The Female Board Pool branches out to Belgium
Armelle Loghmanian and Claudia Ritter
Armelle Loghmanian: Claudia, PWI partners with your company, Cleverland, to launch the “Female Board Pool” in Belgium. It is an exciting venture. Basically the initiative is to build a searchable database with profiles of board-ready and board experienced women. We want to counter the often heard argument in male-dominated business environments that they do not find qualified women to fill the board seats that are available to them. PWI’s members and magazine readers already heard about the initiative through us; but what is the story behind it? How did it all start for you?
Claudia Ritter: First of all, yes, it is an exciting and a timely initiative. We are building a database at a moment when many European countries are introducing, or have recently introduced, legislation promoting access of women to boardrooms. No wonder that the European Commission strongly supports the idea, and is even considering legislating to increase the representation of women on corporate boards. In Belgium, new legislation requires companies to have 30% of women on their board seats by 2018. Currently, we are at barely 13%. But to fill board seats by 2018 and reach the target, we need a pool and a pipeline of female executive talent. That’s where our initiative bridges the gap!
Managing Director of Cleverland'
Director of Female Board Pool Belgium
As to how it all started for me: the Female Board Pool was originally set up by Europe’s top-listed University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. Their Centre for Corporate Governance is dedicated to diversity leadership, focusing a significant part of their education and research on gender equality. But they are also extremely successful with the hands-on consultancy work they do for Swiss companies in the public and private sector, advising them on how to best compose boards with a diversified membership: different ages, genders, different professional backgrounds too. As research shows: diversified boards are more effective. They serve a company better because there is no “group think”, which often leads to bad decision-making.
St. Gallen University created a database, the “Female Board Pool” as they termed it, with profiles of women eligible for boards five years ago. The feedback they received was so positive that they decided to branch out to other countries. They wanted to trigger a Pan-European movement. The Female Board Pool Luxembourg was launched on 8 March 2011, the International Women’s Day, by a dear colleague of mine: Rita Knott, Director of “La Maison du Coaching, Mentoring et Consulting”. That is where I first met Professor Hilb from St. Gallen University, who had imagined it all. He asked me whether my company, being specialized in diversity leadership solutions, would like to bring the Board pool to Belgium. Professor Hilb is a fascinating man, vibrant, energetic, and highly innovative. He had been an entrepreneur for forty years before entering the academia. Not to be a right honourable lecturer, but rather to customize curricula to the needs of the real world, and vice versa: to give the real world academic structure. I liked his approach, I loved his genuine commitment to equality. So I said “yes” to his proposal. Prof. Hilb will be the keynote speaker at our conference in September, by the way.
Armelle: You were mentioning a Pan-European movement just now…
Claudia: Yes, indeed. Following the launch of the Female Board Pool in Belgium, it will spread to other European countries in 2013 and 2014: to France, the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and even Russia. All “champions”, as we call them, of the Board Pool for these countries will attend our conference in September too. We already represent an international network, albeit still small, but growing steadily…
Armelle: For PWI, it seemed to be a natural and timely decision to bring our experience and expertise to the Board Pool. In June 2011, the new board and executive team had decided to launch several programmes over the next two years designed to better serve our members in their career. The first one, “Mentoring”, began in October 2011. The second programme planned was “Women on Board” (WOB) alongside with the young generation. At the same time, however, I was gathering best practices from within our own EPWN network. I wanted to check for myself how to get the ball rolling and set up a top notch programme for our members. I felt inspired by a great initiative started in 2008 by our sister network in Milan, PWA: the “Ready-for-board women” project led by Monica Pesce. It is an absolute success story as they are now bringing women to top companies' board in Italy.
Managing Director Diphonet
And then you came along with your Female Board Pool proposal, and you convinced me right away. Mind you, people may wonder: another "Women on Board" initiative? Could you nail down the difference with similar already existing initiatives here in Belgium?
Claudia: There are two complementary initiatives in Belgium I know of. First, “Women on Board”, you just mentioned them and, second, the “European Business Schools/Women on Board initiative”, of which St. Gallen University’s Female Board Pool is a partner. There are three main differences:
- First, we operate with a searchable database, we can retrieve profiles by entering a simple set of keywords. By the way, the back end of the database is managed by St. Gallen University, meaning that we use one common template. This allows for easy exchanges between different countries, whilst at the same time respecting varying legislation relating to confidentiality. It is probably useful for me to mention that we restrict the use of women’s profiles to the purpose of the Board Pool, and transmit CVs to companies interested in their qualifications only with their prior consent. And there’s another thing: the Female Board Pool Database does not serve a commercial purpose.
- Second, we target a truly international audience: women from different nationalities living in Belgium.
- And, third, we work with women from all educational and professional backgrounds. We do target female university or technical college professors, as they can provide specific expertise in a broad range of sectors. A biotech SME may seek a woman researcher in biotechnology for their board rather than one with a background in business administration… But we do not focus exclusively on women with an academic background either. Many women in senior management positions in SMEs and family-owned businesses did not go to university, but they have a wealth of experience to share. In short: we want to be diverse and inclusive. Mind you, we are nevertheless going for top quality with regard to both contents and professional ethics. A selection committee will ensure that according to a transparent set of criteria. Inclusion does not mean dilution…
Armelle: Fully agree! And you've perfectly outline the purpose of our joint initiative in your manifesto entitled “Seven reasons to support the Female Board Pool”. The aim of being “inclusive”, as you said, appealed to me right away. Sometimes company governance focuses too much on financial aspects. Board members do not under all circumstances need to be financial experts or have earned a Masters degree in Business Administration to be able to provide valuable experience and insights. They need to be familiar with finances, of course, but their specific expertise can reside elsewhere. A company’s value does not only show in its numbers, but also in its behaviour: Corporate Social Responsibility, sustainability, technology choices, people management… are keys for success too. All boards should reflect this diversity of responsibilities. Research proves that if women were to participate more in corporate governance, we would see measurable benefits for the economy, for innovation, and for society as a whole.
Another point that resonates for me is the fact that the initiative is not restricted to women’s access to board seats of listed companies but also, for example, of SMEs. I am a strong believer in the need for smaller companies, including family-owned businesses, to have a board, and of course a well-balanced one. So do NGOs and associations, or public bodies such as state-owned hospitals.
Claudia, you champion the Female Board Pool Belgium with selected partners, and you have created a Strategic Committee. Who are they?
Claudia: My company partners with St. Gallen University/Centre for Corporate Governance, with PWI, and with the Astia Foundation, an American Organisation operating worldwide to promote women-led highly innovative and high-growth start-ups. They are in process of strengthening their European branch, that’s the reason why they sought collaboration with us.
And then, there is the Strategic Committee which reflects the cultural diversity of this country, and in particular of Brussels. We are ten senior executive women representing seven different nationalities, or cultures, operating across Europe, in the United States, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Paula Baptista is Portuguese, and a business consultant in sales and marketing, as well as in the retail industry. Maria Fogelstrom is Swedish, and has twenty years of experience in public affairs, lobbying and strategic communications. Marie-Laure Delanghe and yourself are both French: she is a seasoned PR and media relations professional; you have a profile in engineering, technology, strategic marketing and management and work between three continents. Françine Messinne is a Belgian francophone lawyer operating internationally too. Monique Coppieters is a Flemish entrepreneur directing an SME in Wallonia, who is highly successful in Asia. Anne Randerson, an American, and myself, of German and Dutch nationality, specialize in diversity leadership and cross-cultural business communications. Brooke Peterson, an American as well, offers marketing solutions to SMEs expanding internationally. Her company is headquartered in Brussels, but has an office in Boston as well. And then there’s Sharon Vosnek and Ida Beerhalter from the Astia Foundation. Sharon, a US American, is Astia’s CEO. Ida, a German, is member of their Board of Trustees. Both have significant expertise in finances and business administration with listed companies as well as with SMEs or family-owned businesses.
Together we, the ten women on the Strategic Committee, combine knowledge and experience in both the public and the private sector in finances, legal affairs, engineering, cross-cultural business communications, global leadership, press and media relations, and new technologies. And what’s more: we share similar values too. This is crucial given the fact that we operate for the Female Board Pool as volunteers. As I indicated earlier on, this is a non-commercial initiative.
Armelle: What I find interesting too, is that the launch conference is not a one-shot. We do not just want a database. We want a network.
Claudia: Yes, indeed, we want to create an inclusive community of committed women and men providing the support women need to access governing bodies. We plan to organize a number of events per year, involving Board Pool members, supporters and so-called “connectors”. We are in process of creating a group of ambassadors - mentors from companies and other bodies, such as employers’ organisations or Chambers of Commerce, sponsors, thought-leaders - who help us drive forward our mission. We start off modestly, but ultimately, we want to create a powerful transnational network mobilizing female talent across Europe!
Looking forward to seeing you at the Female Board Pool launch seminar on September 24th from 12:00 to 21:00.
In the meantime, follow us on Linkedin . You will find more information about this initiative on the PWI web site here and on Cleverland website here.
Claudia Ritter is managing director of Cleverland, a consultancy headquartered in Brussels which specializes in diversity leadership solutions and cross-cultural business communications.
A significant part of her activities is dedicated to high-level women managers, to women entrepreneurs, and to high potentials. Being cross-cultural through her upbringing, education and professional background, Claudia operates across Europe, in India and the US in both the public and the private sector.
She has earned a Masters of Arts and a postgraduate Masters in Science of Leadership, and is a Certificated Co-active Coach (credentials: International Coaches Federation).
Armelle Loghmanian bio here
Disclaimer - Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PWI or Cleverland, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.