Women on Boards UK CEO Fiona Hathorn has strong views about board diversity – “you’re never too young or too old to be in the boardroom” – and believes board experience early in a career contributes to successful leadership.
“The boardroom matters. People who get to the top in C-suite jobs, either as directors or executives, are usually different in some way,” said Fiona, speaking to CA Magazine's Lysanne Currie.
“They may be connected. They have knowledge. They may have lived overseas. They may have had single parents. They have something that makes them unique. But interestingly, if you look at people such as Alison Rose [NatWest] or Carolyn McCall [ITV], they’ve all had exposure to the boardroom, usually at quite a young age.”
Hathorn was four when she went to her first board meeting. Her father’s background had been underprivileged, having grown up in a poor area in Stoke-on-Trent, but his intellect and ambition were nurtured by the power combo of a strong mother and inspiring teacher. After the RAF, he went to university and developed an interest in the boardroom: community boards, council boards, police boards, magistrates boards.
“I got dragged into them because my mother was working as a teacher and they couldn’t afford childcare,” says Hathorn. “Dad took me everywhere. I’d sit in the corner of various boardrooms in the evening, with my colouring book, unaware of what I was soaking up.”
Hathorn went on to a successful career in finance, working senior roles at Hill Samuel, Old Mutual and Corcordia, then becoming an angel investor, before specialising in diversity and governance services.
It was while working as an angel investor that her lightbulb moment (or moments) arrived. This was Women on Boards UK: the organisation she founded and now serves as CEO, alongside a portfolio career that includes advisory boards at King’s College London and the Financial Reporting Council, soon to be replaced by new regulator, the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority.
Hathorn’s Women on Boards journey began not through a personal injustice, but via a woman who pitched to her at an angel investor roadshow.
“The pitching teams were mostly men, as were the decision-makers. One day we had 10 pitches scheduled and one was by a female entrepreneur. At the end of the day we discussed every pitch to decide whether to see them again. Some were awful, some were very good. However, we didn’t discuss the woman at all,” she says. “I said, ‘Hold on, we’ve discussed the rubbish male pitches, why aren’t we discussing this woman? She has a great idea, she’s launched a business before and she’s exited.’ They laughed at me, saying, ‘We don’t invest in female entrepreneurs – she might have a baby.’ I’d had two children and it never occurred to me that there was this issue. I was stunned.”
This was in 2010 when the conversation around women on boards and gender balance was growing louder. “There was also data coming out of the States about how only 4% of angel investment goes to female entrepreneurs,” Hathorn recalls. “That was so shocking.”
One evening, Hathorn went to a networking event that included a panel discussion about the gender barriers that existed. Women on Boards Australia co-founder Claire Braund, was a panellist. “She listened to the discussion, stood up and just said: ‘This isn’t good enough – you’ve listed all the negatives and just put the whole audience off.’ She implored everyone to feel empowered and to be made aware of the boardroom, whether it was company boards or community boards. That was my second lightbulb moment and one of the reasons why we work with so many corporates – it’s planting seeds.”
Hathorn believes passionately that diversity of thought is better for business: “People going into discussion with someone who isn’t in their echo chamber work a lot harder.”
“It’s the same in the boardroom – diversity brings better performance, better thinking,” adds Hathorn. “But we have to recruit differently... We need different skill bases, different backgrounds. Those individuals will work harder – they will see and hear things in different ways and their contributions may be unexpected.”
As 2022 unfolds, culture is at the top of Hathorn’s mind. “The main change I want to see is culture and talent management being discussed and owned by the boardroom,” she says. “Recruiting a diverse team doesn’t change anything – if you can’t manage a diverse team, you will go backwards. Diverse teams are harder to manage: you need to understand individuals’ diverse backgrounds and accept people think and work in different ways. If we’re going to deal with conscious inclusion, that’s a leadership issue. And I still don’t see a lot of support from the boards to the exec: they need time, training and resources to help them manage to be consciously inclusive.”
Hathorn is positive about the year ahead. “And that’s because diversity of thought is getting treated and talked about very seriously in the boardroom,” she says. “The investor is getting involved, the regulator’s getting involved and that is leading to the change that we’re seeing. I’m very optimistic.”
This is an edited version of the article 'CEO of Women on Boards, Fiona Hathorn, explains why diversity is key to good business' which first appeared in CA Magazine on 26 January 2022.