A New Perspective in the Boardroom: Women board chairs bring diversity of thought to the table.
Meghan Juday was appointed chairman of IDEAL Industries in February 2020. A few months before, the company had welcomed a new non-family CEO. A month later, it faced the global pandemic. And now, it’s dealing with a year of “insane growth.” As she faced these issues, she wondered if other women board chairs might be able to offer her support and advice. She found a curious statistic.
“Only 4% of public company chairs are women,” Juday says. “I didn’t realize it was so rare to find other female board chairs.”
Juday began to search for other women in her position at private companies. She started a peer group and expected “to get four of five members by beating the bushes.” There are now 31 members.
Elizabeth Pharo is the chair of four of her family’s businesses: Eagle Automation, Experlogix, InvestEdge and CompleteCase. She came up in the health care industry surrounded by women and didn’t realize how rare they were in the upper echelons of business until she sat in the chairman’s seat.
“I think women and different points of view add a lot to every conversation,” Pharo says. She recalls how “pay at the pump” was the invention of a mother of three who didn’t want to haul her kids into the station to pay for gas. “It’s small tweaks like that. People bring different perspectives to problem solving, and problem solving is so important in leadership. They don’t all come from the CEO of some big multinational corporation or from an older white guy.”
As chair of her family’s business, Joule Processing, Kimberly Denney believes age diversity on the board is also important.
“In bringing more diverse perspectives into the boardroom, I am convinced that people in their 40s and younger are the people that have been working in teams since they were in kindergarten,” Denney says. “They have seen the value of two or three people getting together.
“Now that this generation has had 20 years of work experience, we are going to be able to bring people into the boardroom who truly, truly value both diversity and teamwork. And it’s very easy for them to look around and say, ‘We don’t have anyone in this boardroom that knows ABC, and we’ve gone into this new type of business. And ABC is new to us. We really need to find that expertise.’”
Juday says she’s already seeing that transition on her board as sitting directors retire. For example, she was the only woman on the board for several years. “When I was speaking with the recruiter, I said ‘I only want to interview women for these positions.’”
Now that women serve on IDEAL’s board, “It’s been such a difference, not just because they’re women, but because it’s a fresh perspective. If everybody in the room has been there for 15 years and heard it all before, no one’s stopping to ask the question or say, ‘Hey, I don’t get this.’” The new members aren’t afraid to admit they don’t know something, she says.
A boardroom where directors feel comfortable enough to ask questions and have robust discussion is more easily achieved when the board is unified and board members have built relationships with each other, Denney says. She learned about that on a nonprofit board when she realized that every member would get up and go to greet other members as they arrived.
“I’m used to working in this fast-paced world where you look up and say, ‘Hey, Bob,’ and you look back down and you move on,” Denney says. “And I thought, ‘Why do these folks take that kind of time and effort?’
“It was about the end of our second meeting when I realized when you do that, you can respectfully disagree with someone across the table. You’ve already built some relationship, you’ve built some trust, even if you’re still getting to know each other. And you can then have that open discussion, and you can deal with the tough stuff."