Women advance as boards hire non-CEOs

Large companies are increasingly welcoming women who have not been chief executives on to their boards, marking a big step forward

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 April, 2013, 4:36am

Beth Comstock, a Nike director, picked up ideas in the shoemaker's boardroom about doing business in India by appealing to that nation's love of cricket. Now she's taking what she learned back to her day job as General Electric's marketing chief.

Comstock shows how women are breaking through a path travelled by men for decades in male-dominated boards: They are increasingly welcomed as directors at firms such as Honeywell International and General Dynamics without having served as a chief executive at another company.

Last year 34 per cent of new female directors did not have a chief executive job, up from 6 per cent in 2008, said Julie Daum, a recruiter at Spencer Stuart and an advocate for more women on boards. Opening up spots is key because it helps break the gender gap. If boards focus on chief executive directors, they will leave out many women since fewer have the background.

"You can't just have a knee-jerk reaction that you need an active CEO," said Daum, who co-leads Spencer Stuart's North American Board & CEO Practice. Only 4 per cent of Standard & Poor's 500 Index chief executives are women.

As women rise in the executive ranks, it is easier to find the right candidates, Honeywell chief executive David Cote said. He should know: the manufacturer added Grace Lieblein from General Motors to its board in December and nominated Robin Washington, Gilead Science's chief financial officer, for the names of directors to be considered on April 22.

"You look for years and then all of a sudden two great candidates at one time who have run big stuff, who have made big decisions," said Cote. "They fit very well with our overall board philosophy, which is to be independent and supportive - and those two do go together."

Lieblein, who was promoted in December to head of GM's worldwide purchasing, said she was running the carmaker's Brazilian operations when she was approached about the Honeywell position. Her first board meeting was February 13.

It was the realisation of a personal goal, the executive said. A neighbour when she was based in Mexico City, a retired executive who served on a couple of US boards, recommended a board seat to round out her career. A three-day course about women on corporate boards at the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago in May 2011 only whetted her appetite more, she said.

"It's interesting to see how another company runs its business and how they face challenges," Lieblein said. "I can add value, too. I've been in manufacturing, I've done product development, I've run Mexico and Brazil, so I think I bring something to the table."

Last year, women held 17 per cent of S&P 500 board seats, up 1 percentage point from 2007, according to Spencer Stuart data. The number of new independent directors dropped to 291, the smallest since 2001: out of about 5,300 seats, turnover is low.