Phyllis Nyambura explores what it takes to get a slot in a boardroom, how to be different, and how to increase one’s impact after joining the board.
What comes to mind when you think of being a board member? Do you think — is this not the role of those women who are about 60, dressed in boring pinstriped suits, wide rimmed spectacles with a sneer stretching from cheek to cheek, and with a matching snort to boot?
Or perhaps you perceive it as a role for those born in the right families and with right political connections? You may be right in a way, but the truth is all these are perceptions.
“You can be a board member at any age, with any expertise and without having been born into an elite family. That includes if you are man or a woman,” says Catherine Musakali, the founder and chair of the Women on Boards Network.
The organisation, which was founded five years ago, promotes and encourages women into board leadership.
But perhaps you do not hold these perceptions. You are at a point where you are an expert in your field, and you have proven your leadership skills.
You are at the pinnacle of your career, and you think, ‘why can’t I be a board member?”
You yearn to sit at the decision-making table. But then you wonder, ‘how am I going to get there? Where do I even start? Do I have what it takes?’
For starters, let’s agree you are at the right place. Not only does regulation favour you, but more and more boards today are looking for women like you because they acknowledge women aid in better decision-making.
“When I get out there and I am requested to provide women to sit on boards, I ask ‘how many?’ I hold that I am into the business of offering women who have certain skills and offer value to an organisation,” Catherine, whose network has 367 paid-up members, says.
Catherine says it’s encouraging to see more women take board membership positions. “We have stopped crawling; we are now walking. We have placed 67 women in boards over the last five years. We can double that number this year,” Catherine, who is currently the company secretary of a number of firms, and sits on various boards including Faulu Microfinance Bank and Kasneb, says.
This holds true for Eunice Shamalla, who sat on her first board at the age of 34.
“I actually sat on a board out of curiosity. I neither had training nor did I get any mentorship, but I was open-minded and it helped me. I was fearful, yes. But I take fear as a good thing. It helped me generate excellence and I overcame it,” the partner in Lumallas, Aching & Kavere Advocates, says.
Today, she is 38 and sits on two boards. She is a board member of a multilateral company, Skipperseil Ltd headquartered in India and Dubai — a global player in the power and infrastructure sector — and in the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators Kenya Branch Board.
“I was anxious at first. I reminded myself that I had travelled a long journey to be in India for the board meeting and that I was at the board by right. Yes, the other board members were prominent, some were retired former ambassadors, but I felt confident that I brought value. I soon found my voice and place,” Eunice, a dispute resolution practitioner, an advocate of the High Court and an arbitrator, recalls.
Sitting on a board has it clear advantages. There is the access to a broader network, it will boost one’s confidence, public profile while helping you to become a better decision maker as well as enhancing your opportunities to new experiences and skills.
But while women across the country continue to take their rightful spots in boardrooms, progress is slow.
While a quarter of top management positions are filled by women, the number of women heading boards still remains low at just five among listed firms.
This is according to a 2017 report, the result of a two-year study by the Kenya Institute of Management in collaboration with other partners.
Kenyan firms score above average on gender inclusivity, with the percentage of women in boards going up to 21 per cent in 2017, from 18 per cent in 2015 and 12 per cent in 2012.
Part of the reason that women are now sitting on boards is because businesses appreciate the role women play in improving boardroom conversations.
“I can attest to improved tone of conversations in our board meetings,” says John Ngumi, the chair of Kenya Pipeline Company.
He notes that other benefits have been the increase in confidentiality, attention to detail on board matters, applying of common sense — women ask the basic questions which are important — and better behaviour from the men as ‘there is less power competition from the men and more civility’, with women around.
Besides, women control 70 per cent of home policy and retail decisions, and also make up a company shareholder. So, it only makes sense to include them when you are making important decisions as a company.
A lot of increased numbers, however, are attributed to the constitutional requirement of gender parity.
And this is where cracks begin to emerge. Industry leaders argue that while affirmative action has done its work, women still have to work harder to be taken seriously.
A lot has to do with women understanding of the dynamics of a board and what is expected of them.
“I think the next step is to get women to speak up in these boards. To show value. I have chaired boards where I have had to ask the women present to stop hounding together in a corner saying nothing,” Ngumi, who has sat in many other boards previously, says.
He acknowledges that while the old boys network exists and is not going anywhere anytime soon, women can still show their prowess by being different.
“It’s not a problem to be different. I have stammered for the whole of my life, yet I have never allowed it to hold me back. Find your voice, don’t be like other people. Be you,” the entrepreneur says.
Ngumi advises that rather than compete with men, women should embrace diversity, find ways of excelling in their space and forge ahead.
“You must find your own way. You don’t have to go out to a club until late to network with men. Networks are a state of mind. Networks congregate around power. If you make yourself powerful, we as men will find you,” he points out.
He adds that women must ensure they are focused and clear on what they want from the meetings. “Men network with a purpose. When you meet in your chama, what are you discussing?” he poses.
“Men network exists. Deal with it. One thing to note is that men are ego-driven. They want to be praised and seen as powerful. Use this to your advantage. Women deal with these men at home all the time. So, why are you not able to make men in the boardroom hear you out?” Ngumi challenges.
One woman who has never let the old boy’s network hold her back is Norah Odwesso.
The public affairs and communication director at Coca Cola Beverages Africa, who has sat on several boards in the financial sector, says thatwhile women might still face cultural, capital and regulatory inhibitions, they have more opportunities today to be what they really want to be.
“Women have to change their mindset. We acknowledge that barriers exist, but we must accept the society is evolving and adapt,” Norah says.
She attributes success to what she calls GRIT: “Right level of guts, resilience, initiatives and tenacity.”
“Networking starts with you getting the right skills. If you do not have the right skills, no one is going to call you,” the 50-year-old says.
But she acknowledges that one cannot be able to do it alone. “One needs professional sponsors. It’s very important to work with people. It’s important to have people who have your back,” she advises.
Norah, who says she is not at the top yet, has faced her share of career challenges. “I have had to deal with politics, perceptions and attitudes from people. I did not pay much attention. I have been deliberate about my end game and desired outcome.”
As more women get into leadership and board positions, the lingering question, however, is if their word is being taken seriously.
A lot of experts agree that a lot of this is determined by how a woman carries herself once she’s given the position.
“I took the board positions because I felt the need to contribute. I am always determined not to be seen as a flower pot — beautiful, elegant, pristine and silent. It isn’t very pleasant to be an escort of others.
"Because then you will fall into the old male stereotype. They will call you a lady or girl and expect you to act like one. You must project yourself as a colleague, which means how you dress, look, speak and act matters,” says Lumallas, a mother of one.
Noting the challenges women face in the boardroom, the Women on Boards Network says it’s working to build more partnerships, enrol more male champions, offer trainings, and grow the junior membership to upscale more young women.
“We actually want to build leadership skills in both girls and boys. We believe in empowering the whole family,” says Catherine.
One of the areas women may benefit from is to ensure that they create the right impression from the very first day they make their debut in the board meeting.
“It’s not about rocking up in a nice suit. You need to prepare. I prepare for my board meetings for at least two weeks. It’s hard work,” says Odwesso.
“There is a reason why you were asked to sit on that board. Go through the board pack, call for clarifications, jot down the questions beforehand, and contribute on the floor. Remember you will be judged,” she adds.
And while it may seem trivial, simple things like etiquette will go a long way to ensure your word carries weight.
“Leave the mobile phone out. Be on time, watch out for table manners. Boards are human organisms, every gesture matters, watch out for what is left unsaid and remember to be fully present,” says Meshack Joram, Institute of Directors Kenya chief executive officer.
He notes that being a great board member is a mix of competence, character and skills.
However, to be truly included in the party, one must take part in what happens outside the boardroom walls.
“The truth is the majority of the decisions are made out of the boardroom. That’s why women wonder how certain decisions were made. And they are completely in the dark while everyone else seems to be in the know.
"You must find out ways to reach to the chairperson before the meeting. Call, have a sit down and understand the agenda and what direction the chair favours,” advises Ngumi.
“Get the inside information about the company and its structure. Take your time. If you do not, you may find yourself in trouble especially in the public sector where you may find you are a signatory to a scandal,” says Lumallas. She adds that getting into a board to earn ‘an allowance’ is a BIG No-No.
“Be self-aware and know yourself. This way you know what you have or don’t have an appetite for, what decisions you can stand by and what you will not support. Do not be afraid to dissent, only sign off what you are persuaded of,” adds Lumallas.
“When your term comes to an end, gracefully exit,” she advises.
If you are a young woman, however, you have to work harder as boards are still not youth-friendly.
According to a Kenya Institute of Management's 2017 report, youth are locked out of company boards, with just 0.2 per cent of those aged between 25 and 34 taking a seat in boardrooms of listed firms.
Globally, the average age of a board member is 60.6 years, while in Kenya it is 55.8.
If you find yourself, young and seated on a board, you still need to understand what to sell in the power room and what to limit to private mode.
“I have personally learnt to keep my private life completely separate from my public. I only open the private space to close friends and family.
"There is an unconscious bias against "young, single women or mothers". I believe sometimes it is an unfair indictment to the decision-making capacity and quality of single and unmarried people. Initially, I would wear a ring to give the impression I was married, but now I don’t,” reveals Lumallas.
Phyllis is a PR and Media consultant based in Nairobi. You can reach her on [email protected]