A Seat at the Table for Women

The public discourse is about Boards and Executive teams. Employees, shareholders, regulators and the public care about the composition and calibre of the top team. Companies, search firms and investors are urged to increase the diversity of the leadership team, while simultaneously improving effectiveness and governance. Achieving this has been tougher than expected. There is no silver bullet. As a Board Development and Executive Search Consultancy, Fidelio is committed to develop the female chairmen and CEOs of tomorrow. And this is how.

No lack of technical and operational skills

Much has been written about better governance, greater effectiveness and more diversity at Board level. Against this clamour why does Fidelio have something special to say?

Fidelio is in the privileged position of meeting with senior executives and non-executives on a daily basis – as clients, as candidates, as friends. Across sectors and geographies we see clearly who is succeeding and who is hitting a glass ceiling or brick wall. At this level it is seldom technical or operational skills that are lacking.

On a more personal note, in my corporate career I served as the most senior female executive globally in a one of the world’s top 3 automotive companies. In addition to my role with Fidelio I currently also sit on a small number of Boards. This provides me with a very practical insight into the challenges we all face in ensuring that Boards draw upon the very best talent available and then use that talent wisely.

Beyond the appointment process

Search firms clearly have a duty to their clients to source the best possible talent for a given role, at Board or executive level. What sounds simple is frequently complex. Role definition requires hard thinking; internal alignment around the role is not a given; sourcing talent beyond the usual suspects requires long-term engagement and thoughtfulness; and positioning the employer brand is key.

A professional search firm will deliver all the above and at each stage be alert to biases that may creep in. Thus when Fidelio executes a Search to a very high standard, we are implicitly and explicitly furthering diversity.

Search is undoubtedly an important part of the process of building diverse and effective leadership teams. But we certainly recognise that more needs to be done outside the scope of the formal appointments process.

Empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.

– US President Barack Obama, Int’l Women’s Day 2013

Improving the pipeline

Across Europe initiatives to increase the proportion of women on Boards have identified the weakness of the pipeline as a major stumbling block. There is no one solution to strengthening this pipeline. We have chosen to focus on our area of expertise which is identifying and developing successful business leaders who can navigate complexity and engage effectively with stakeholder and shareholders.

Drawing upon our own experience as well as that of clients, we identified key obstacles for senior women as they navigate the highest echelons of the organisation. We have pinpointed attributes, behaviours and thinking which are critically important to gain a seat at the top table and thereafter to succeed. And we also turned to other professions which are highly regarded for developing resilient leaders. This combines to form a Programme we have named with clear intent “A Seat at the Table.”

A Seat at the Table

In this Programme we take a clear look at the following:

– Governance
– Board dynamic
– Models of leadership
– Personal impact
– Networks
– Resilience

You may argue that these are the soft factors but the soft factors are often the hardest to fix. The fact that the Programme is held at Sandhurst and hosted by General Sir Richard Shirreff, former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, underlines our commitment to the cause.

You may also ask if women are particularly deficient in these fields. Absolutely not. The Programme creates an excellent foundation course for stepping into the top role and assuming a seat at the top table regardless of gender. The specific problem we are looking to address is, however, the weakness of the female pipeline.

Creating a powerful advantage

Why does a rigorous exploration of these topics give such a powerful advantage?

Looking first at governance, all directors whether executive or non-executive, current or future benefit from revisiting the first principles. Professor Bob Garratt, author of a seminal work for students of governance, “The fish rots from the head” demonstrates with powerful clarity the inherent tension in all Boards and leadership teams between oversight and supervision on the one hand and strategy and vision on the other.

In addition to formal governance structures, effective leaders will also be able to interpret the dynamic of the leadership team. How does power flow within the organisation? What are the range of leadership styles that we can draw upon? Robert Rowland Smith, author of the best-selling “Breakfast with Socrates” draws upon philosophy, classics and psychology as he regularly interprets power and leadership in his work with corporates across the globe.

Observation is critical, as is self-awareness. Christopher Heimann, acclaimed drama coach and artistic director, draws upon the heritage of the theatre to explore presence and authority. The effective leader will have a strong authentic presence. This includes holding one’s ground at critical junctures, ensuring key points are made, conveying authority. And, if relevant, challenging conventional thinking on attributes of leadership.

Having spent a large part of my career navigating complex shareholder and stakeholder relationships for some of Europe’s major corporates, I pick up on the importance of networks – internal and external. Several major companies have expressed concern that their senior female executives have extensive networks but often use these networks with less purpose than male colleagues. Regardless of gender it is clear that a successful leader will be effective in navigating networks of support and networks of reciprocity.

And finally resilience. Leadership is no soft option and requires a reservoir of personal strength. With General Sir Richard Shirreff we explore front-line leadership drawing, for example, on his experience commanding allied troops at Basra, as well as the high-level geo-political leadership required in the most senior ranks of NATO.

The bottom line is no organisation can be effective without high calibre leadership. I feel strongly that a weak pipeline of senior female executives deprives companies and shareholders of top talent.

– General Sir Richard Shirreff, 2015


We revisit this theme with Major Alex Hall, a senior army medic who displayed outstanding courage and leadership in a fateful insider attack in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of an American General and injury of many allied soldiers. And again looking at public service, we explore the challenges faced by Claudia Sturt, who is currently responsible for all prisons in Thames Valley, Hampshire and Isle of Wight, as well as all establishments in the Public Sector operated Immigration Removal estate.

Tackling these topics with a select group of senior women from different sectors creates a powerful dynamic and alumni network. Each participant leaves Sandhurst with: a framework for understanding individual leadership style; a mirror for personal presence; and a road map taking account of internal and external stakeholders with practical steps to navigate the transition to Senior Executive and Non-Executive roles; and a role model for resilience.

Our call to action

We seldom blow our own trumpet in Overture but we are very proud of the work Fidelio is doing to strengthen the pipeline of senior female executives and therefore want to share it. A Seat at the Table focusses on what we recognise to be some of the major stumbling blocks. To overcome these obstacles we combine the expertise of world leaders in their fields with the considerable executive experience of the participants. A Seat at the Table is an important part of what Fidelio is doing to pave the way for female chairmen and CEOs. This is our call to action.

A Seat at the Table

Who should attend?

Senior Female Executives who are in leadership roles within global organisations. Participants in this programme will sit on the Management Board and/or Executive Committee or will be in a clear trajectory to a seat at the top table.


Royal Military Academy Sandhurst trains British Army officers for leadership command. The venue provides a fitting backdrop for encouraging participants to think differently about the challenges they face.


The 2015 Programme takes place on 8th – 9th September and 2016 Programmes are being developed.
If you would like to learn more about the selection criteria for this Programme, or have any questions, please contact Kira Raebel on kraebel@fideliopartners.com or +44 (0) 207 759 2200.

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