That was the question posed by board search firm Fidelio Partners, the findings of which were written up this week in an article at Boardagenda.com.
The research was commissioned in response to the Davies Review. The Review identified in 2011 that there were too few women on corporate boards in the UK, and ‘threw down the gauntlet to companies and their advisers to do all in their power to close this gap’.
The Fidelio research aimed to help women reach the top table by looking at the attributes of effective board directors.
It drew on several sources:
- The firm’s own experience in board search, which provides insights into the types of candidate regularly shortlisted for board positions
- Interviews with their clients and leading corporates across sectors and geographies – listed corporates and established businesses alongside start-ups – covering chairmen, non-executive directors and group HRDs
The questions asked what enables senior executives to succeed to the top table, and what obstacles prevent female executives from taking this path in the same numbers as their male counterparts.
This work identified five key attributes. A successful director needs to:
1. Understand the complexity of shareholder and stakeholder expectations for the leadership team
This sensitivity to their environment and ability to consider all aspects of a decision is something we’ve previously identified when we looked at how a technique called situational intelligence can help boards to make the best decisions.The article says that effective directors are ‘good at interpreting what key stakeholders want, skilled at aligning expectations, constantly horizon-scanning and sensitive to mood changes’.
2. Have a firm grasp of governance
This, the article says, should include not just the formal aspects of governance, but also an understanding of ‘formal and informal power structures’ that can impact good board governance.
The need for strong compliance performance is well-documented. Last January, the Financial Reporting Council claimed that UK boards need better governance while a survey in May suggested that they were failing when it comes to compliance.
Being alive to the differing agendas that can more subtly impact governance means understanding the different mix of perspectives you may have around your table and the objectives these individuals might have. It means having people who deliver the right balance between risk-aversion and opportunity.
3. Have authority and presence
Ensuring you are heard, and airing your views without being overbearing, are vital skills. ‘The importance of conveying confidence and commanding respect should not be underestimated’, the research states.
Interestingly, this ability to understand and react to individuals or groups was cited as one of the reasons why women directors are needed. In an article last year the Evening Standard quoted neuroscientist Tara Swart, who claimed that boardrooms are severely lacking female characteristics such as empathy, intuition, and creativity, which can be essential to good decisions.
The Fidelio research says that ‘Mastering the art of being heard and, when necessary, interrupting without giving offence, are also critical. These aspects of presence and authority enable women to develop a board manner which is true to them and, critically, gives them a voice at the top table’.
4. Network with a purpose
A successful director, it says, ‘will typically be effective at “networking” with purpose’. The research found that while both male and female directors tend to have strong business networks, men can be better at using their connections for the benefit of their business.
5. Display resilience under extreme pressure
Directors who have experience of working under pressure, and those with resilience when in the public eye, are likely to perform best under these circumstances. Boards are under increased scrutiny – which can lead to negative publicity.
The article acknowledges that the attributes listed can apply equally to male and female directors – and that there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to the composition of the perfect board. Identifying the most important qualities for your own members and ensuring you use the best process for appointing directors are both vital.
If you want to increase your organisation’s success – and make sure you have the best group of people to lead it – using the traits outlined above as a guideline could help you to create the right make-up for your board of directors.
For more on how a successful board is run, you can download our case study. It shows how Scottish Building Society improved efficiency through a new approach to board packs. You can download a free copy here.