Women and Board Appointments: A Campaign for Success

Barbara Ryan is a force, with over three decades of experience working on Wall Street as a top-ranked Pharmaceutical Analyst and Managing Director, and then as a capital markets advisor to the senior C-suite at biopharma companies on strategies for fundraisings, M&A transactions, and driving IR and strategic communications programs.

She was keenly interested in joining corporate boards because she believed that her proven expertise and practical experiences on Wall Street were underrepresented in the boardroom. She knew the value she could bring.

However, women board appointments are few and far between—even with recent increases. Over the last year, the average number of corporate board seats held by women has risen to 17.7% from 16%, yet half the companies in the Russell 3000 Index still have only one or no women on their boards and they have long been notorious for their lack of diversity.

With this knowledge, Barbara knew that accomplishing her goal would require a dedicated campaign, which she initiated. It worked. She landed her first board position and is engaged at multiple levels with a variety of companies on other potential board opportunities. What is clear to Barbara (and to so many other women with the same goal) is that luck has nothing to do with it. It takes strategy, work, and persistence.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Barbara about the elements of her campaign and how she implemented it. I wanted to share our conversation for the benefit of other women also pursuing their first board seats.

When did you first start thinking about getting on a board?

It was about two years ago when I realized that my career had become multi-faceted; I had transitioned from being on the outside—critically analyzing companies as an analyst—and then moved under the tent as a virtual member of several Executive Teams forming strategy from the inside—addressing challenges, solving internal problems. All the while, I had to successfully navigate funding needs, external communications, and formulating, successfully implementing and communicating strategies for success.

I saw firsthand that many companies had subject matter expertise on their boards, but they often lacked a true ear to the ground on Wall Street. They didn’t have a litmus test on how their strategies and achievements would be viewed and analyzed by analysts and investors.

However, I did, given my extensive financial experience and intimate knowledge of the industry, having analyzed financial documents and interacting with investors for 40+ years. It was quite clear to me that a board appointment was the natural next step. Yet the call never came.

Since I was never asked, I started to think maybe I wasn’t qualified for board positions. Sadly, this is a common thought among women; however, it is untrue. We are simply “not on the list.”

I realized that I needed to be proactive; I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for a call or a tap on the shoulder. I needed a campaign. I also needed to broaden my outreach and network, to extend beyond my fear and let people know what I wanted. It takes focus and courage, but it is doable, and more importantly, it works!

Why is it still such a hurdle for women to gain their first board seat?

There are a variety of reasons. It’s like the adage that you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job—the same goes for board appointments. On top of that, it’s human nature for people to want to work with the people they know and have worked with before. So, if men predominantly populate boards, they’re predisposed to choosing other men to join them.

Additionally, women tend to suffer from imposter syndrome more than their male counterparts, thinking that they have to be 110% qualified to do a job. In contrast, men are more comfortable (and supported) taking a leap when they are less than 100% qualified to do a job.

The truth of the matter is that getting a board appointment (and this is true for any success) is about being confident and proactive, building your skill set, and campaigning for yourself. You have to reach out to people and tell them explicitly what you want and why you are qualified. When I started doing that, I found that people were overwhelmingly supportive.

Walk us through the steps you took to get your first board appointment.

After I realized I needed a campaign, I looked for guidance. I reached out to a thought leadership organization, Pioneering Collective, who guided me and helped me create a board resume that clearly spelled out what my skills and experience were, which demonstrated how I could be helpful to a board.

It’s easy to overlook what makes you stand out, so asking people you’ve worked with before to give you feedback on what they value about you and your work is an essential step in the process.

From there, I reached out to women who were already on boards (particularly those in finance roles that aligned with my skill set) and told them about my aspiration. Many were extremely surprised that I wasn’t on a board already and were more than willing to help. That led to warm introductions and recommendations to headhunters, and all of a sudden, I was on the map.

The female leaders already on boards are often overwhelmed by calls asking them to join additional boards or for recommendations for good candidates, so letting them know of your specific skills, experience, and desire can be helpful— not only to you, but to them as well.

Most of the headhunters I spoke with confirmed that I was doing the right thing by reaching out. Given my experience, it wasn’t a question of if; it was a question of when I would get on boards. Even when I was very close to getting a board appointment that didn’t ultimately come through, the people I met during that process ended up recommending me to other companies for board positions. Takeaway: every person you meet in the process can potentially introduce you to more opportunities.

What is your advice to other women who are where you were two years ago?

Having a network of women is a must-have. When I was starting in finance, there weren’t any senior female leaders to mentor me. It was like musical chairs with only one or two chairs available for women, and we were all trying to get it.

Today, thankfully, it’s different. Nonetheless, it is just as essential to connect and build relationships with other women based upon mutual trust, respect, and—most importantly—generosity. You do not have to “go it alone.”

This is one of the reasons I founded Fabulous Pharmaceutical Females (FPF) over ten years ago when I was still an analyst on Wall Street. I would host women-only dinners in private rooms, which fostered new and deep friendships, business deals, and opportunities.

Today, I’m working on making it a non-profit with a mission to advance women in the biopharma industry through facilitation, education, training, and connecting FPF women to powerful sponsors. These women are my squad.

They have helped me in every aspect of my life (not just professionally), and this has been a gift—granted, one that I gave to myself later in my career. Continuing to create, build, and foster meaningful relationships with other women is essential when starting out, and it is essential throughout your career, as it is a determining factor in long-term health and happiness.

Having a network will help you in a variety of ways, not the least of which is to give you the courage to go out and ask for what you want. I recently had a young woman contact me after hearing me speak on a panel. She asked for my advice about how to become a CFO, and ultimately, gain board appointments, given that she had a good deal of experience in finance.

I told her what I would tell anyone—if you want to be a CFO, reach out to the CFOs you have worked with and let them know of your aspirations. Tell them about your experience and skills. Let people help you. Most people will if they can. It begins with courage. Fortunately, this is a skill anyone can develop—you just have to take the first step. When you do, you will be amazed at how far you can go.

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