Strengthen your executive board - put a woman on it

It is an absolute truth that the success or failure of a company is ultimately down to its people, especially at times like this. The skills and influence of every person have some bearing on company performance. But without the right leadership team, even a company filled to bursting point with dedicated, loyal, intelligent and hard-working people can struggle to remain competitive.

So, what does the right leadership team do? It formulates winning business strategies, makes informed decisions, inspires its management teams and more junior staff alike and leads by example. But how do you assemble it and achieve the right balance?

It’s a curious situation that we in the construction industry find ourselves in. Ours is a sector that is driven by innovation and ingenuity and yet it’s an industry that’s historically male-dominated and often perceived as old-fashioned. Lots of companies assemble executive boards based on longevity of service. At first glance that seems sensible. Why wouldn’t a firm of engineers be best run by experienced engineers?

But business success isn’t just a question of being good at your core business. It’s about understanding risk, forecasting, marketing, people management, empathy, financial balancing, legal insight and exploiting advancing technology. Decision-making at the highest level is stronger and more informed if there is a breadth of knowledge and skills. The current economic climate, the intense competition, the need to drive efficiency, sustain business and achieve growth make a balance more important than ever.

A board full of experienced directors - and experience doesn’t always equate to the ability to add value - doing the same things they’ve always done won’t cut it

This isn’t that debate about greater representation of women in the boardroom, although that’s the likely result of a balanced board. It’s about recognising the importance of functions like HR, legal, finance, marketing, PR and IT. By having a variety of skillsets and complementary mindsets, you’ll make more broadly considered and better informed decisions.

A board full of experienced directors - and experience doesn’t always equate to the ability to add value - doing the same things they’ve always done won’t cut it. In this changing world you need to complement that with a fresh approach with fresh ideas from fresh minds.

The board’s focus needs to move beyond “how we win more projects”. Guiding a successful company is also about exploring new markets, responding to clients’ needs, managing risk, delivering profitably, providing the ideal structure to deliver and putting your people at the centre of all of that. These are diverse and sometimes conflicting elements, so a board of complementary experts puts you in a stronger position to make the right decisions. Opportunities to sit on other boards should also be grabbed with both hands. The more you learn from outside your usual environment, the rounder the outlook you’ll bring to decision-making.

Another important consideration is ego and self-aggrandisement. If you want progress, you need an environment in which everybody can challenge the views of others and be comfortable with being challenged. This requires trust, commitment, accountability and needs to deliver results.

Board members need to be clear what will be required of them and they must have the right training and induction; without this reparation you might gain a mediocre manager and lose a talented hands-on team member. And being a board member might not be right for an individual, but this doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for them to progress or to influence decisions about the future of the business.

The HLM executive board is a balance of designers, financial, HR, legal and IT specialists; a mix of men and women. We promote forward-thinking associates and maintain open communication channels, creating and living the right culture for us.

I personally believe that we’re stronger for having women on our exec board. I don’t believe in fixed quotas, I believe in promotion on merit. But the way choices are made must be transparent so we can eradicate those old boy networks in the dinosaur companies that prolong the misperception of our industry. Women will only be fully represented when flexible working practices are introduced at an earlier stage of their careers. A supportive, empathic culture benefits everybody.

So can a boardroom exist just with architects or an all-male composition? Of course. Will it be successful, dynamic, agile and enriched? Probably not. And in this unpredictable climate, will it survive? I doubt it. We need diversity of thought and the recognition that different perspectives and areas of expertise are good for business. It’s the business led by the most diverse boards that will excel. 

Karen Mosley is board director and company secretary at HLM