As executives advance in their careers, their interest in boardroom participation can increase. They may want to expand their knowledge, extend their networks and gain more leadership skills to take their careers to the next level. Yet some companies may find themselves deliberating whether to encourage, or even allow, executives to serve on outside boards. As the founder and CEO of The Athena Alliance, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing gender diversity in the boardroom, I believe that the value of supporting your executives to serve on outside boards far exceeds these potential concerns. Doing so may not only be in the best interest of the executives; it may also be in the best interest of their companies.
In my experience, underrepresented groups, particularly women, are anxious for the opportunity to serve on executive boards. For some senior executive women, board service is becoming a desirable component of experience that can bring them to the next level in their careers, and they may switch companies to ensure they work for someone who supports this achievement. Women often confide in me that they have left or are leaving companies specifically because their employers prohibit them from pursuing board participation. Even if it's not a stated policy, they may sense that their companies will not support them, and they fear bringing it up.
Companies, it's time to stop fighting this inevitability and instead, to embrace and encourage it. When you allow your own executives to serve on outside boards, they can become stronger, more well-rounded leaders for your company. They are exposed to innovative trends in products and business practices. They collaborate with leaders across industries, who hold different roles and great levels of entrepreneurial success. They learn broadly about the challenges of corporate governance. Finally, they can see the impact of broader economic policies, global threats and trends on a company and they may bring that knowledge back to their roles on the job. I challenge you to find a director who will tell you his or her skills as a leader did not grow through board participation.
—Coco Brown, founder and CEO, Athena Alliance
Enabling your leaders to share non-proprietary best practices with a larger community also can extend a certain brand value. There's no reason why valued executives should have to leave your company permanently in order to mentor and educate others—especially when board work fills that need.
Consider the contradiction you present when top executives (often your CEO or CFO) serve on outside boards, yet you worry that allowing other executives to do the same will be a distraction from their day jobs. This is not only a double standard; it is an outdated stance that may force great players out.