During my university days in Nigeria, I was fortunate to get a vacation job at Lever Brothers Nigeria, Apapa. My role was clerical, and in the Sales and Marketing department. I was a carefree young lady and ready for a fun summer. I made some good friends at work, and my mother was friends with some of the female senior managers. I was in good hands. However, my favorite memory was getting to know a senior leader. I will refer to her as Ms. M. The presence of Ms. M in our meetings was captivating. She carried herself with an air of confidence and authority yet was full of respect and understanding. Her leadership style was inspiring. She delegated tasks with clarity and encouraged open communication among her team members. She would invite us, her team, to lunch at the management canteen which was uncommon back then. I recall the succulent roast chicken with fried rice and white glove service. In my youthful eyes, she personalized professional excellence, a role model who ignited within me a burning desire to be like her when I grew up. I yearned to be like her and serve in a senior management role leading to a corporate Board role someday. That dream lived in me for years, but the reality was different.
Fast forward to 2023, it’s a different story today. Africa has the highest female representation on company boards of any region – 25% against the global average of 17%, according to a 2019 study by consultancy firm, McKinsey & Co. as reported by Reuters. However, despite significant progress in recent years, women globally remain underrepresented on corporate boards. Progress remains slow and many women still hit barriers climbing to the top.
What are the forces holding women back? These could be attributed to Deep-seated cultural norms, ‘Old boys club’ way of thinking, Pipeline problem, Unconscious bias, Imposter syndrome and Work-family balance. This creates a vicious cycle, perpetuating the narrative that women aren’t “cut out” for these demanding roles.
“There is a need for a paradigm shift in the cultural perspective on the role of women in Nigerian society……There is no doubt that the inclusion of competent women on the board holds the potential to positively transform the overall corporate strategy of a company.” Ibukun Beecroft Partner and Leader, Deloitte Nigeria Center for Corporate Governance
Despite the challenges, the path to the boardroom is open. Here are some pointers to steer you in the right direction for success:
Network and Build Relationships: Intentionally, and actively network. Build relationships. Have a sponsor or a mentor. Attend industry events, join professional organizations, and participate in mentorship programs.
Build a Strong Foundation: Gain extensive experience in your industry, develop a strong track record of success, and pursue relevant certifications and training. Seek public speaking opportunities, publish articles, and never stop learning.
Become a Knowledge Powerhouse: Rather than being a generalist, endeavor to develop expertise in your field. Be known for something. Become known as a thought leader in your industry.
Get comfortable with Finance: Understand how to read a Profit and Loss statement, A balance sheet, and A Cash Flow statement. Financial literacy is a powerful tool in any boardroom.
Be Visible: Build a digital presence. Put yourself out there for volunteer roles, for charity, and community building.
Work on your personal branding
Take Massive action: Be intentional about your purpose. Be consistent in your drive and stay the course despite setbacks. Build resilience and remain focused on your goal. Success begins with a bold idea and the courage to pursue it.
Stay Informed: Keep abreast of current trends, and emerging issues, such as Corporate Governance, Sustainability, ESG regulations, AI, Machine Learning, Geopolitical competition, Debt crisis, Exchange rates, global elections, etc.
Start small, aim for the summit: Explore opportunities for board positions in non-profits, small businesses, or industry associations. For instance, a startup might create a board that could do with your expertise which in turn you can add to your resume. Each step enhances your profile and sharpens your skills in the boardroom.
So, to the women aspiring to board positions, remember this: your voice, your vision, your experience matters. You are not just filling a quota; you are building a legacy. Network, learn, articulate your value, and climb with confidence. The boardroom needs your unique spark. The time to start is today. Don’t wait until you are in your 50s and suddenly decide that you want to serve on a Board. Start building your profile as early as you can, even from your 20s. Be prepared for the time commitment, but don’t let that deter you. Remember, your voice matters. Your perspective matters. You belong in the boardroom. So, climb with confidence. And to the women already seated at the table, extend your hand, share open board positions, mentor, sponsor, recommend, and pull others up. Companies, in turn, need to dismantle barriers, actively recruit diverse talent, and offer flexible support.
The future of leadership is here, it is diverse, and it’s calling our names.