Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Simple as 1-2-3

It’s almost as if those who hunger and thirst after a corporate board role are the ones least likely to be selected. Instead, it is those who are very busy solving business problems, building strategic collaborations -- they are the ones being tapped on the shoulder because they are doing the hard work. That’s what boards of directors are searching for today: people who demonstrate competence, teamwork, institution-building and respect for the institution of the board and for other like-minded (independently-minded) people of achievement.

The challenge is simple: how and where to find more competent, experienced and capable independent director candidates (who also just happen to be women). The answer is simple, too. It’s easy as 1-2-3.

1. Look at the right data.
2. Listen to the right people.
3. Ask the right questions.

Look at the Right Data

If we focus on data that tells us how women haven’t, how women can’t or why women won’t, then we will only find information that explains past historical performance, under different circumstances, at a different time. If we focus on the data that tells us who, today, is taking on the mantle of leadership, how they are accomplishing those feats, what motivates them and inspires them to accept the challenges of strategic leadership, then we will begin to understand the composition and the character of those who will succeed in the future.

If we look at the performance of Olympic competitors from 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago, we will miss the outstanding performance of today’s women who challenge their own and other personal bests. We will see tennis players, marathon runners, downhill skiers, gymnasts and other astounding professional sportswomen who have raised the bar and met the challenge.

If we focus only on the women who are NOT, there will always be more of them than the women who ARE. If we want to inspire more women to join those in the lead, then we need to learn as much as possible from them -- as much as they can exemplify and teach us. It is not up to them to stop what they are doing to "help" women to advance; it is for us to watch and learn from them as they are doing the work that needs to be done.

Listen to the Right People

If we listen to those who delight in suffering or those who complain about life’s unjustness, we will only continue the patterns and errors of the past. Mistakes that were made need not be perpetuated into the indefinite future. The right people are those who would inspire and challenge us. Those worth listening to have the capacity to envision a future that is different from the past. They create a vision of what we could do to make that future our present.

If we want to hear what the best people have to tell us, we have to be open to those who disagree with us as well as those who echo our essential beliefs. Men experienced in board building have much to teach us – in many cases more than women who have simply hungered and yearned for a board role.

If we want to hear what the best people have to say, we will be willing to be challenged, to stretch our education and our capacity to learn. To become one of those best, we have to be willing to admit that the more we know, the more we have yet to learn.

Ask the Right Questions

It astounds one to attend some conferences and panels where women are supposed to be trained, educated and prepared for a corporate board role. The questions often are not worthy of the challenge. Too often, the questions are these: "Does a leadership role mean a woman must give up her femininity?" "Where can I find a mentor?" "What about work-family balance?" Such powder-puff questions belong in the fashion/style/home-maker magazine and newspaper articles, written by little girls for little girls. How can a woman pretend she could be a strategic leader if she cannot answer such fundamental questions for herself?

Will implementation of the 13 financial regulatory proposals outlined in the Senator Dodd bill push U.S. corporations out of the global competitive marketplace? Who will pay for the added costs to integrate consumer financial education into the banking and investment infrastructure? If derivatives and swaps can be monitored and exchanged outside of the “shadow banking system,” can they serve legitimate and valuable financial market needs?

These are the real debates for which women, as well as men, board candidates need to prepare themselves. Are they ready, able and willing to participate in these challenging discussions? Are women speaking up in their organizational forums? Where are the voices of women in leadership today?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

On Work-Family Balance

At a recent speaking event, I presented the essentials of my book Outstanding in their Field: How Women Corporate Directors Succeed and was asked (by a young man, no less) what might Betty Freidan have to say about today’s women in leadership. I replied that I thought she would be quite proud of what she would encounter.

Unbeknownst to me until recently, Ms. Friedan in fact did write in the preface to the 20th anniversary edition of her book, The Feminine Mystique, that she was astounded by all the progress women had made -– in general and especially the young women in her own family.

The Feminine Mystique was "the problem without a name" -– but she put a name to it. It was the ennui, the dissatisfaction, the nameless yearning associated with housewifery as it was defined up to 1963 when she first wrote the book.

Somehow, we figured out that suburban life had an alternative called a professional career, but we women seem still conflicted and unsatisfied. Today, we seek "work-family balance." We believe Betty Friedan is not here to bail us out again. But a new reading of her book goes farther than we might imagine. Forty years later, she still speaks the truth:

"But the perpetuation of housewifery, the growth of the feminine mystique, makes sense (and dollars) when one realizes that women are the chief customers of American business."

"Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that women will buy more things if they are kept in the under-used, nameless-yearning, energy-to-get-rid-of state of being housewives."

"Properly manipulated . . . American housewives can be given the sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realization, even the sexual joy they lack -– by the buying of things."

"The Balanced Homemaker [in between the True Housewife and the Career Woman] is, from the market standpoint, the ideal type."

"Since the Balanced Homemaker represents the market with the greatest future potential, it would be to the advantage of [product] manufacturers to make more and more women aware of the desirability of belonging to this group."

Every time you hear a young woman, today, say she is "searching for work-family balance," remind her of the wisdom of Ms. Friedan and tell her that, after forty years, it's time women stop allowing themselves to be manipulated by the media.

Friday, March 19, 2010

CREW Network White Paper

In December 2009, Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) released an update to their earlier research (conducted five years ago) on the subject of how well women are progressing to leadership in the field of [commercial] real estate. Readers are encouraged to review the CREW Network’s White Paper and judge it yourself: here

Looking at 225 studies from a host of sources, the CREW Network reached the following conclusions:

The results were "startling, surprising and should constitute 'a wake up call.'"

Most of the 225 research studies had nothing to do with women in commercial real estate, but rather related to professional women, generally. And further, "The research was incomplete, inconsistent and/or based on questionable data and assumptions." Thus, the raw data was unreliable and inconclusive, but provided enough grist for the mill for the CREW Network to conclude that "since 2006 (the start of the recession) women’s progress toward achieving parity in the corporate world has flat-lined and even regressed slightly."

CREW Network’s solution to this dilemma is that "Women need to be aware of these changing dynamics and take proactive measures to preserve and enhance their roles in the new economy."

Among the specific action-oriented recommendations suggested by the CREW White Paper was this "women [should] work together to effect systemic change."

The CREW White Paper also found that "Businesses, particularly those in commercial real estate, need to fully grasp the benefits increased diversity at all levels."

They concluded that "incorrect perceptions and assumptions about women’s performance, priorities, skills and leadership abilities, and external factors beyond women’s control, are the root cause of continuing gender disparity at the top levels of the corporate world."

These are ancient conclusion from another era. They do not reflect business today. They do not acknowledge the accomplishments of contemporary women in leadership.

The Challenge

The White Paper, itself, has not met the challenge of leadership in the 21st Century, even though the CREW Network correctly defined it, as follows:

"The key to rectifying widely-held myths and misperceptions about working women is through improved collection, analysis and dissemination of reliable and accurate data."

The White Paper merely echoes ancient (now, over three decades old) "myths and stereotypes," alleging that there persists a Glass Ceiling. They mouth this hype in 2010 in spite of all the evidence in existence, today, that opportunities abound for professional women who strive for leadership.

The CREW White Paper assumes we have made zero progress in since Katherine Lawrence and Marianne Schreiber described their frustrations, in 1979, striving for leadership at Hewlett-Packard, or since Gay Bryant wrote an article in the 1984 Adweek describing how she would market her new magazine to career women, or since Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt wrote their March 24, 1986 article in the Wall Street Journal about their surveys of businessmen twenty four years ago next week. The White Paper begins with the legislation of The Glass Ceiling Commission, once again focused on that hypnotic American professional women’s belief that, if only we could pass a law or a constitutional amendment, then everything would be perfect.

Women in leadership have made remarkable and consistent progress. Even Betty Friedan, in the later prefaces to her now ancient (1963) book, cited astounding progress by women in general and by the women in her own family, specifically.

How dare we speak about tgc ("the glass ceiling") in today’s world where we have serious leadership by outstanding women in top governmental positions all around the globe? (If America did not elect a female president, perhaps we were busy electing the first African American leader of the western world.) How dare we speak of tgc in today’s world where we have women who choose to take on top CEO positions at major Fortune corporations and succeed? Today, we have impressive women justices throughout our judicial system, women bankers at major global entities as well as on Federal Reserve bank boards, and women partners in major law and accounting firms.

There is no limit on the potential of women professionals, today, except the fear and trembling in their own minds and the uncertainty that keeps a lid on their self-assessments and their own self-expectations.

If we are missing women in leadership at real estate entities, in general, and at commercial real estate entities, in particular (and I might challenge those presumptions, based on my research), then we have a choice of either blaming everyone else or of asking new and different questions of women in real estate today. Specifically, we need to ask them, "why are you choosing not to lead?"

The earlier CREW Network research found several causative facts:

1. real estate women tended (like their academic sister) to favor the middle, supportive roles rather than reach for the riskier positions of top leadership;

2. real estate women preferred the reliability of salaries (even though lower) over the uncertainty of commission sales (with higher risk-reward profiles);

3. real estate women tended to aggregate more on the residential side of real estate because they preferred the client/customer interaction with other women there rather than the men who dominated on the commercial side.

It is so much easier to simply "blame unenlightened businesses." Yet, today, we have some of the most enlightened businesses in the world: every web site blares the company’s "involvement in" and "commitment to" diversity in all of its required components. It is not business today that has failed women. It is women who continue to strive to the middle, rather than reach for their top potential.

If the CREW Network believes there is too little data about women in leadership, then what is the CREW Network doing to invest, independently, in the creation of research, the gathering of real world data, and the production on a regular basis of studies of a credible nature? Why are we constantly expecting "someone else" to do the analytics, give to professional women the information "we need in order to succeed." There are entrepreneurial opportunities for women (not just men) in the data production and assembly area. Women could begin by simply tracking commercial-backed loans or residential mortgages or doing a better job of rating banks with excessive real estate CDOs and CDSs. There are countless areas where talented business women could conduct meaningful research, but they do not. Why?

If the CREW Network believed there is not enough dialog on the subjects of concern to professional commercial real estate women, then what are professional commercial real estate women doing to provide substantive debate on these topics? What ARE the most prominent topics on their minds? Are they: where shall professional women find that amorphous "work-family balance?" or where shall they find those magical, dues ex machina "mentors?" or how shall women achieve leadership without sacrificing their "essential femininity?" There are countless forums in which truly talented business women are addressing the real and substantive issues of our time: How much financial regulation? What form does it take? What conditions? Who pays? What are the impacts of regulation on entrepreneurial enterprises, where tomorrow’s leadership begins? Who is sponsoring those speaking agendas?

Vague, Meaningless, Abstract

The CREW Network White Paper is not the only example of "vague, meaningless, and abstract" so-called research on the subject of women in leadership. These powder-puff pieces are cropping up, unchallenged, everywhere.

If these documents represent the caliber of strategic analysis and thinking on the part of contemporary women professionals in commercial real estate as well as in other areas of growth and opportunity in the 21st Century, then we should have serious concerns. Rather, these are the real mandates:

Stop being vague: stop generalizing and over-generalizing from poor quality raw data. Stop making meaningless, broad-based statements with which you believe everyone else agrees. Cease relying upon abstractions such as "the glass ceiling" or "we all have to work together" or "a wake up call."

In her 1983 preface to her epic book, Betty Friedan recognized how far women in fact had come: "So diverse have the choices and patterns of women’s lives become that there is no single issue now that could hold us all together . . . I’m not sure there is, or has to be, a separate, single women’s issue in the next stage." Ms. Freidan herself recognized that "women’s most basic issues now converge with men." [Translation: "We are all in this together."]

It is time for women to "put away childish things," just like their brothers, and to begin building businesses that can endure throughout the future. It is time for women to build solutions, including day-care, child-care, elder-care as "commercial real estate enterprises" just as men designed and built shopping malls, MacDonald’s play areas, and Koala Kare drop-down diaper change-tables so ubiquitously located around the world. Why cannot women -– instead of solely being the consumers of those solutions -- also construct creative, enduring alternatives that benefit us all?

It all begins with quality data. It begins with sound analysis. It begins with truly understanding the essentials, then charting a strategic new course. Now that we are educating women on a par with our male peers, perhaps it is time for women to bring their unique business talents out from underneath the burka and to start building the profit-oriented enterprises that will be the seeds of a better future for us all and for all of our children.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Top Ten Questions

What are the top ten types of question women ask about boards of directors? Recent discussions with women who are taking the big step of getting information and education about what they need to know to get onto a corporate board reveal how much women need to learn about governance. At least they are asking good questions! What are the top ten concerns on their mind? Take a look:

1. What are the roles and responsibilities of a board member? Committees? Duties? Time requirements?

2. What qualifications, credentials and preparation are required for a public company board role?

3. How do you define, how do you become an effective board member?

4. What are the risks (and the rewards) faced by board members today?

5. How do boards select new directors? Skills matrices? Nominating criteria? Selection processes?

6. How does one position herself, in her career, for a board role? Where are possible board opportunities?

7. How do networking, connections and introductions work in board searches, if at all?

8. What due diligence considerations are there in finding and evaluating a possible board role?

9. How much finance and accounting should I know? Where can I learn more?

10. Questions about specific issues: Sarbanes-Oxley, performance evaluations, director training, director compensation, confidentiality, nonprofit experience?

The lesson from these questions is that women are asking "basic" questions -- suggesting that we need to begin delivering comprehensive, but fundamental information to women candidates if we want to improve the number of prepared women ready to serve on top corporate boards.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Supply AND Money Challenge

The Vancouver Winter Olympics are noteworthy because 40.51 percent of the participants are women. There were 1,066 women athletes out of a total of 2,631 according to the official Olympic site. In the first Winter Olympics (1924 in Chamonix, France), there were "only 4%" women. By 2006, in Turin, Italy, the number of women athletes rose to 38.28%. The record so far is the Beijing Summer Olympics, where women represented 42% (4,746 athletes out of a total of 11,196).

A first question we should be asking ourselves is how did these women achieve this notable and outstanding level of performance (without legislation or quotas)?

But, of course, the media is a-roar over the lawsuit women competitors filed with the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee, arguing they should include women’s ski jumping along with women’s ski cross. The International Olympic Organizing Committee opted only to include women's ski cross team which had half the number of elite women competitors. The International Ski Federation endorsed the IOC decision. The women, of course, claimed discrimination.

The reality is that the supply of top women ski jumpers needs to increase to attract support at the IOC level. At last year’s World Championships, only 36 women ski jumpers competed, but just a few top competitors led the pack by a 20-point margin. Fifty male competitors were all roughly at the same levels, producing very interesting matches.

Another key consideration is the ability and willingness of women ski jumpers’ to attract financial support. In these harsh budgetary times, both men and women’s ski jumping participants faced major cutbacks in support from the US Ski Team. Even if the women had won the lawsuit, they still would have faced the financial challenges. So, women ski jumpers need to get out there and hustle up commercial support for their sport in competition with the 1,066 other women in hockey, downhill slalom, biathalon and curling.

February 13, 2010: