Like many leaders I’ve found success is a product of three things: education, experience, and a powerful network. For women, the last might be the most important when it comes to getting CEO and board roles.
The network I have built throughout my 25-year career, for instance, has led to more interest from recruiters recently, with one recruiter even bluntly informing me that I was on “the list.” Since I’m happily working in private equity, which was its own difficult climb, my response to those recent inbounds is a cautious decline, as I don’t want to be removed from a list of industry leaders.
Yet, when these recruiters asked, “If not you, then who would you support for this CEO post?” My own list of bulletproof CEO candidates consisted of roughly two women for every eight male candidates.
I realized that this was a major issue that we need to address—developing and championing more qualified female candidates. Considering a cadre of powerful leaders had put me on their list, I now had the power to do the same for other women.
I crafted an email entitled “#TheList” to share my idea, and to request from my professional contacts the name of at least one qualified female candidate for a high-level position. Immediately, about half the group wrote back and, by the end of the day, my email was forwarded back to me twice from women I didn’t even know. This clearly struck a chord.
There was, fortunately, positive feedback from the powerful men I sent it to. In fact, one male Fortune 100 CEO gave me his initial recommendation, and upon further reflection, came back with a second name later in the day. While this idea evidently resonated with him, it also solidified why having names at the ready can be so powerful.
For this idea to be successful, however, women need to emphasize the importance of helping other women, something which requires diligence, and to be honest, humility. For instance, I recently recruited a woman who was a former competitor to take a C-suite position in one of our portfolio companies. She was the best person for the position—full stop—but having competed against her daily, I needed to check my own ego to put her in play.
The idea of having the names of female candidates ready is one that has traction, as demonstrated by the initial responses to my email. But it’s important to be clear about what I’m advocating, and that’s not having lists of women simply to fill spots to help company statistics. There is nothing worse than taking a risk in nominating a woman, and then seeing a high-profile female fail publicly—we all lose from that.
Inclusion on a leaders list is about earning your spot, regardless of gender. You are likely top of your game, have strong operating or financial experience, and have worked your ascension as a life sport. The strategy here is to have a personal pipeline of leaders you develop and trust, which includes women, that you can readily provide to businesses looking for high-level candidates. Moreover, be sure to ask your own leaders about generating their own list as they ascend, and ask about it in talent reviews.
Endorsing female candidates for high-level positions benefits all of us. So be ready with a potential candidates list that highlights women for the next time you’re called upon. If you matter, then your list matters. Pass it on.
Meghan FitzGerald is a former Fortune 50 operator and strategist. Currently, she is a private equity partner, faculty at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and serves on several public boards. Follow her on Twitter.