February 19, 2015 — Catalyst’s #DisruptTheDefault campaign is a call to action for individuals and companies to make bold moves that forge meaningful change for women and men in the workplace—and the world! And our Profiles in Disruption blogs showcase how others are doing this in their lives and their companies.
Meet: Ilene H. Lang, Catalyst’s former President & CEO and (Senior Advisor and Honorary Director for our organization), broke barriers as a pioneering woman in the tech sector. Before coming to Catalyst she was Senior Vice President of the Desktop Business Group at Lotus Development Corporation and founding CEO of AltaVista Internet Software Inc. She has served on numerous corporate, private, and nonprofit boards, including Adaptec (acquired by PMC), Art Technology Group (acquired by Oracle), Planet All (acquired by Amazon), and the Tufts Health Plan. She was recently inducted into the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) Hall of Fame.
“Board service is an important part of a well-rounded professional portfolio, offering you opportunities to have an impact and learn as you contribute your unique perspective and expertise to other organizations,” says Ms. Lang.
Here’s her best advice for women looking to serve on a corporate board:
Target the right boards. Pick boards that are a good fit for your unique experience, goals, and interests—and make sure you can clearly articulate what you bring to the table. But also choose opportunities where you will learn and grow. Your ideas and contributions are valuable, and you don’t want to give them to just anybody! Once you identify boards you’d like to serve on, check company websites for the bios of current directors. Look at the companies they’ve worked for, the schools they went to. You never know when someone graduated from your alma mater, or has worked with a colleague who can introduce you. Even if there’s no board vacancy now, it’s important to build relationships and stay on directors’ radar.
Build your reputation and a focused network of advocates. I’ve gotten opportunities from people I’ve worked for and with, and from friends and colleagues of people in my network who know how I work and why I’m unique. Your network is your reputation. It isn’t about the number of Facebook likes, Twitter followers, or viewers of your LinkedIn profile. It’s about being connected to people who know you and can recommend and vouch for you. You want them to think of you when there’s a particular problem to be solved or a special skill needed.
When the right opportunity is there, take it! I often hear women say, “I don’t want to be picked just because I’m a woman.” To that I reply, “no company will be so stupid as to put someone unqualified on their board just to say they have a woman!” When I was being considered for the board of Adaptec, being a woman was just one of the requirements. The CEO wanted a woman with software and Internet expertise, and I fit all the qualifications. We want companies to have diverse slates, and to look for talented women to add to their boards. I was Adaptec’s first woman board member, but it wasn’t long before we had three.
Be bold. Once you’re on a board, make sure you speak up—you’re there to offer your unique perspective. I was once on the board of a company that had received an unsolicited take-over offer. After our eight-member board met with the heads of the acquiring company, we had a debrief session. We went around the room, reflecting on the offer. The momentum was building to accept. I was the last person to speak before the Chairman, and I recommended that we decline the offer, and gave my reasons. That turned the conversation, and we ultimately said no. Later, the Chairman told me that he had been opposed to the acquisition, but felt he could not speak until everyone else did. He thanked me for turning the tide of the conversation. That was a very proud moment for me.
Commit to coalition-building. Boards are surprisingly egalitarian. There is not a decider-in-chief or a decider-of-last resort. Decisions are made by committee. Consensus rules. One of the most important skills you can have for board service is being able to influence peers through persuasion and negotiating. Only once in my many years of board service did I ever threaten to go on record as disagreeing with a board decision. That kept us working on the problem until we could all agree with—or at least support—the decision.
Each and every one of us has the power to #DisruptTheDefault: Change the way we think and act; and to challenge others to do the same.