For the last three years, The Athena Alliance has built a powerful community of board-ready women, rising executives, investors, CEOs, board directors, and corporations. Through its white-glove, one-on-one coaching program and Board Match services, Athena Alliance not only prepares women for board service but allows companies and CEOs to access the top 10 percent of female talent as they look to modernize their boards.
Athena Alliance’s CEO, Coco Brown, offers unique insights into the makings of a board-ready leader, as well as what forward-thinking companies can do to widen their circle of board candidates and remain relevant in today’s high-tech, fast-paced world.
M.R. Rangaswami: What should rising women leaders be doing more of as they look to enter the C-suite and, eventually, the boardroom?
Coco Brown: When I tell CEOs about the work we do for female leaders, they almost always say, “men need this, too”. What we do isn’t uniquely valuable for women, it’s what every senior leader needs. Even compared to a senior executive (VP, SVP), the C-suite and the boardroom are very different atmospheres. In these realms, one needs to be able to translate their functional career into relevance as an overarching steward of business, they need to be able to operate as a collective, and they need to be able to inquire, guide and advise more than operate and manage. We help women build this story of themselves, and practice standing strongly, dynamically and articulately within it. And, we help them experience the simulated boardroom. Because, whether they strive to be on a board, or simply relevant to it from within their own company, they need to be able to see themselves there, understand what happens there, and have empathy for the role the board plays.
Rising leaders need to be thinking several steps ahead in their career. Many (men and women) struggle to see beyond the VP ranks or the C-suite. But there is an amazing opportunity to use the holistic value of one’s career to serve on boards and to help guide purposeful, impactful organizations. We help women imagine another phase of their career, and think beyond the executive ranks to understand what it means to be a steward of the business overall.
M.R.: For women who aspire to serve on boards, what are three things they should do early in their careers to support this goal?
Coco: First, they need to network as though it is part of their job. I cannot stress this enough. They should make a point to strategically connect with meaningful people and groups outside their comfort zone. It’s the only way they can truly expand and get noticed by the right people, including board influencers. Humans are innately tribal; we surround ourselves with others like ourselves, whether that is based on religion, politics, sports, or gender. Just as men tend to connect with men, women tend to connect with women. While there’s value in connecting with your female peers, the challenge is that most board directors today tend to be men.
Second, don’t discount the value of having an updated resume and bio. These items may appear administrative, yet there’s enormous value in writing down your achievements and understanding the whole of your career story. Internalizing your value and understanding your strengths begins with writing it down. Athena helps women do this through our Brand Package, where we pair women with our incredible executive writers to create a polished CV, bio and LinkedIn update. But even early in career one should do this. Think back to what colleges asked you to do or your kids to do in painting a picture of their character, passions and potential. Boards look to potential directors in this same way.
M.R.: What trends are you seeing when it comes to women in the boardroom?
Coco: There’s a growing acknowledgement that diverse perspectives lead to better business outcomes. This fundamental shift is opening boardroom doors for women. It used to be the CEOs and CFOs were the only valued roles in the boardroom. This was during a time when board agendas were consumed by audit and financial compliance and regulatory issues.
But increasingly, boards are discussing and making decisions on topics as it relates to culture, purpose, and stakeholder value. This means that other roles, such as the CMO, the CHRO, the CPO and so on, hold more weight in the C-suite and in the boardroom. And, it’s often women who hold these roles. As board directors appreciate a more diverse range of perspectives, they will naturally welcome more women to their boards.
M.R. Rangaswami is the Co-Founder of Sand Hill Group.