“I learned a lot about how other companies, for example, do succession planning or how they evaluate executives, how much the board is involved in things like diversity initiatives,” she said.
Lee said she sought to join boards after watching her predecessor, BET founder Robert L. Johnson, serve as a director, hoping to hone her own management style. Despite her years of experience, she credited her recent appointment to the president’s management advisory board, meant to help the government implement best business practices, with helping her turn a corner.
“It gave me a firm basis for thinking of myself as a CEO and getting my profile out there,” said Lee, who now refers to herself as “overboarded” — meaning she sits on so many boards that she would not add another.
Being a director can also be rewarding in other ways, women board members say. Roxanne Decyk found she was interested in joining a board early in her career. In 1981, a then-28-year-old Decyk took an executive job at International Harvester, as the company tried to stave off bankruptcy. (She said she later realized she got the job so young because more-mature adults knew better than to take such a difficult role.)
As part of her job, she worked closely with the company’s board. “Some were terrific directors,” she recalled. “Other people showed up for the meeting and had a relaxing time, collected their fees and that was it.”
The board made a lasting impression on Decyk, who became a board member herself just a few years later. Though she figured the board role was given to her because of pressure on companies to add women, Decyk accepted and continued joining boards. She eventually went to the University of Oxford to study corporate governance, trying to figure out what makes a good director.
“A lot of it is your personal choice on how you interpret your responsibilities and what you view as your obligation,” Decyk said she concluded. She now sits on the board of Arlington-based Alliant Techsystems.
Eileen Auen, too, reported being the beneficiary of a push to include more women when she joined the board of Fairfax-based ICF International in early 2008.
“They were certainly looking to broaden their representation,” said Auen, who heads a health care company and has helped the professional services giant increasingly move into her sector.
Bethesda-based Marriott International is among those focusing on this issue. About a year ago, Marriott began partnering with WomenCorporateDirectors — a membership group for women directors — to host boot camps for women who want to join boards. (WCD has been putting on the camps for about five years, said Susan Stautberg, co-founder of the group.)
During the one-day sessions, women meet with search executives, learn how a board interview differs from a job interview and practice pitching themselves for a board spot, Stautberg said.
The organization selects a pool of about 20 women, all high-ranking executives or successful entrepreneurs, to attend each camp and provides them with a list of available board spots at the end of the day.
Stautberg said getting onto the first board is typically the toughest part. “Once you’re on one, all of a sudden you’re vetted and everyone wants you,” she said. WCD recommends starting with a small board.
The women who make it to the boardroom report that being one of few women hasn’t limited their ability to speak up. April H. Foley, a former ambassador to Hungary who now sits on the board of ATK, said she was accustomed to being a minority.
“Much of my professional life has been in environments that had lots of males,” she said, adding that the exception was attending the all-women Smith College. “I’m used to it, and I think that’s probably true for most women who serve on boards.”