I saved the little cartoon for decades: A woman sitting at a board table and the chairman says to her, “That is a great idea Mrs. Smith, perhaps one of the men here would like to suggest it.”
Unfortunately, this is brutally reflective of boardroom reality — and supported by realms of reports and books on the challenges of being a woman in the boardroom or employed on a team. There was an assumption that this did not happen to men. And then I recalled a recent situation with my vehicle.
Being a farm girl I know my vehicle inside and out, and can fix a host of things. Taking it to a garage for a B.C. inspection though taught me that the guys would try anything — at least once. From the $500 rear door repair (I cleaned and oiled it for a total cost of $1.50) to the $120 to clean the ‘completely wrecked’ light covers ($3.99 for VIM and a little elbow grease) to the $3,500 to replace the shocks, boots, and brakes (nice try), I was bombarded with an assumption of my ignorance. When I mentioned this experience from a female perspective to my male friends they replied, “It is not just you, this happens to us, too!”
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What also happens to men is that they can be unheard in the boardroom, and victims of the theft of their ideas from CEOs, chairs, and other leaders. I came across some new research published in the Globe and Mail, revealing that when it came to the boardroom and the team, leaders ignored or stole ideas. Women and men expressed their frustration, with 47 per cent saying that leaders (CEOs or chairs) stole ideas and called them their own, and 63 per cent said they were not recognized for their achievements.
I recall this happening to me specifically on two boards, one national and one provincial. On the one board, my ideas were simply not acknowledged as though I had not spoken at all, even though they were well researched and presented. The chair or one of his closest buddies would then suggest the same thing, word for word, garner support, and the resolution would be presented.
On the other board, the chair would very politely meet with me ahead of time to ‘get a feel for what was happening and my vision on things.’ Then at the meeting, he would repeat them word for word as his own even if the suggested topic was entirely out of his field of expertise.
I always felt that speaking up would be petty. After all, it did not matter how the team got there — as long as we did. However, preserving the dignity of employees and board members is critical for the function of the organization, and it is the right thing to do. I appreciate how frustrated board members and employees must feel when their ideas are either ignored or stolen.
If you are invited to the table, your voice has a right to be heard.
Ignoring the voice of a man or woman does not build a culture of respect. And culture is that reflection of values and beliefs that nurtures behaviour, mindfulness, and social patterns. A great culture in a business or organization helps with adaptability and to mitigate risk. It is a collaborative effort that urges, empowers, and engages the voices at the table — and then gives them credit for doing so.
Leaders need to tune into what is being said, thank the person for it, and get permission to use the idea moving forward. Responses such as, ‘That is a great idea Tim. May I present it at our next executive meeting?’ will do. In the case of proprietary or visionary information, the response could be, “Thank you Linda, I would like to give you a few minutes on the agenda to introduce that. It ties in well with our overall goal… ”
Because people like to ‘fit in,’ a good measurement of employees not being heard is turnover. If you can’t keep staff, they are likely feeling robbed of their time and intelligence. If the board you sit on keeps defaulting to the status quo and to those ideas proposed by an inner circle, it is unlikely that your being there will change the culture. And when that person in the position of power steals your ideas, it’s not OK to let them mine your mind.
Being bold is taking ownership.
For women and men who have put so much care and thought into a problem or a vision, it is quite OK to say, ‘Thank you for acknowledging our conversation earlier. For the sake of the others in the room, I will just take a moment to expand on this and give you some background on how I got to this idea/decision.’
And finally, choose well.
Interview and investigate the board or company that is of interest or interested in you. You deserve to be empowered in a culture of both curiosity and respect.