow; and Zoe Kinias, INSEAD Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour
To enable women’s advancement where it’s needed most, individual, interpersonal and institutional changes are required.
When it comes to developing gender balance, organisations in male-dominated fields such as venture capital, STEM and the “greedy professions” (as well as in leadership roles within most companies) have a two-fold problem. First, they may face challenges in recruiting women: Deeply entrenched gender stereotypes about which jobs are appropriate for women can affect both women’s career aspirations and hiring managers’ decisions. Second, many women bravely venture into these organisations only to confront a steeper path to advancement than their male peers. In the finance industry, for example, the representation of women across all levels declines from nearly 50 percent to a mere 15 percent as one ascends from the professional to the executive level.
The INSEAD Gender Initiative’s 2019 Women at Work conference, recently held in Singapore, concluded with a research session on how organisations can dislodge the built-up biases that impede women’s career progress, creating new pathways to leadership for deserving women.
The glass cliff
What can be worse than organisations without meaningful career opportunities for women? Arguably, those offering opportunities that can actually be traps. First recognised in a 2005 paper by Professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam at the University of Exeter, the “glass cliff” is a widely noted phenomenon whereby women are installed as leaders at times of potential crisis, thus essentially being set up to fail.
At the INSEAD conference, Ryan said she became aware of this “think crisis – think female” association after reading an article in TheTimes newspaper, which argued gender balance was bad for business, citing supposed linkages between the presence of women directors and corporate underperformance. Using detailed archival examination, Ryan’s subsequent research found that the newspaper got the causation backwards. It wasn’t that having women on the board was a liability, but rather that women tended to be appointed at moments of poor company performance (as measured by a decline in share price).
Why are women singled out for these unenviable posts? “Stereotypes of women mediate that effect,” Ryan says. “We think women are good at crisis, but we also think women make good scapegoats.”
In later research, Ryan and her co-authors tested the behavioural basis for the glass cliff, launching several studies in which participants were asked to nominate a leader for a fictitious company that was either flourishing or in decline. Men were chosen slightly more often than women to helm successful companies. When the company was in trouble, both male and female participants showed a clear preference for women.
As the concept of the glass cliff gained recognition, some studies and articles appeared purporting to debunk it, while others presented confirming evidence. Apparently contradictory findings may create confusion as to whether the glass cliff is real or not. Ryan has recently tried to make sense of it all with a meta-analysis of all available data relevant to the concept. She found a “small but significant” overall effect, affecting women as well as racial/ethnic minorities who end up balancing precariously on the edge in newly appointed positions of leadership. In related work, Ryan finds that this glass cliff effect varies in size depending on a number of factors. For example, when the new leader is well supported and has more financial resources, the crisis leadership situation is no more likely to bring in a woman leader. It is really the most precarious leadership positions that compel decision makers to see women as a better fit than men.
That the glass cliff is a contingent phenomenon does not make it any less real. Ryan explained: “It didn’t start from theory; it was an explanatory mechanism for data that were out there,” she says. The glass cliff is not universal, but it offers an explanation that sheds light on a set of circumstances that unites women leaders as disparate as Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who were handed the rudder of unwieldy ships at moments made especially perilous by their immediate male predecessors.
Ryan’s research underscores a clear need: Companies (and governments) must provide women and minority leaders with a broader range of opportunities to enable them to also show what they can achieve when all is working smoothly.
The emotional basis of backlash
Despite leaders’ good intentions, many men within predominantly male organisations actively resist working with and for women. Backlash has serious implications for women’s advancement, both in its subtler forms and when it manifests as outright sabotage.
Managers should strive to create processes to prevent bias and address discriminatory behaviour swiftly and decisively. In addition, Chiara Trombini, Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, suggests that a psychological intervention that addresses negative emotional reactions could be key to reducing backlash.
Trombini theorises that some men may be unsettled by the stereotype-shattering prospect of a more gender-balanced workplace. This is especially true when women display more assertive behaviour that goes against cultural and societal norms. Men’s feelings of anxiety and threat thus give rise to backlash.
Fortunately, there is a simple intervention proven to calm those exact emotions: self-affirmation. It involves asking people to reflect upon the values that matter most to them or to think about the best version of themselves. The exercise is designed to boost psychological resilience and offer protection from self-doubt in ways that subsequently reduce defensive reactions to threatening information.
Trombini and her co-authors carried out a series of studies with men and women participants to test the emotional threat hypothesis. First, participants were shown videos of women negotiating assertively during a job interview. Then, they were asked to put themselves in the place of a hiring manager. One group of participants did a self-affirmation exercise prior to viewing the videos; a control group did not. No differences were found between the women in the two groups. Among the men, however, the values-affirmed group displayed much more openness to the women interviewees in the video who negotiated assertively, indicating that self-affirmation can lead men to be more accepting of assertive women.
A later study bore out Trombini’s hypothesis about the emotions that precipitate backlash. After viewing videos, participants rated their own feelings of anxiety and apprehension, as well as how hostile and arrogant they felt the job-seeker in the video was. Replicating the first study, the self-affirmation exercise didn’t influence how women participants rated the job-seeker. For men, however, there was a difference. The control group participants perceived both their own anxiety and the job-seeker hostility as higher than did the self-affirmed men similarly evaluating an assertive woman.
In the final study, the researchers manipulated men’s anxiety levels by exposing them either to hyper-competitive, stereotypically masculine work norms (such as overt displays of confidence and physical stamina) in the high anxiety condition, or to psychologically safe work norms (such as collaboration, sharing and valuing others’ perspectives) in the low anxiety condition. Participants then chose between assisting a woman in a demanding task or withholding help (i.e. sabotage). As expected, anxious men were more likely to sabotage, unless they were self-affirmed.
Trombini’s research has implications for corporate cultures and the norms and values they espouse in a larger sense. “Anxiety is important in context,” she says. “Organisations where stress plays a role have heightened potential for stereotyping.” Overall, and especially in high anxiety contexts, self-affirmation can protect against bias by helping men to feel more secure.
Combating backlash is an important strategic objective in addressing bias that prevents women from advancing in masculine spaces. An equally crucial objective is cultivating active support for gender balance amongst the male majority – enabling men to be allies.
In research presented at last year’s Women at Work conference, Toni Schmader, the Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology at the University of British Columbia, and her co-authors discovered that conversations with male – and only male – colleagues that were not experienced positively were linked to increased burnout and social identity threat among female STEM professionals. In other words, the absence of clear male allies may hold women back in ways that parallel clear-cut incidents of bias.
At this year’s conference, Schmader talked about her role as co-leader of a research team called Project RISE (Realising Identity-Safe Environments), where she is about to launch a workshop designed to foster gender inclusion in STEM. Her team will recruit more than 400 scientists and engineers working in team environments as workshop participants. “Both men and women say they are highly motivated to be allies in their organisation, but they’re not quite sure how to go about doing it,” Schmader says. The Project RISE workshop will focus on laying the emotional groundwork for allyship as well as developing the necessary skills.
Two features of the workshop show particular promise, as reflected in pilot data. One key component is the affirmation of shared values, which lowers social identity threat for both women and men. Another is a dialogue task where two-person teams respond to questions about diversity and implicit bias, such as “What is one of your biggest concerns or worries when talking about gender bias issues?” In a trial run involving engineering students, both men and women – but especially men – found these dialogues beneficial when their conversation partner was of the other gender.
An honest conversation between two people can be surprisingly impactful, Schmader says. “The more men converse with women about bias, the more they show an increase in the ability to take women’s perspective and believe women can succeed, and there is an indirect effect on support for gender-inclusive policies as well.”
A multileveled approach
Qualified women must perceive that avenues to success are available to them within an organisation. For that to happen, organisations should increase the visibility of female role models and make a concerted effort to signal a wider cultural shift.
In her own talk, INSEAD’s Clarissa Cortland described how the year-long iW50 campaign – spanning the 2017-18 academic year and celebrating the past and present of women at INSEAD, as well as the vision for the future – delivered on three conceptual pillars:
Highlighting gender-balanced models of leadership through communications campaigns both on- and offline, prominent women speaking on campus, etc.
Raising awareness through research, alumni- and student-led events
Engaging men in all INSEAD communities, including faculty, staff, alumni, and notably via the introduction of an official group of male MBA allies called Manbassadors
The iW50 campaign may be over, but the work of the INSEAD Gender Initiative continues. In any large organisation, there is always the danger that progress will pause when gender balance is no longer top of mind. Empowering women to achieve their full potential in spaces where they are underrepresented is not a one-off project, but a long-haul effort requiring maintenance and frequent reassessment.
As INSEAD Gender Initiative’s leader Zoe Kinias said at the conclusion of the conference, “Diversity initiatives need to be perceived and enacted more like change management.”
What dozens of experienced CEOs wish someone had told them before they assumed the hot seat.
“Aspiring CEOs need to be careful what they wish for; the job has its downsides too.” – A seasoned CEO
Many business school graduates see the CEO job as the pinnacle of one’s career. As a result, they work hard to get there or, if they feel their path is blocked, leave the big company to become CEO of their own start-up, sometimes with huge success. Yet those who achieve that hallowed CEO status often face enormous unforeseen challenges that make them wonder whether it was all worth it. And with good reason, because these challenges tend to lead to increased stress. This, in turn, has a detrimental impact on their career and home life.
However, companies can be coy about their senior executives’ health. When a CEO needs to take a leave of absence it is normally put down to “exhaustion” or “overload”. It is almost unheard-of for companies to admit this fatigue is due to stress. Elon Musk himself admitted to the New York Times in 2018 that stress is taking a heavy toll on his life. And in 2015, then-newly-appointed United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz reportedly suffered a heart attack soon after starting his role (a number of studies link stress to heart disease).
As an executive coach working with new CEOs, I am familiar with the rollercoaster ride that some experience. I thought it would be of value to those wanting the top job (or are new to the CEO role) if they knew in advance what to expect and how to transition from job stress to job success.
So, I asked 84 CEOs from around the world, whose firms range from SMEs to global multinationals, about their biggest challenges in their first months as a CEO. I also queried them on the impact of these challenges and how they addressed them (or wish they had addressed them).
The biggest challenges
Seven problems were most frequently mentioned:
Feeling trapped and viewing themselves as slaves to the business: Their huge sense of obligation meant that most were unable to ‘switch off’ even at weekends.
Feeling dazed and confused, even skeptical, and not knowing whom to believe: A consistent theme of “Who tells me the truth?” came through. My earlier research and my piece for Harvard Business Review also highlighted this struggle to find the truth.
Lacking credibility and wondering how to earn the respect of their team: If they have come up through the ranks, they face the delicate and daunting task of leading their former peers. If new to the business, they must prove themselves with no internal track record to rely on.
Dealing with huge self-doubt: Some new CEOs fear they are not up to the job and lack the skills and mindset needed to be successful.
Feeling lonely: It may seem hackneyed, but it really is lonely at the top. When new in their role, CEOs yearn for a knowledgeable confidant and independent sounding board.
Getting addicted to the job: “You become king of the castle, the ruler of the land,” jokingly remarked one CEO. But for many, the sense of power and control becomes addictive.
Sacrificing home life: The job addiction can mean a complete lack of work-life balance. New CEOs can become so immersed in the business that they lose sight of their life outside work. Many remarked that they didn’t see their kids as much as they wanted to.
Strategies to transition from job stress to job success
The chief consequence of these challenges is stress. The 84 CEOs I consulted, and those CEOs I’ve coached over the past 17 years, used a portfolio of coping strategies to help neutralize the stress and ensure their success. These include:
Scheduling time to think: The CEO role can be all-consuming as everyone wants to have your ear. However, consciously carving out free time, even if it’s just two 30-minute slots a week, will allow you to reflect on your thoughts and feelings, and take a more objective view.
Upgrading your leadership: Your leadership and communication style may need to be refreshed. One new CEO requested to go on a senior leadership course as a condition for taking the job. This was brave, as it could have been interpreted as a sign of weakness.
Making your top team ‘click’: New CEOs ensure they have the right team in place. They ask themselves fundamental questions about the quality of their direct reports: Could I work with this person? What could I learn from them? Do they focus on getting the job done rather than politicking? They then replace those that don’t make the grade. External specialist coaches are often called in to work with the team, so honest, open and direct conversations become the norm.
Checking the organisational reality: CEOs find it key to decode what people are telling them. As one CEO remarked, they make efforts to ‘unpick the stories they hear’ and another aims to ‘find routes to the truth’ by testing the assumptions made by others.
Building inner confidence: As a new CEO, you will do things you haven’t done before and you will face high expectations. At times, your inner confidence may waver. In such case, remind yourself of your accomplishments. Seasoned CEOs believe you should ‘trust yourself and call the tough decisions’ and you will ‘become content with the discomfort’.
Hiring an external coach: Many CEOs had the support of an external coach when starting in their role. A good coach will not only act as a sounding board but also won’t be afraid to tell you the uncomfortable truth, keep you from lying to yourself and hold you accountable.
Staying balanced: To prevent their CEO role from taking over their life, my clients find it helpful to imagine they are 100 years old and looking back on their proudest moments. Time spent with family features prominently, far ahead of any CEO accomplishments.
So, if you are aiming for the top or have just taken on the CEO role for the first time, be cognisant of the challenges you will face and heed the advice of experienced CEOs. Their coping strategies will help you have a more balanced, productive and stress-free life.
The topic of counter offers is an interesting one. I am sure you have seen articles and thoughts about the subject and they are usually one person’s perspective on the topic. For a somewhat different approach, we’ve reached out to people in our network to gain their thoughts and perspective on the topic.
You have just received an offer to join a new firm. You are giving notice to leave your current position and your employer makes a “counter offer” to keep you from leaving. You start to think about whether or not to take that “counter offer.”
Why would taking a counter offer can cost you more in the long run?
If I know someone is looking to leave or has done that already, I might offer them a counter to stay if the engagement they are currently working on would be hit hard by their departure, but I can guarantee that I will remedy that situation as quickly as I can by making sure that others are up to speed on tasks this person is doing and that multiple people in the organization have a comparable skill set.
This person would not likely get extra consideration (at least in the short-term) regarding training or new project work, etc. as I am still fully expecting them to leave at some point in the future. The reason they started looking to begin with was likely not related to money, but rather something that more money won’t fix in the long term. People can “stand” a lot of stuff when the money is good, but all of the things that caused them to look will likely still be there and sooner rather than later those same issues will bubble back to the top.
Now they have just one less company to get a job with because they burned that bridge.
I would rather have someone leave and want to come back because the “grass wasn’t greener” then offer a counter.
In the one case where I did that, it only took the person about 3 months before they were back in my office resigning again…but this time we were prepared and wished them well.
Mark Anzmann, Executive Vice President, SYSCOM, Inc.
One persons perspective:
Why to Accept an Counter Offer
– Your reasons for contemplating a move are clearly understood by your firm
– Your reasons for contemplating a move are respected by your firm
– The firm has come to the table with the right terms to make you want to remain
– You prefer to stay, have not checked out mentally, and believe you have long-term opportunity
Why Not to Accept
– The firm doesn’t clearly understand why you are entertaining a move but throw $$ at it
– The firm grudgingly admits to your contributions knowing they will have something to lose, but still not truly valuing / respecting you
– You have burned some bridges along the way with people that matter – that never ends well
– You are mentally checked out and not happy with the firm, role, your boss, etc. regardless of the $$
Bill Beck,, Client Partner, Conduent
I’ve been in that situation years ago and also recently, but this time as the jilted hiring manager. Here are my thoughts as to why accepting a counter-offer is generally a bad move. For the employee to seriously pursue the new job, one or both of two things must almost always be true: 1) The new job must be really good in ways that are important to the employee, or 2) There must be something significantly wrong with some aspect of the old job. So to give up one or both advantages by reversing course and accepting the counter-offer is logically a negative for the employee and must be at a minimum offset by something positive.
The easiest scenario to imagine is that pay was the problem with the old job, that the new job would have cured it, but the counter-offer now also cures it. There are two reasons why the employee doesn’t want to go there: First, do you want to be working for a company that knows they’ve been underpaying you (which they acknowledge by making the counter-offer) and wouldn’t fix it until you threatened to walk? Will you have to keep doing that every year? And second, now the old employer feels that you are being paid too much, which will surely have a dampening effect on future raises.
Or suppose the problem is non-cash, something like the employee wants to work from home or needs flexible hours and the old employer says no but the new employer is fine with it. If the old employer gives in and agrees, human nature says they will hold that against the employee.
An analogy in this political season would be the politician who makes a lot of promises around election time, and the voters wonder, “Gee, you’ve been in office for four years now and you haven’t done any of this for me. Why did it take you so long to start talking about it now.”
Almost always best to be sure you want to leave the old, and know why, before searching for the new.
Hack Heyward, Partner and Practice Lead – Energy, ISG
We hope you find these perspectives interesting. If you would like to share your thoughts on this for future blogs, please let me know.