Women on boards: How to get a seat at the table

Women often feel like they must meet every single qualification before they feel qualified enough to advance in their careers. It doesn't have to be this way, writes Lara Caimi.

People in an office seen through a window

Too often women feel like they must meet every single qualification and have ticked every box before they feel qualified enough to advance in their careers.

Photo: Getty Images

Lara Caimi is the chief customer and partner officer at ServiceNow.

In 2020, for the first time since it started tracking the data, executive search firm Spencer Stuart reported that every S&P 500 board had at least one woman director.

But don't celebrate just yet. Women's overall representation on corporate boards remains disappointingly low. The report shows that in 2020, women's representation on boards of S&P 500 companies was just 28%. That's up from 26% in 2019. An improvement, yes, but nowhere near enough to reflect the enormous number of talented and experienced women ready and eager to contribute at the board level.

I know a lot of these women, as a board member myself and as a member of an organization working to increase representation of women at the highest level of management. If you are one of the women feeling ready now or aiming for a board position in the future, here's what I've learned that just might open the door to the boardroom for you.

Speak up about your ambitions

Early in my career at ServiceNow when I was the chief strategy officer, I mentioned to my boss, then-CEO John Donahoe, that I wanted to continue to grow and have new challenges. Together, we listed my strengths and outlined opportunities to develop my career.

Before he left ServiceNow, he made sure that the new CEO, Bill McDermott, knew where I wanted to go. Today, I'm well on the path to my dream job, too, running a large organization and owning a P&L as the chief customer and partner officer at ServiceNow. The support of these two CEOs helped make that happen, but they couldn't have done that without me telling them what my aspirations were.

Too often women feel like they must meet every single qualification and have ticked every box before they feel qualified enough to advance in their careers. So, raise your hand. Don't just think of the next job, but the job two or three roles from now, and make it known. Advocate for yourself. Throw your hat in the ring.

Be smart about networking

When it comes to being seen as qualified as a board director, you also need to be smart about networking. I once heard Maggie Wilderotter, former Fortune 500 CEO and experienced board member, share some advice: Think of networking as a critical part of your job and dedicate meaningful time to it.

Often as we focus on advancing our careers, we focus on building our internal networks, but looking to expand a network outside of the company is just as critically important. When I started at ServiceNow, my role gave me a great platform to network with investment bankers, VCs and founders. I also spent a lot of time with my company's board of directors. Over time, as those relationships deepened, I was able to share my career ambitions, and make it known that I was looking for a board seat. By fostering relationships with various people, I was either introduced or recommended for a board seat at Confluent by people in different circles, who all knew me well.

Be patient; many of these conversations started as early as two years before I landed my first board seat.

Be intentional and choose organizations that align with your goals

In my board journey, I found that not all board opportunities are created equal. That's why it's important to be intentional about the types of companies you agree to work with and the types of experiences you're seeking. Choose organizations that align with your goals. This also means that you must take your time, and you might end up turning down a few opportunities along the way that aren't the right fit. Choosing a board role is a long-term commitment — the average tenure of a board member is 10 years ­— and with a busy operating role and young family in my case, I wanted to make sure I was very intentional about how I spent my time.

When Confluent offered me a board position, I knew right away it was the right place for me because I had spent at least a year thinking through what kind of company I wanted to help lead. Plus, there are a lot of terrific leaders on Confluent's management team and board, which will help me further build my network, and allow me to continue to learn and grow.

Just as important: I was a good fit for Confluent, as well. My unique experience leading strategy and go-to-market functions at a scaled and highly respected software company allow me to make meaningful contributions in the boardroom.

Take the shot

There are many bumps and potholes for women on the road to equality in the boardroom. However, speaking up, being strategic when networking and holding out for the right fit can help make the journey smoother. Ensuring that women are represented in the boardrooms won't happen overnight. But I encourage you to go for it. Do the unconventional. Set your goals, make sure you're prepared, wait for the right opportunity and take the shot.

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