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Women general counsel: Eight ways to optimize your board performance

Monday, June 28, 2021 @ 2:15 PM | By Stacy McLean, Kathleen Keilty and Alison Jeffrey

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Alison Jeffrey
On the boards of Canadian public companies, women general counsel (GC) now outnumber their male counterparts by a ratio of nearly 2:1, as the most recent Blakes Board Report: Opportunities for Women General Counsel revealed and The Lawyer’s Daily reported.

But there is still progress to be made — women GCs continue to be underrepresented on boards, particularly in sectors such as hotel/leisure, communication services, health/pharma and technology.

That’s why, beyond studying the progress and prospects of women GCs on boards, the annual Blakes Board Report offers practical guidance for those who aspire to serve on boards. This year, we asked a panel of corporate directors, all current or former GCs, to share their wisdom and insights on optimizing personal performance in the boardroom.  

Here are the eight key takeaways from the roundtable discussion.

1. Leverage the general counsel role to build your boardroom skillset

Your board training begins well before your appointment or election to a board. As a GC, watch, listen and learn from the most successful members of your organization’s board. Model your approach on theirs.

When you cross from the executive to the boardroom, your background as a GC will prove key to finding common ground with the management team and understanding their challenges.

As a board member, maintain the practice you developed as a GC of raising questions and concerns in advance. Doing so will help ensure that your board and executive colleagues understand the context and are prepared to engage.

2. Demonstrate broad strategic leadership skills

Be the executive in the room. Ensure your value proposition reflects your leadership skills and not just your legal expertise.

Developing leadership means actively broadening your field of vision and your professional portfolio. As a GC, learn as much as you can about the core business from the experts at your company. Seek out any opportunity to demonstrate your leadership skills with issues, committees and departments beyond legal.

3. Consider formal governance training options that suit your needs

Governance expertise may be a given for many GCs, but governance training can also help you build a valuable network outside your verticals. Consider programs such as Association of Corporate Counsel’s mini-MBA or an executive MBA. Identify the skill upgrades that best suit your personal goals and tailor training to your needs.

4. Develop your voice

Meaningful contributions begin with active listening. Listen carefully and speak when it is impactful.

Learning the board’s culture and dynamics is also key to developing an effective voice. Observe how other members deal with conflict and raise challenging issues.

Finally, understand where the board expects you to bring value and remember that your value proposition is dynamic — it can evolve as your company and board mature.

5. Go the extra mile to overcome the challenges of COVID-19

Make time and space to build real relationships. Purposefully reach out to other board members to make the connections that would otherwise happen at in-person meetings and retreats.

Use technology to your advantage. For example, seek out best practices in techniques for online meetings to better engage with the board.

6. Learn the business by touring facilities and meeting people

When the public health situation allows, seek multiple perspectives on the business by taking opportunities to visit sites, and meet staff, customers and key stakeholders. Build strategic relationships with those who are best equipped to help you learn the business.

7. Structure contact with senior management to elevate performance

Boards govern, managers manage. Relationships with key executives are important, but don’t overstep the boundaries of governance. Respect those boundaries by maintaining open, trust-based communication and an awareness of tone and corporate culture. Specifically, make sure the chair and the CEO are onside with any communication with staff.

8. Fine-tune your emotional intelligence to develop a boardroom presence

It’s hard to overstate the role of emotional intelligence in one’s board performance. At meetings, an awareness of body language is a superpower for navigating subtle dynamics. During a crisis, choosing the appropriate words and actions can make or break your response. Board membership requires you to hold tight to your core values (e.g., integrity and ethics) in a new context.

(The participants in the roundtable that produced these insights were Leslie O’Donoghue (director, Pembina Pipelines, Methanex and Richardson International), Sheila Murray (board chair, Teck Resources Ltd.; director, BCE; trustee, Granite REIT), Charlene Ripley (executive vice-president and general counsel, SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.; director, Keyera Corp.), Karin McCaskill (director, The Valens Company) and Barbara Munroe (board chair, Crescent Point Energy; director, Willow Biosciences).)

Stacy McLean and Kathleen Keilty are partners and Alison Jeffrey is senior adviser, strategic initiatives and client development coaching at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP

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