Market Insights

“Is a board position the right move for me?” “How do non-profit and for-profit boards differ?” and, “How do I make it known that I am available to join a board?”

With these questions top of mind among many women leaders who consider joining boards of directors, The Scotiabank Women Initiative (SWI) recently presented a unique panel, ‘Charting a Path to the Boardroom’, as part of Scotiabank Global Banking and Markets’ ESG Conference and Sustainability Summit. Expert panelists shared thoughtful, first-hand insights to benefit both future board candidates and any corporate or non-profit boards that want to improve the gender diversity at their board tables.

“While women have made good progress in reaching the leadership ranks of Canada’s major corporations and not-for-profits, there’s still a lot of work to be done at the board level,” observed Loretta Marcoccia, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Scotiabank Global Banking and Markets. “With an average of 30% of board seats now occupied by women, there is a lot of room to improve, especially since research shows that diversely composed boards deliver stronger organizational performance.”  

‘On-boarding’ advice from women who led the way

With Loretta’s experience as a corporate executive, board member and Executive Champion of The Scotiabank Women Initiative for Scotiabank Global Banking and Markets, she posed questions to her co-panelists that resonated with anyone who is contemplating board opportunities.

Attendees appreciated the candid responses from the seasoned panelists, including Lindsay Brand, Board member with both True North Commercial REIT and H&R REIT; Gillian Riley, President & CEO, Tangerine; and Julie Walsh, Senior Vice President, Corporate Secretary & Chief Corporate and Governance Officer at Scotiabank.

Loretta asked the panelists to describe their own paths onto boards and the real-life rewards and challenges of the role. “After spending many years in management, and benefiting from a strong board, I wanted to give back as a board member and make an impact, both to the community and the real estate sector that I’m passionate about,” responded Lindsay.

“Giving back to the community was important to me, particularly in the areas of health care and gender equality, so I sought positions on hospital boards to balance my corporate work,” described Gillian. “Later, I joined a number of corporate boards, where I have leveraged my financial expertise, and at the same time gained perspective that is helpful in my daytime role. All of these experiences have been truly inspiring and invigorating.”

In thinking about potential rewards and challenges of a board position, Julie explained “Being part of a board is a big commitment, but you can get so much out of it personally and professionally and bring more to the table every day as you grow into the role.” 

Julie speaks from experience, since she works with all of Scotiabank’s parent and subsidiary boards of directors and leads SWI’s The Scotiabank Women Initiative’s Good Corporate Governance Program, a unique development opportunity that Scotiabank offers to its corporate and institutional clients. Through this program, women in senior leadership roles can complete the Bank’s own, well-established internal directors’ college program, to help them prepare for corporate board roles or elevate their effectiveness. 

Choosing the right opportunity

But with many boards of directors today on the hunt for qualified, diverse candidates, how can you ensure an interesting board invitation is actually the right fit for you?

“First, you should make sure the organization is something you are really interested in, that it builds on your passions, and that you have something specific to offer with your skillset,” said Gillian. “You have to do your homework and meet as many people as possible, and know what you’re getting into.”

Lindsay agreed, adding that, “To make it a great experience, you need to determine what you can bring to the board and add value. Ask yourself ‘Do I believe in their mission?’ and ‘Will I meet great people?’ Then, you need to be cognisant of how much time you can contribute and, can you put your best foot forward? A lot of things are ad hoc on a board, and they speed up really fast, so you have to be sure you can commit.”

Julie reinforced that point, stating that, “It’s important to understand what is the ‘ask’ of you, what is the board looking for, and does it equate with what you want to get from the role?”  

For profit vs non-profit?

Drawing upon the panel’s diverse board background, Loretta raised the natural question, ‘Should someone seeking their first board role select a non-profit board before pursuing a corporate role?’

“For me, joining a non-profit board first was a good way to get started and find my voice, while also contributing to something meaningful,” responded Gillian. She added, “And don’t discount a non-profit opportunity as just being a ‘fundraiser’, since you can bring many different strategic skills and ideas to that board. “

“There’s no right or wrong path,” opined Lindsay. “In my case, a non-profit board felt like a safe place to start, to make an impact and get confident. At the end of the day, the role is the same, but with different missions. Non-profit boards are equally important.”

Julie emphasized that one should also not assume a non-profit board post is a clear stepping-stone to a prestigious corporate board appointment: “There’s no natural progression from one to the other. Being on a non-profit board can be very beneficial, but it’s just one data point on your CV. It’s more about the intangibles you gain from the role that you take forward.”

What skills do I need to hone?

In terms of the skills that today’s boards are looking for, Gillian explained that “Certainly your technical skills are the starting point, whether that’s financial, risk management or technology knowledge, and then there are the leadership competencies that will make you successful on a board, including the way you communicate, your critical thinking, and your ability to digest a lot of information and assimilate that.”

Julie emphasized that even individuals with ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds should consider applying for board roles. “Today, many boards of directors are facing complex challenges and they seek more varied skills and experiences than before. They are widening their aperture to find a broader range of talented candidates, including women candidates or younger candidates whose experiences are relevant to the organization or those who can bring specialized expertise to complement a board.”

And how do you find these opportunities? While the panelists noted that there are specialized search agencies that can match boards and interested candidates, connections are most often made through the network you build over your career. 

Commented Lindsay, “In my case, it was all about the relationships I developed. I kept in touch with people – without having any ‘ask’ in mind at the time – and that really paid it forward for me later when contacts approached me about board opportunities. However, I also know women who purposefully seek out board roles, just like a job search, so that approach can work too.”

“The Scotiabank Women Initiative is also a great way to put your name in the hat,” added Lindsay, alluding to the fact that she participated actively in SWI and completed the Good Corporate Governance Program. In particular, alumni of this program can join the Bank’s Board-Ready Database, a diverse pool of C-Suite women leaders who are ready to assume board positions. 

Many paths, many benefits

Whatever path one takes toward a board position, the panelists were clear that the opportunities are increasing, and women who take the challenge can reap many career and personal rewards.

Concluded Loretta, “You can gain so much from being on a board, whether it’s the feeling of contributing to a company’s success or by gaining skills you take back to your day job. Ultimately, whether you want to join a board, or your organization wants to recruit more talent, we can all help move this agenda along. Building diversity is no longer a negotiable, so there are definitely more paths for women to take, to make boards better and to build truly well-run companies.”

Learn more about The Scotiabank Women Initiative

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