Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Path to The Boardroom?

My sister is a marvelous pianist. She tells the story of visiting New York City where she bought a book on music theory from the gift shop of the Juilliard School of Music. She then sat down to read it at their coffee shop, just so that she could say,

“I studied at Juilliard.”

She was joking, of course, unlike many who argue that nonprofit board experience qualifies women, prepares them or educates them to meet today’s demanding governance requirements as a director on a major public company board.

One day, perhaps we will finally understand why women keep telling each other this myth. Why is it that women journalists ignore the competence, intelligence, talent and sheer hard work evidenced by the real women on today’s boards? Why do women persist in telling each other that a little nip here (volunteering on a nonprofit board) or a tuck there (at a quickie "financial statements for dummies class") is all that a girl needs if she wants to be invited to dance in the ballroom?

When I attended directors’ training at the graduate school of a major university, the women with real corporate board experience in attendance told me, flat out, “nonprofit board experience is not comparable in any way to for-profit experience.”

When I've talked with women serving on the top Fortune 1000 corporate boards in California, they tell me, point blank, “there is no transferability of experience from a nonprofit board to a for-profit board.”

When I analyze the experience of the women who currently hold corporate board seats, I find that over 41% of their competence came from a successful long-term corporate career track and that 88% of those talented women chose a corporate path PLUS either an entrepreneurial path or an investment/securities path. Only 8% of the experience cited by women serving on boards today is by way of the nonprofit path.

My sister does no harm with her wry humor. Those who advocate that women should pursue volunteerism or nonprofit roles or quick-and-dirty paths into the boardroom do serious harm by implying that women need an “easy path” or some special preferences if they want to be directors. These advocate do a disservice to the very competent and capable women who have achieved board roles by the same path that their male peers pursued.

And what is the message they are giving to the next generation of women about how they should invest in their careers for the 21st century global economy?

There’s only one path into the boardroom and it’s the same path that women AND men pursue at Juilliard or any other venue where competence is the gold standard. It’s “practice, practice, practice.”