The gender on UK Boards is in the news again. The Independent reports that the proportion of female directors of FTSE 100 companies has risen to 19 per cent, up from 12.5 per cent two years ago. This sounds like progress but we also hear that Angela Ahrendts of Burberry is moving to the States to join Apple and, in doing so, reduce further the number of female CEOs in the FTSE100.

In my experience working with Boards, I am seeing evidence of the increase in the number of female directors. This is especially the case with non-executive directors where nominations committees are now actively looking for female candidates to start to improve the gender balance on the Boards. And, guess what, when they look for good female candidates – they find them!

But the focus on the gender diversity debate may be clouding the need for the right skills on Boards in a complex, interconnected 21st century business environment. If Boards recruit women with the same skill set as the men they replace, do we fully change the dynamics of Boards to scrutinize company performance and do we change the dynamics that the FRC warn again – the cosy club?Similar skill sets might be just as unhelpful as similar gender – let’s think about the skills that make Boards work effectively. At Socia we think that this means individuals who are effective at creating and leading collaborations. Good cooperative and collaborative Board operation can set the tone for effective and appropriate leadership behaviour throughout the business. Naturally, if the Board becomes dysfunctional, then this can become visible to stakeholders inside and outside the business. In these circumstances Board members individually as well as collectively can see their reputations damaged – so demonstrable collaborative behaviour matters. And the skills that enable this collaborative approach are sometimes overlooked (just like gender). we think the skills and attributes that matter are:

  • Mediation – the ability to address conflict situation as they arise is critical to all Board members but especially the chairman and sometimes the SID who have the responsibility to resolve issues between members and ensure that the Board process is effective.
  • Influencing – the ability of the individual to match their method of influence to the needs of the situation is particularly important for executive directors who know that they need to support of their non-executive colleagues when Board approval is being sought for their proposals.
  • Engaging others – building relationships and communicating with clarity is essential for any senior Board roles when dealing with shareholders and other stakeholders who need to support Board decisions.
  • Agility – quickly assimilating facts and asking incisive questions is necessary for all non-executive, part-time roles where the individual needs to be able to quickly get to the heart of the issue being discussed without necessarily being part of all the preparatory discussions.
  • Patience – taking a calm and measured approach is often cited as the essential attributes of a good chairman, however, the SID, and CEO also need to be able the lead their constituencies within the Board in a measured fashion, often taking the long view on what is best for the business.
  • Empathy –truly listening, understanding their personal impact and taking an open-minded attitude to the views of others applies to all Board members. In such a complex group, all participants have to be able to listen if they are to fulfill their responsibility to contribute positively to effective collaboration.

I wonder how many nominations committees look explicitly for these skills. The gender debate will and should continue, but if more women on Boards doesn’t lead to better Board performance, perhaps we are missing a focus on the skills that matter.

Alex Cameron