Somewhere between 7-8% of the Fortune 500 companies are led by women. No matter how many "Girl Boss" coffee mugs you buy, or how many "Empowered Women Empower Women" posters you hang in your office, the fact remains that a great deal of our economy is directed by men. So, when you beautiful ladies have the opportunity to walk into a Board Room - to request funding for your start-up, to pitch your product, to discuss your leadership of the company Sales Team - you need to recognize that this opportunity is about more than just "you." You very well may be setting the tone for how a room full of comparatively powerful men view women in leadership. Here are few things you should understand before you enter this space:
Composition of the Board
Before you walk into the room, you should know the names and backgrounds of each of the Board Members that you will be speaking to or otherwise interacting with. At a minimum, you should be familiar with the entity represented by that individual, e.g. Is this person the founder? Are they with the Venture Capital firm that contributed to the last round of funding? It takes only a moment to Google someone, and this may reveal an item over which you can bond if there a need to relieve tension, e.g. you both attended the same high school or root for the Tigers. Beyond these basic facts, you should try to understand in advance what each of these individuals want. Is the founder a grandfatherly type that just wants an exit so that he can spend time with family in Arizona? Are the Venture Capital guys stressing out because they've been holding onto your company for more than five years and there is still no prospect for either a profitable sale or IPO?
A Balance Sheet
Even if your job is to create splashy graphics for a new marketing campaign, you should understand how profit and loss are determined, what "EBIDTA" means, and whether the company is making its "plan" and what that "plan" is. I truly believe that everyone would benefit from taking at least one "Accounting For Business" course, even if it is a freebie you found online. Many people lack basic financial literacy for their own personal finances, and even more have little understanding of how the companies they work for actually make money.
The Company Website & Social Media
This may seem like a joke, but it isn't! In my role at work, it was easy to be focused only on what was happening in my little corner of the universe, and remain oblivious to other parts of the company. If it has been a while since you just read through the Company Website like you were preparing to interview, take the time to do that! You may realize that you overlooked an important new product launch or project. Make sure that you can answer questions like, "What is the company's most profitable product line?" or "What product is the Sales Team pushing right now?"
Some Board Rooms are very formal, others (particularly non-profit) are a bit more laid back. Some Board Meetings are followed by lengthy dinners at five star restaurants. Some take place in the morning over Tim Horton's coffee and danishes. Board Meetings can be lengthy, so it is usually best to err on the side of both comfort and formality. I used to wear trousers (with a bit of give in the waistband) with a blouse, blazer and simple jewelry for most of the Board Meetings I attended, and I never felt out of place.
A Basic Understanding Of Risk
The job of a Board Member is not to run the business or non-profit. This is common misconception. Most Boards give a lot of latitude and freedom to the Executive Director or President/CEO to manage affairs. I feel like a better characterization of a functioning Board is to act as a lookout. If the CEO is the captain, you're the person at the top of the mast looking out for icebergs. You should have at least a rudimentary idea about the kinds of risks that Board members are most likely to raise concerns about: too many competitors or too much debt, security or fraud, insufficient cash flow to get through a challenging economic time (hello "2020" nice to see you could join us), regulatory risk, such as new privacy regulations or OSHA guidelines, or any risk that could put a halt to your operations (e.g. flooding or widespread power outages.) Managing all of these risks is probably not your job, but you should know that these are the kinds of things that keep Board members up at night.
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I've included stories, anecdotes and useful tips I've gained over my career as an Entrepreneur, Board Member, Executive and Senior Counsel. I hope you can find ways to navigate to your own dreams by learning from my experience! Don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or want to share your own stories. Stay inspired!