More women must be on corporate boards, insists CEO Cherilyn Murer

Cherilyn Murer, president and CEO of CGM Advisory Group,has spent a lifetime cracking glass ceilings. When her children were 2 and 6, she did the unheard of and went back to school to get a law degree.

She soon was appointed as Director of Rehabilitation Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital before leaving to launch a national healthcare consulting firm considered one of the nation’s first, legal-based healthcare consulting firms, where she advised hospitals and academic medical centers on matters such as complex regulatory, strategic and financial issues.

One of the few female entrepreneurs at the time, Cherilyn overcame the frequent challenge of being the only woman in the room by solving complex problems and winning over clients. When she sold the firm in 2017, Murer Consultants had more than 500 clients in 42 states, Europe and the Middle East, employing 40 people, 28 of whom were lawyers.

Today, her life portfolio still includes healthcare but also higher education and the arts. She serves on numerous non-profit boards including the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Union League Club of Chicago, Northern Illinois University Foundation, Lebanese American University and Luminarts Cultural Foundation.

But last year, she added a corporate board seat to her C.V. when she was elected to the board of Surgical Solutions, a portfolio company of private equity firm Sterling Partners.

A passionate advocate for women’s advancement in the workplace, she speaks and writes on issues involving women’s leadership and corporate board involvement. Cherilyn’s skills as a board member were recently recognized by Illinois Board of Higher Education when it passed a Resolution with this message: “Her interests and devotion in promoting women in higher education has had a tremendous impact on improving our state (Illinois).”

Scroll down to learn about Cherilyn’s perspective on why the percentage of women on corporate boards remains flat, what can be done to shift that paradigm, and how women with corporate board aspirations have a responsibility to make themselves board-ready.

Why and How to Get More Women on Corporate Boards

By Cherilyn G. Murer

I’ve always believed that good corporate decision-making requires the willingness to hear and consider different points of view, regardless of gender, ethnicity and background. Many companies have gotten that message loud and clear. Others lag behind.

Being overlooked is a conundrum for women because they play such a dominate role as workers and consumers. Women comprise about half of the total U.S. workforce; hold half of the management positions, and are responsible for almost 80% of consumer spending, yet they still hold a very small number of board seats.

Senior level women executives and female entrepreneurs have the skills and experience that most boards need, but even in this “me too” era where inclusion is the touchstone, women are an untapped pool of talent.

To be fair, big corporations’ track records are improving, but smaller companies lag behind. The 2020 Women on Boards Gender Diversity Index of Fortune 1000 companies showed that of the 2835 active R3000 companies, women now hold 17.7% of the board seats, an increase from 16.0% in 2017. In 2018, the percentage of women in the largest R100 companies was 25.3%; in the smaller R2001- 3000 companies it was 13.0%, demonstrating that smaller companies are less diverse.

The Selection Process

New laws in Illinois and California are a recognition by legislators that companies should diversify boards and include women. The challenge Is in the implementation. Most boards have limited seats because of tenure, so timing is always an issue. But the real issue is in the selection process. When a board nominating committee meets, board members tend to recommend people they know and like.

Today, it is still primarily white males who make the nominations, and breaking through that barrier is difficult. If men nominate a woman, a bit of sexuality creeps in. In today’s environment, board members may be even more reluctant to suggest a female nominee. Instead, they’ll nominate a man and say something like, “He’s really a good guy” which Is code for “he’s one of us. We’ll get along with him.” Rarely do you hear a remark like that about a woman. So it’s left to women to be aware of who will nominate them, to explain why they want a board seat and the assets they will bring. A woman should be willing to almost writing the script for the individual who will place her name in nomination.

Getting on a Corporate Board: You Can Do It

Serving on a board with other successful executives can be enriching and enjoyable. It provides access to different leadership styles, business models and company cultures as it simultaneously enhances professional skills and raises one’s business profile. Boards benefit from varied perspectives viewed through a unique and personal lens.

The portal to serving on a corporate board is work/life experiences and the expertise gained from serving on not-for-profit boards. Nonprofits provide a training ground for individuals, with philanthropy as a core component of responsibility. For-profit boards select members based on talents and specific abilities to contribute in areas such as finance, human resources, product-based knowledge, and/or operations. The expected contribution on such boards is expertise and access to growth. In this regard, board members are usually compensated with salary and often, equity.

Executives or entrepreneurs with ambitions for a corporate board position should start the planning process early. Being board-ready is similar to running a campaign or interviewing for a job. Some of the basics are obvious: a current bio and CV. You must be well read and able to converse on many topics in multiple settings.

Women must be strategic in their identification of “best fit” boards. Having compatible skills as well as financial acumen and a commitment to active board committee participation are prerequisites for a seat.

We may live in a technology-driven society, but business remains a person-to-person contact sport. Networking and enhanced personal relationships are imperative. Executive recruiters and professional organizations which provide a matchmaking service can be helpful, but I’ve found personal networking works best.

State Laws Wave of the Future?

People ask me whether state laws mandating corporate board diversity can be beneficial. Perhaps they can in that they raise the public’s consciousness. But what really must happen is for women to be proactive in identifying appropriate boards and doing the groundwork necessary to succeed.

As for the future, corporate board diversity will continue to be a challenge. From an individual perspective, it will take great persistence, patience and tenacity. Even if you have the skills, you must be personable, interested and interesting. If you think you’ve done everything you can, you haven’t.

Being elected to your first corporate board is a great achievement but it’s only the beginning. To be successful, you’ll need to work hard and smart. With enthusiasm for the task at hand and a commitment to the job, your board experience should be a satisfying investment of time and effort while providing significant contributions to the company.

Cherilyn G. Murer, president and CEO of CGM Advisory Group, serves on the board of directors of Surgical Solutions, a private equity portfolio company, as well as several nonprofit organizations including Union League Club of Chicago, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lebanese American University and Luminarts Cultural Foundation.