New Executive Education Program Prepares Women for Board Leadership

By Karen Guzman

Taking a seat on an organization’s board of directors is a major career step, one that requires considerable skills and savvy. It’s a step that the Yale School of Management is preparing more women to take.

With Women on Boards, a new Executive Education program launched last fall, Yale SOM has created a five-day mini-course aimed at helping women explore options for board service, while networking in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.

“The audience for this program was just waiting,” said Tracy Sheerin, senior director of marketing and innovation for Yale SOM’s Executive Education programs. “They are women with deep experience in their given fields, who are energized to make an impact through board membership.”

Response to the first Women on Boards last fall was so strong that Yale SOM has decided to host the program twice a year, rather than annually as originally planned.

“The attendees came from a wide variety of industries and sectors,” Sheerin said. “But they were similar in that they are impressive, accomplished women who want to launch into the next phase of their career. We want to see more of them making an impact, and the corporate and nonprofit worlds need their voices.”

Women on Boards features a series of targeted seminars led by Yale SOM faculty and noted industry leaders. The inaugural course addressed topics relating to strategy, leadership, and networking as they intersect with board functioning. Areas covered included legal issues, stakeholder management, handling conflict, and network building. Individual coaching sessions were also held.

Participant Linda Tarplin, co-founder of Tarplin, Downs & Young, a healthcare consultancy firm in Washington, D.C., is exploring board service as a way to diversify her career.

“Being able to unplug and immerse yourself in what it means to transition to board work is just an amazing opportunity,” Tarplin said. “We will all walk away with incredible knowledge of the substance required and of the process. Whether you came to the program already on boards or considering board work, you will leave with a complete sense of what it takes to be a successful board member.”

Group discussions let participants learn from each other’s career trajectories and plans. “The group dynamics have been great,” Tarplin said. “Every woman in the program is incredibly accomplished in their field, and we have all gotten to know each other and learn from each other.”

Organizations increasingly are seeking women for their boards, according to Lisa Hamm Kammert, senior director of client and curriculum development for Yale SOM’s Executive Education programs.

At the same time, the board search process has become more rigorous and less dependent on small networks of board contacts. Companies are looking for directors with greater expertise, which requires them to search more widely. It also means potential board directors need to have broader, more current oversight skills, Kammert explained.

“Women are interested in learning how to successfully navigate this evolved process, adding more skills to be as competitive as possible,” she said. “With increased demand for more diverse boards, women need to be prepared to contribute in areas that are now in more demand on today’s boards.”

The new program’s agenda was created to address these new challenges. “There’s a need for increased oversight in areas like financial accounting, cybersecurity, sustainability, and new technologies,” Kammert said. “Executive search firms have provided us with invaluable input into what their clients need.”

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies and Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management, added: “Women have long been underrepresented in top corporate leadership roles and in boardrooms. The excuses that there are too few qualified women candidates dissolves thanks to our unique program. We identify brilliant, highly accomplished women leaders and help provide them network access and key strategic and governance tools with cutting-edge scholars and corporate insiders to be ‘board ready’ the minute the program closes.”  

Participants appreciate that the program is geared to women. “Yale SOM’s Women on Boards is a game-changing program,” said participant Nancy Mahon YC ’86, senior vice president for global citizenship and sustainability at the Estée Lauder Companies.

“SOM is not just talking about the challenges women face getting on boards; it’s doing something about them: getting the best professors, women directors, and search firms to train us to not only get on boards but to be effective leaders when we get there.”

Maya Mavjee, president, publishing strategy, at Macmillan, attended the program to learn more about networking, board room dynamics, and behavioral insights. She is interested in nonprofit board service.

“The publishing world can tend to be somewhat insular,” she said. “This program helps you look at how your skillsets fit in a board role. It is also so energizing to be in a room full of such extraordinary women.”