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Women in leadership: 4 keys for making it onto the Board of Directors

In just a few years, the proportion of female senior executives has soared by almost 25% , meaning they already occupy 30% of the positions of maximum responsibility in companies around the world. But what are they doing to be so successful?

Hundreds of women have broken through glass ceilings and are now serving on the executive boards and boards of directors of large companies. Here are four key ways you can follow in their footsteps:

1. Raise your hand!

To continue rising to the top, it is essential that you share your aspirations to grow. This can be done with a good coffee conversation (or, better still, several!) with your bosses and colleagues, by participating in professional associations, or by liaising with large investors and shareholders, or by attending specialized seminars and forums.

It is important that these meet-ups allow you to come into contact with prominent managers and allow you to meet professionals close to the decision-making bodies of major companies. They will serve to make yourself known in the right circles as future directors, demonstrate your competence and build a solid network of relationships. The upcoming forums of this type organized by IESE will see executives from the mobility, health, energy, real estate, banking, insurance and food and beverage sectors come together, providing such an opportunity.

2. Get some intensive training

As we move toward the executive board and board of directors, expertise becomes essential. Amparo Moraleda, director of Airbus, Vodafone, Solvay and Caixabank, says that in particular an excellent understanding of the “sector of activity of the company, the entry barriers, the competitive position and the levers of value creation for the company and the sector in the short-, medium- and long-term”. Without this, it is impossible to help design, evaluate and update a good strategy — and this is what is expected of anyone in top-level management.

Moraleda studied the IESE Advanced Management Program years ago to continue edging closer to positions of higher leadership — and she got there. Since then, the business school has expanded its offering of programs to include specific training for executive women joining boards of directors.

3. Toughen up your “soft” skills

We call ‘soft skills’ soft to distinguish them from technical knowledge and skills that are easy to quantify, but — as we know — they are actually very robust and, in many cases, they make the difference between a candidate who stands out and a candidate who shines. ‘Soft skills’ are the building blocks from which true leaders are made.

If we want to build ourselves up to be the type of leader that is sought in the highest echelons of companies, we need to turn to programs that focus on this specifically  whilst also cultivating self-esteem, credibility, empathy and a vocation for service.

Strong self-esteem goes hand in hand with humility and resilience, with extreme perfectionism being the antithesis of all this. Nobody is perfect; the key is to try to be very good at your job, to believe fully that you can do better and improve a little more each day. Realistic medium-term goals — and the joy that comes from having achieved them — also boosts confidence and self-esteem.

And your credibility will hinge on these qualities, although not exclusively. Reyes Calderón, who has been dean of the Faculty of Economics at the University of Navarra and director of OHL and Banco Popular, also flags the importance of either teaming up or being independent (sometimes you have to play along as a team member and other times alone), and of acting simply and consistently and taking full responsibility for our actions. All of this will help us to be more trustworthy and to cultivate the kind of leadership expected of us on both the executive board and the board of directors.

4. Delegate well, get some experience and prepare for the interview

Behind a great man, there is always a great woman and… behind a great woman, there must also be a great man committed to her success and well-being. Delegating duties should start at home, and it is essential to have someone by our side who shares the tasks, gives us support and perspective, and is understanding about us having an increasingly demanding professional schedule.

To continue ascending to the highest decision-making bodies of companies, you will need to fill that schedule with ways of understanding what board members want. For example, have you considered joining more boards — either those within your own company, or in associations and non-profit organizations? You may well learn a lot from them, and one may even serve as a bridge to the board of directors of a large multinational.


If you have done all this, consider yourself ready. You just need the vacancy to come up, and to get through the interview — having prepared fully for it. Don’t forget to use those managers you met in specialized forums to speak highly of you, as endorsement. Also, highlight your specialized technical training and your (by now, very strong) soft skills. Remember, too, to mention your experience in other company management bodies and associations. Success is yours for the taking! IESE’s Executive Education programs will always be there to accompany you on your next adventure.

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