On Being the Female Chair Leading a Predominately Male Board

young Black woman leads board meeting
Gisèle Manole Photo
Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Consultant
Quantum Governance L3C

4 minutes

Two female board leaders share their experiences and advice for promoting good governance—especially, but not only, as representatives of a minority demographic.

Being in a leadership role—as a credit union board chair, for example—can be lonely at times. Sitting in the chair’s seat certainly puts you in a place of distinction. After all, you have been selected from among your fellow directors to lead them in their leadership role. So, consider the task of leading when you are from a traditionally underrepresented demographic—and say, for the purposes of this conversation, you are a woman leading a predominantly male board.

I recently had the chance to connect with two women who shared with me some leadership advice for other women facing just this situation. What they said wasn’t at all what I expected. I anticipated hearing their perspective on having to do it better, faster and smarter than their male counterparts. But instead, their words struck a more nuanced and universal tone that stretched beyond gender differences.

Don’t Wait to Be Invited

A former CUES board member, Gerrianne “Winky” Burks can count herself among the trailblazers in the industry. After a 40-year career at $4.3 billion Northwest Federal Credit Union, Herndon, Virginia, the last five of which she served as CEO, she currently serves as the board chair.

Burks’ advice is this: “Don’t wait to be invited to participate on a board or committee. You may be in the minority as a woman, but you bring a perspective that holds real value.

“It’s so different now than when I started out,” Burks observes. “Now there is greater value placed on having a different perspective from the rest of the group.

“I followed a male board chair, and frankly, I just did things a little differently than he did,” she adds. “Our communication styles, for example: My meetings may run a little longer, because I really want to hear from everyone in the room. I feel that is important. Neither style is better than the other, and the credit union has benefited from our different styles for many years.”

Change Things Just Enough

CUES member Janet Burgett Martin, board chair of $625 million Copper State Credit Union in Phoenix, has spent the last two years in the role of chair and recommends changing things up too. “For those new to the board chair position, I highly recommend you change the agenda so that the board understands that there’s new leadership.”

Martin shares that she added a “mission moment” at the beginning of board meetings to recognize individual staff accomplishments. “This could be a member letter thanking an employee for excellent service or an award an employee received. It starts our meeting off on a positive note for both the board and staff in attendance.”

When faced with assumptions or stereotyping, Martin recommends dealing with those challenges head-on when they first present themselves. Don’t wait to see if the presumption affirms itself, she advises. Find your voice and address it immediately and directly.

“In my experience, when you make your expectations clear, presumptions correct themselves quickly. I am very direct but I also lead with compassion and enthusiasm,” she says.

Both Burks and Martin stress the notion of being authentic. Burks says that while it may seem obvious, “[The other directors] don’t know what you know. I think that women have gotten much more comfortable in presenting their own thoughts. I pay attention to our board meetings being a place where everyone’s thoughts and ideas are invited.”

While Martin encourages all board members to participate to make meetings more productive, she says “[I] always put it upon myself to be prepared by studying the full packet.” Participation requires preparation, and strong leaders model behaviors that they expect from others, she says.

Add Your Takeaways to This Starter List

As more and more women engage in credit union board service and rise to leadership roles within the industry, their collective learning will continue to grow. Here are some takeaways for developing leaders. Contribute your own advice in the comments section below.

  • Don’t wait to be invited. Share your thoughts and perspectives now!
  • Change things up and be intentional about it.
  • Be authentic and clear in your expectations. And then hold your colleagues to them.
  • Be prepared and model the commitment and behaviors you expect from your colleagues.

Gisèle Manole is director of external affairs and a consultant with Quantum Governance L3C. Her work with credit unions and nonprofit clients, and as a liaison to Quantum Governance’s strategic partner, CUES, leverages her 20-plus years of experience in communications, integrated marketing and public relations.

Quantum Governance provides credit unions, corporations, nonprofits, associations and governmental entities with strategic, cost-effective governance, ethics and management consulting, facilitation and evaluation. With more than 70% of Quantum Governance’s clients representing credit unions, the organization fields more engagements in the credit union community than in any other. The organization is home to more strategic governance experience than any other practice in the country. The firm is a unique L3C organization that integrates the best elements of both the for- and non-profit communities into one practice. It is a low-profit, limited-liability service organization dedicated to the public good and one of the very first such legal hybrid organizations in the United States.

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