Kate Kohler is a Principal at Korn Ferry where she is a Financial Services specialist and leads the firm’s relationship with the World Bank Group. She founded and co-leads the firm’s Impact Investing Practice. Ms. Kohler partners with asset managers, asset owners, private equity, commercial banking and development financial institutions to build and develop effective leadership teams at the C-suite, board and senior executive levels. Ms. Kohler is a U.S. Army veteran and a West Point alumna. She holds an MBA and MPA from Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School.
Christopher P. Skroupa: Are more companies today seeking to improve the diversity of their boards—and, if so, why?
Kate Kohler: The great majority of companies are seeking to improve diversity of their boards, including recruiting more female directors. This desire is founded on far more than having a “token” woman on the board. Organizations need strong, independent board members who bring value, thanks to their diversity of experiences, perspectives, and thinking. The smartest leaders are those who recognize that not only is diversity a good idea, but there is a strong business case for it.
It’s well known that diverse teams are smarter. Research has found, for example, that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry median. Those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have financial returns above their medians. And, it’s been shown that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors achieved better financial performance on average, than those with the lowest representation of women board directors.
The fact is, diverse teams come up with more creative solutions than those that are not. This is especially important when an organization is confronted with challenges, as we at Korn Ferry have seen in our work with clients. It takes diversity of thought and perspective to come up with solutions and to provide meaningful advice for corporate leaders. After all, board members are not paid to attend four meetings a year, but to advise the leadership team—especially when things get tough.
Skroupa: So why aren’t there more women on boards?
Kohler: There are many contributing factors, including that the percentage of C-level positions held by women is far less than the percentage held by men. (Women account for only 4% of the CEOs in the Fortune 500.) For example, in the technology sector, there has been a push for greater diversity on company boards to capture a range of perspectives that are more reflective of stakeholders, including employees and customers. But women still account for a small percentage of board members—as Korn Ferry has found, only 18.5% of Tech 100 board members are women, yet women leaders clearly bring a set of unique approaches to their roles, such as leading and working with a team, influencing others and handling conflict.
Korn Ferry’s research into the traits of women leaders found that they excel in most of the skills and competencies deemed necessary for senior leadership success, such as fostering employee engagement, promoting customer satisfaction and building talent. Korn Ferry’s research into the contribution of female board members also finds that they bring a level of candor, transparency, and directness into discussions and conversations. These skills are important when you think of what a good board member can do to advise the CEO or other C-level leader on accelerating growth or managing a crisis environment.
Women also bring other skills and traits to leadership positions, including relationship management and work/life balance. I can think of a Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) who is available 24/7—except on Thursdays at 4:30pm when she drives the school carpool. She makes this fact very visible within her global organization as a role model for others.
Skroupa: Can you provide some real-life examples of companies that are actively recruiting more diverse candidates, including women?
Kohler: One company we have worked with was in the midst of a board restructuring when it faced a sudden crisis. This proved to be a wake-up call for more diversity to increase the range of perspectives and opinions to help leadership tackle the challenges and pursue opportunities. The company actively recruited more diverse board members and directors. They continued to look for highly qualified female board members, but the top woman candidate identified—and nearly placed—was not able to join the board given the demands of her current leadership position.
Most importantly, the board as a whole—and in particular the chair and the chairman of the nomination committee—remained deeply committed to improving diversity overall, and gender diversity in particular. Again, because there are fewer women in the top executive ranks, the most highly qualified director candidates are highly sought after. But as we’ve seen with some stellar female CEOs, there is a limit to the number of outside boards on which they can serve—which increases competition for this board talent.
Skroupa: What about women who are interested in board membership? How can they groom themselves for consideration as their careers grow?
Kohler: Organizations today are looking for really exceptional candidates who bring breadth and depth of experience. Women who are interested in pursuing board membership need to position themselves as experts in an industry, field or other specialization. Women can become speakers or panelists at conferences, write blogs/articles on topics that showcase their thought leadership in particular areas and to become active in groups.
Networking also helps tremendously to raise a woman’s profile within her network. My advice to any woman seeking board membership would be to reach out to mentors who serve on boards and ask for advice and guidance on next steps. Draft a “board bio” (which is different than a resume) and seek out feedback. In addition, let people know that you are available for board service—when the search partners call for recommendations, your name will be on the list of possible candidates.
Lastly, it’s important for any board member candidate to identify where they would best be of service. My advice to women would be to identify their unique skills and experiences to offer an organization. For example, if a woman has expertise in emerging markets, that could make her an excellent candidate for a board role with a company that is looking to expand into certain markets. The message is about how you can deliver value, especially as the organization faces challenges and seeks to accelerate growth in new ways.
Christopher P. Skroupa is the founder and CEO of Skytop Strategies, a global organizer of conferences.