Fidelio Table Talk – The Moderator’s Perspective on “A Seat at the Table”

Oonagh Harpur has wide-ranging experience as the first female, non-lawyer CEO of a law firm and has held non-executive, executive and advisory roles on Boards. She believes clarity of purpose and values in a Boardroom are game changers and that women can, and do, make the difference to Board effectiveness. 

As Chair, she will be the facilitator and moderator of the “A Seat at a Table” programme. She explains what she hopes to achieve in the role and the benefits that the participants can expect. She draws on her considerable experience and provides a personal perspective on women’s progress to date and the outlook.


Fidelio: Why were you attracted by this programme?

Oonagh: The recent film, “Suffragette”, caused me to ask myself some challenging questions. I reflected on the fact the Equal Pay Act came into force in 1976 – the year I started work – but women still do not have equal pay. The World Economic Forum has recently opined that it will take another 118 years to close the economic gender gap. So, what can I do now? And what would make a real difference? I have learnt that there is no “silver bullet” solution for gender equality. We need a systemic approach with a diligent and persistent management of inclusive cultures. Progress requires multiple interventions including leadership coaching, mentoring and networking. These programmes need to be led from the Boardroom.

So, what can I do that will make a difference? Chairing Fidelio’s “Seat at the Table” programme is one contribution. I am impressed by the programme Fidelio has developed. I am keen to support it and the women who participate. The programme offers an extraordinary array of help and diversity of insight in an extremely compact format.

Fidelio: Have you any concerns that the October Davies Report was the final publication?

Oonagh: The October Davies Report may have been his last but it really just marks the start. We have reached the 25% target for female representation on FTSE100 boards, but there is much more to do. Boards make better decisions and women perform better when there are at least three women at the table. So we need to retain this level of diversity and extend it to FTSE 250 Boards and all Executive Committees. The pipeline of talented women for top roles needs strengthening. Once there is a critical mass of women in the pipeline we should get the necessary momentum to drive gender diversity through organisations, but we cannot be complacent.

Fidelio: Could you describe how you see your role in the “Seat at the Table” Programme?

Oonagh: My role in “A Seat at the Table” is to hold a safe space for each participant to explore, experiment and learn from their experience, as they become a leader at the Boardroom table.

In the programme, the group will work together as if they are at the Boardroom table. The pivotal role of this hypothetical Boardroom table is a foundation stone of the programme and will be incredibly helpful for turbo-charging participant’s learning.

A high performing Board and Executive Committee are critical for the delivery of the corporate strategy. Having a seat at either table demands a different style of leadership both individually and collectively. Directors have collective responsibility and are accountable across the whole business. In addition to strategy, directors also have a responsibility to embody and promote ethical leadership to the business. All this can be quite a step up from an executive role focussed largely on operational or functional leadership.

I am looking forward to working with the participants as they explore what this new role will mean for them and experiment and develop the “rewiring” needed to become an effective main Board Director.

Fidelio: Personal presence in a group dynamic is sometimes seen by women as the most difficult aspect of leadership. Would you agree?

Oonagh: I do agree. In fact I have had to develop this myself. My own experience has been the reverse of the “norm” and this has given me a particularly useful insight. I was catapulted into a CEO at the relatively young age of 35 without having sat on an Executive Committee. Five years later I accepted my first NED appointment. It was a very different role when I was not the CEO or chairing meetings. I had to find a way to get my voice heard at the table. Personal presence is critical and I have had to learn it the hard way. The next generation are already a step ahead of where we were. I want to accelerate that learning.

Fidelio: Why does gender diversity matter and what gives you hope on it being achieved?

Oonagh: McKinsey’s research has been very helpful in proving the business case that businesses with diverse boards perform better. The best Boards provide responsible and sustainable leadership as well as compliance with corporate governance. This is most easily achieved through diversity of thinking: combining the feminine and masculine mind and perspectives on the business.

What gives me hope is a change among the rising women leaders. Women realise that if they want to rise to the top of their career they need a cadre of other women alongside them. They need to collaborate and create a strong network. “A Seat at the Table” devotes quite a sizeable part of the timetable to networking – another area that women find difficult. Our generation recognised the “drawbridge syndrome” but it has taken some time to actually find a way into the castle. The momentum that has been built rests on the cooperation of women and the formation of critical numbers. This progra

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