05 Jun 2017
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Women on Boards: A Course Becomes a Movement

Re: Paula Davila Martinez (GMP 18)
by Margaret Kelley

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Boris Groysberg addresses attendees of the HBS Executive Education program Women on Boards.
(photo by Evgenia Eliseeva)

Last year, Paula Davila Martinez (GMP 18, 2015) decided she wanted to have an impact beyond her corporate role as a vice president and chief procurement officer at UCB Biopharma. After six years at UCB, Martinez believed that serving on a board of directors could be “a meaningful and relevant option,” but she didn’t know how to make it happen.

“I started researching how to get started and came across several webinars, workshops, or master classes,” says Martinez, who recently left UCB and currently leads the procurement division at Adidas.

That’s when she discovered Women on Boards: Succeeding as a Corporate Director, a first-of-its-kind course offered through the HBS Executive Education Program, which combines classes and case studies with one-on-one mentoring, expert panel discussions, and industry networking, to help participants navigate the board selection process. “Women on Boards was the only course I found that addressed and connected all the components in a holistic way.”

Martinez was one of 67 senior executive women, from 24 industries and 16 countries, to complete the inaugural weeklong session of Women on Boards in the fall of 2016. When it launched, the course had the quickest enrollment of any Executive Education course at HBS. Now, with an even larger class anticipated for the second session, in November 2017, it’s clear that Women on Boards is filling a need in the market.

That is due, in no small way, to the fact that top-performing senior executive women remain critically underrepresented in corporate governance across all industries. Currently only about 19 percent of governance boards in the S&P 500 have at least one woman among their directors.

“Lots of boards want women, and lots of rock-star women want to be on a board,” says Women on Boards faculty cochair Frances X. Frei, UPS Foundation Professor of Service Management. “That situation has existed for a while and it has come to a critical mass where we can see that it’s not going to get solved in our absence. If it had already been working for women we probably wouldn’t have been moved to start this course.”

Understanding the barriers women face in seeking governance roles has been a major focus of study for Women on Boards cochair Boris Groysberg, the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration. His research has confirmed what many senior-level women already know: governing boards often rely on networks of predominantly male executives to fill openings.

“Women can’t break into those male-dominated networks, which keeps the proportion of women on boards very low,” says Groysberg, adding that low turnover on boards further reduces opportunities for women even if they’ve overcome the obstacle of closed networks. “By bringing exceptional women together to explore challenges and best practices, and to make necessary introductions, we can create value for the program participants.”

Groysberg’s leadership of the W50 celebration in 2013, marking 50 years of women’s admission to the full-time MBA Program at HBS, combined with his recent case study on the rand* construction company and its founder and CEO Linda Rabbitt, became the impetus for the program. Rabbitt, a highly successful leader in the male-dominated construction industry, urged Groysberg, along with Frei and Senior Associate Dean and John G. McLean Professor of Business Administration Lynn S. Paine, to create a roadmap for women to attain and retain board positions. Rabbitt then put the funding on the table to make it happen.

“We spent several years preparing for this, talking to executives and board members, to make sure we got it right. We had very high expectations from the beginning,” says Groysberg.

The program launched with as much enthusiasm among faculty as students.

“So many of our faculty wanted to be involved, which was a nice problem to have,” says Vicki Good, program director for Executive Education. “In all, we had 11 faculty members for a five-day program that included four classes each day and guest speaker sessions every evening.”

The goal of the program is twofold, according to Frei. The first is to prepare women to join boards; the second is to teach them how to succeed in that capacity.

“It turns out that there’s a little bit of a secret guide on the common obstacles that women will face and some very straightforward ways to overcome them. Only, no one tells you,” says Frei. “This course tells you.”

Martinez says she certainly came away with far more knowledge than she expected.

“I left the program with a very clear understanding on how a board operates, the role of the different committees, what is good board governance, what are new skills that boards should be developing for issues such as digital or cyber security,” she says. “And now I have a clear and personal action plan for moving forward, including what career choices I should make in the coming years to help me become a valuable board member.”

The first session far exceeded the expectations of both faculty and student, and it has sparked a kind of movement among participants and faculty alike to remain actively involved through social media, monthly conference calls, and networking opportunities in order to help move each other toward their goals.

“I’m amazed at how engaged the participants were, with the material and with each other,” says Groysberg. “They bonded immediately and got together with no prompting from us. I don’t recall that happening in any other program. Since the course ended, they’ve held regular conference calls, offering help and support to each other.”

That ongoing, dynamic network of support among the first alumnae of the program, says Frei, has become the foundation of a larger role for the Women on Boards course in the future. “I think we will eventually have an Executive Education portfolio of courses geared toward women, along with board governance classes that are open to all. We don’t like to do things a little bit. We weren’t doing this before, and now we’re seriously doing this.”

So, how big can this program get?

“I don’t know,” muses Groysberg. “But I agree it’s a movement. There’s no question we need to shift toward more inclusive organizational cultures, more inclusive boards. There’s a high demand for understanding how to get there. At HBS, we have a critical mass of faculty researchers looking at gender and at governance and faculty actively serving on boards. That triad makes for an unbelievable combination of expertise. We can’t place women on boards, but we can create the conditions and the awareness that will move boards in that direction.”

Find information on November’s Women on Boards programming at alumni.hbs.edu/womenonboards

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