For international women's day we had Jill Greenthal, Senior Advisor of BlackStone Group and board member of Akamai in to speak to a group of HubSpot women and external women about the role of being on a board of directors.
At HubSpot we care about diversity and therefore we care about helping to expose more women to the process for getting onto a board. Jill had some great thoughts, insight and tips on how women can work their way towards getting onto a board.
Below are some questions that Alison Elworthy, our VP of Operations at HubSpot asked Jill about being on a board.
What does it mean to be a board member?
You are not responsible for running the company day to day. The role of the board is to help advise management and represent the shareholders for direction of the company. The difference between private and public boards is not that different.
What does it look like to advise a company?
It looks different than when you actually sit on a board of directors. Every company has strategic opportunities and challenges. When you sit in a board room you feel like there are torpedoes hitting you left and right as you listen to the company's challenges.
Your job as an advisor of a company is to help management navigate the future of the company. Your job is to help the company to figure out the strategic path ahead. Advisors also look at how the company is investing money into the company. The job is there to help the company understand the future and what things could happen so the company can figure out what they should do in planning for those potential things to happen.
Jill was on the board of a very large arts and crafts superstore chain and she was the only woman on the board. We wanted to know how she felt about that.
Blackstone and Bain Capital took the chain private a couple of years ago. At the time 2 years ago she was the only woman on the board there.
The senior management of the company did have women representation. It was overdue to have a board member as a woman. Since this company went public they have added more women to the board. The CEO is very focused on diversity in the board room as well.
She noted that the Akamai board had 4 out of 11 women on their board at one point in time. You have to have confidence to sit at the table and contribute at the right level.
Speaking of confidence. How do you develop confidence to be able to make an impact on a board?
Confidence comes in different ways for everyone. Jill explained how she had a successful career and was starting to advise companies at senior levels when she started to develop her confidence.
Advising companies requires confidence. It requires a balancing act of confidence to get companies to listen to you and take action on what you have to say.
Confidence comes from success. Building your knowledge and experience will help you to become more confident. Those successes and accomplishments will help you to build up your value for a board.
What advice do you have for women to become future board members?
The most important thing is to think about what a board really is to figure out where your value might be. You must think about what a board really looks like and what their purpose is for a company. You need to think about what you are really, really good at and then look for ways to help companies in that capacity.
By and large the board is a portfolio of people with different expertise. A board should have people who have expertise in certain areas. For example - if you know marketing really well you might want to look for an advisory role for a company who needs help in marketing.
To get onto a board you need to have real expertise to have value to that company.
Think about what your superpower is and share that with the world so that you are an expert in that.
Once you are on a board how do you make impact on a company?
Making sure that you have the right management team for the company you are on the board of. That is one of the most difficult things to have to do as a board member. For example - if the board realizes the CEO is not the best person for the job and the board needs to take action on changing the CEO- that is not an easy place to be in. But, you have to be confident in your decisions to lead the company the right way.
Boards also spend a lot of time on succession planning now. They need to have back ups for key executives and you must make sure that there are actual plans for each executive role. You also care about developing the right people at the company for succession planning.
The biggest difference as a board member is making sure you have the right management in place.
What value can women bring to boards?
Jill doesn't tend to think of gender as a requirement. You need diverse inputs and you must have diverse thinking. You want the board to come from diverse thinking and different thought processes. Whether the board has women, men, different ages, etc. it is important to have diversity in all of those things to have a successful and impactful board for your company. Adding women to the mix of a board is just as important as having diversity in age for example. You need diversity in all things to make sure your board represents a cross section of thought and perspective.
Jill did note that having female perspective can typically be a good thing because sometimes women can have qualitites that maybe men wouldn't have, and visa versa. To be on a board as a woman or man you need to be confident, be someone who can make expressive views and be there to have a discussion while having a thoughtful perspective at the table.
What have you seen companies do to make a difference in getting more diversity on a board?
Most boards care about this today. Most boards do care about this because it makes for better, more robust discussions.
The women on her board are very focused on helping women come up through the ranks. It is not to say that men don't care about it but women want to bring this issue to the top to help promote more women into management roles and beyond.
How do you make sure that you have women in the pipeline and you elevate them to those management roles?
Jill thought that was more of a management question than a board question. We question management to think proactively about recruiting the right people as well as nurturing and mentoring the right people up the ranks.
Jill spoke about how on some of the boards she is on or has been on the women would proactively outreach to the women who should be moving up in the company that they are on the board of. The board will also want to see the plan on hiring, and promotion to hold the company accountable to the plan.
We are a ways off to where we won't have a conversation about women on boards. How far are we from that and what progress have we made?
Jill thinks we have come far here, but not far enough.
Diversity has become a standard. It is pretty unusual to hear about a board with no women or for companies who don't have women on the board. It is really main stream to expect that companies have women and diversity on the board.
Technology has been more difficult because engineering degrees have tended to be dominated by men. But, now girls are learning to code and there are girls with code clubs so we as a culture are taking steps to change this for the future generations to come.
It does take time to make change.
We need to be impatient.
We need to keep asking questions.