Breaking into the Boardroom

Georgina Bond

It’s often complained that the boardroom is an old man’s club and the pool of female director talent in New Zealand is small. Georgina Bond identifies some of the new crop of women directors entering the boardroom much earlier than their senior colleagues and pursuing a portfolio approach to their career.

As pressure mounts on boards to be mindful of gender diversity, it is becoming a bigger focus of the search brief for recruiters.

Mark Ashcroft, a partner at executive search firm Seqel Partners, says there are plenty of female candidates outside the well-known female director pool but it’s often just a bridge too far for the board to make the appointment.

“The challenge is really for the board to be open-minded to give high-potential people a crack.

“And while gender diversity is great, age diversity is also important. Boards want experienced heads, yes, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to be a veteran.”

Seqel has recently helped appoint a 35-year-old, high profile candidate to the board of an NZX top-20 company.

“It was a courageous appointment by them and we are delighted they are doing it,” Mr Ashcroft says.

Forty per cent of the boardroom appointments Seqel has had a hand in over the past three years have been female.

“We’ve noted the emergence of a group of women directors whose career paths differ from the more traditional director profile we’ve seen in the past.

“Traditionally, we would expect to see senior executives moving out of executive leadership positions to seek board appointments in their mid-to-late 50s or early 60s.

“But there’s an emerging group of those who could justifiably expect to continue in senior executive roles for many years but have made the decision to seek a ‘portfolio’ style of career much earlier.”

Advantages of the portfolio approach include flexibility – helpful for parents – and the ability to contribute executive experience at a strategic level across a diverse range of companies.

Look outside your own club for directors

Boards and search committees still need encouragement to be open-minded and look outside the box when they are recruiting, says Board Dynamics chief executive Henri Eliot.

“We need to remove the old bias of familiarity and get away from shoulder-tapping the celebrity director or a member of your own club.”

Sometimes, that requires a fresh approach to the interview process.

“Probe deeper and you will find the more interesting candidates,” Mr Eliot says.

“Interrogative interviewing styles can work … by pushing people outside their comfort zone you can identify those with a sixth sense and who think outside the box.”

And more women need to be encouraged to join boards while they are still in executive roles, Mr Eliot says.

“The only way to create a bigger pool is to get them governance experience while they are in executive positions, as opposed to stepping in to the board room when they retire.

“It’s so important to have industry experience when you join a board.

“You can learn governance within a reasonable period of time but you can’t learn an industry overnight,” Mr Eliot says.

Incremental progress on diversity

Data gathered on boardroom diversity suggests New Zealand is making slow, incremental but unspectacular progress for women.

The Human Rights Commission’s Census of Women’s Participation results late last year revealed the percentage of women directors on NZX top-100 companies had risen to 14.75%.

But New Zealand Stock Exchange statistics on reported gender diversity, released last month, indicate 8% of listed companies’ directors are female.

The NZX introduced diversity reporting rules last year requiring companies to include gender breakdown of directors and senior management in their annual report.

Of the 41 companies that reported on gender diversity this year, there were 205 male directors and 18 female.

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