Beth Comstock, a Nike Inc. director, says she picked up ideas in the shoemaker’s boardroom about doing business in India by appealing to that country’s love of cricket. Now she’s taking what she learned back to her day job as General Electric Co.’s marketing chief.
Comstock shows how women are breaking through a path traveled by men for decades in male-dominated boards: They’re increasingly welcomed as directors at corporations such as Honeywell International Inc. and General Dynamics Corp. without having served as a chief executive officer at another company. And like men, they’re getting critical experience out of it.
Last year 34 percent of new female directors didn’t have a CEO job, up from 6 percent in 2008, said Julie Daum, a recruiter at Spencer Stuart and an advocate for placing more women on boards. Opening up spots is important because it helps break the gender gap. If boards focus on CEO directors, they’ll leave out many women since fewer have that background.
“You can’t just have a knee-jerk reaction that you need an active CEO,” said Daum, who co-leads Spencer Stuart’s North American Board & CEO Practice from New York. Only 4 percent of Standard & Poor’s 500 Index chief executives are women.
As women rise in the executive ranks, it’s easier to find the right candidates, Honeywell CEO David Cote said. He should know: The manufacturer added Grace Lieblein from General Motors Co. to its board in December and nominated Robin Washington, 50, Gilead Science Inc.’s chief financial officer, for the slate of directors to be considered April 22.
“You look for years and then all of a sudden two great candidates at one time who have run big stuff, who have made big decisions,” Cote, 60, said in an interview. “They fit very well with our overall board philosophy, which is to be independent and supportive -- and those two do go together.”
Lieblein, who was promoted in December to head of GM’s worldwide purchasing, said she was running the carmaker’s Brazilian operations when she was approached about the Honeywell position. Her first board meeting was Feb. 13.
It was the realization of a personal goal, the 52-year-old executive said. A neighbor when she was based in Mexico City, a retired executive who served on a couple of U.S. boards, recommended a board seat to round out her career. A three-day course about women on corporate boards at the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago in May 2011 only whetted her appetite more, she said.
“It’s interesting to see how another company runs its business and how they face challenges,” Lieblein said. “I can add value, too. I’ve been in manufacturing, I’ve done product development, I’ve run Mexico and Brazil, so I think I bring something to the table.”
Lieblein said GM CEO Dan Akerson, who has been a member of at least a dozen boards over his career, sat down with her during a meeting in Brazil and gave her pointers for being a good director. Akerson also let Mary Barra -- his manufacturing chief and among possible successors, according to people familiar with the thinking -- join General Dynamics’ board in 2011. The board opportunities mark a shift in GM strategy from past regimes, said Lieblein, who joined the carmaker in 1978.
Last year, women held 17 percent of S&P 500 board seats, up one percentage point compared with 2007, according to Spencer Stuart data. The number of new independent directors dropped to 291, the smallest since 2001: out of about 5,300 seats, turnover is low.
Some male directors still aren’t sold on the availability of female candidates. About 45 percent of them said the lack of qualified prospects explains the stagnation for women. Only 18 percent of female board members agree, according to a survey released in September by recruiter Heidrick & Struggles International Inc., Harvard University and the WomenCorporateDirectors organization.
Attitudes must change, said William Lauder, chairman of New York-based cosmetics maker Estee Lauder Cos.
“If we don’t break out of the cycle, then women won’t get the opportunity,” said Lauder, whose company has seven female directors, the most in the S&P 500. “It’s identifying a person who is a young rising star, and giving them an opportunity.”
Estee Lauder appointed Wei Sun Christianson, Morgan Stanley’s head of China, to its board in March of 2011. The company also permitted CFO Tracey Travis to stay on Campbell Soup Co.’s board and let Georgia Garinois-Melenikiotou, senior vice president of marketing, become a Bacardi Corp. director.
The financial meltdown has created a need for expertise on audit committees, a potential boon for women like Travis, 50, with financial jobs on their resumes, according to Lauder. In 2012, 17 percent of new women directors were CFOs, an increase from 1 percent in 2008, Spencer Stuart data show.
The boardroom gives heads of units governance experience, creating “more well-rounded executives,” Lauder said.
“They themselves run multi-billion organizations within a multi-multi-billion dollar organization,” he said. “They have all the skills and experiences and they are almost de facto CEOs of their units.”
Other recent examples include marketing chiefs such as eBay Inc.’s Richelle Parham, who joined Scripps Networks Interactive Inc.’s board last year, and Bank of America Corp.’s Anne Finucane, a CVS Caremark Corp. director since 2011. Also in 2011, Hertz Global Holdings Inc. CFO Elyse Douglas joined Assurant Inc.’s board and Philip Morris International Inc. added JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s head of India, Kalpana Morparia.
Becoming a director can also help prepare lower-level executives for the top job. The opportunity, long available to some men, is now opening up for women too, said Janice Babiak, a former managing partner at Ernst & Young LLP and now a director and audit committee member at Walgreen Co.
“What they would do with a man is say ’Well, he’s going to be CEO someday, and he needs some board experience, so let’s get him on a board somewhere,’” said Babiak, who mentors women seeking director positions. “At least it better prepared them.”
Of 153 women appointed to S&P 500 boards over the last two years, 39 were CEOs joining boards other than their own, according to data compiled by Bloomberg on the women’s careers. The group included 20 CFOs, nine unit presidents and five current or former chief marketing officers.
A good example of a woman hired for her experience rather than her title is Stephanie Tilenius, former vice president of global strategy at Google Inc. and a director at Coach Inc., said Daum.
“You’re not going to get the CEO of Google on your board,” she said. “Beth Comstock is probably a better addition to the Nike board than Jeff Immelt,” GE’s chief executive.
Comstock, the only executive at GE serving on an outside board, is a self-described “guinea pig” for other managers. Immelt doesn’t serve on any corporate board.
“Historically, GE hasn’t really allowed us on corporate boards, so I knew that was changing,” the 52-year-old executive said in an interview. “Jeff wanted some of his senior executives to have exposure to other leadership dynamics in other companies.”
Insight on how Nike develops new markets and uses technology are helping with her own efforts at market development for GE. Exposure to a different corporate culture has also been beneficial, said Comstock, who has been a Nike director since 2011.
Nike CEO Mark Parker is “unlike many people I worked with GE,” she said. “He grew up in the design arena, he’s an innovator, he’s a risk taker, in a meaningful way.”
“GE has so many great leadership strengths, largely in engineering culture,” Comstock said. “It’s nice to see a different style. I’ve been able to bring some great best practices back from Mark and even to say to Jeff ‘‘’Here’s a way they thought about it.’”
Another impediment for women has been their early penetration into areas that are functional, such as human resources or corporate council, versus operating jobs, said Babiak, the Walgreen director.
“So you make it through the glass ceiling and you’re stuck in the glass room,” she said. “Women need to push to get the operating roles.”
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg makes a similar point in her book “Lean In” offering advice to aspiring women executives to be more assertive in business and push for higher pay and more influential jobs. The Menlo Park, California-based social-networking website appointed her as the first and only woman on its board in June after several months of pressure from investors.
GM’s Barra, who worked in human resources, manufacturing and product development, said CEO Akerson encouraged her to take the board seat at defense company General Dynamics.
“We don’t want to be an inwardly focused company,” she said. “This is a way to get exposure to other senior leaders, another layer of management and diversity of thought.”
The biggest obstacle women face remains their lack of previous boardroom experience, Spencer Stuart’s Daum said.
“It’s a catch 22,” Daum said. “If they have governance experience, then their dance card is full. You just don’t need 12 CEOs on your board.”
See Treasury & Risk's 2012 Women in Finance list.