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It takes a tough man to get the right corporate board

Ansgar Gabrielsen was the new Minister of Trade for Norway when he strong-armed the Parliament and the business communty into accepting new players onto Norway’s corporate boards

I recently enjoyed lunch in the Stortinget , the Norwegian parliament building with  Ansgar Gabrielsen, former Minister of Trade, who has been internationally recognized for his bold legislation requiring – nay, forcing – publicly traded Norwegian companies to boost astronomically the percentage of women on their corporate boards from a mere six percent to a full 40 to 60 percent representation.  The rationale: companies with substantial numbers of women in their senior ranks do significantly better on the triple bottom line – including the financials.  This story has been reported widely in the European press (as an example, I was just sent this link to a recent BBC report ), and the governments of France, Spain and Germany have sent delegations to explore possible applications in their own business boardrooms.

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 In a nutshell, then-Trade Minister Gabrielsen used the power of the press to get the jump on potential political opposition and by-passed the usual parliamentary processes around introducing legislation to announce in banner headlines to a receptive public what he planned to do.  While conservatives and the business world (male and female) howled its disapproval with the fury of battle-enraged valkyrie, the law passed. Now, two years later, even the most adamant opponents almost unanimously agree – some grudgingly, some enthusiastically – that the move was very good for Norwegian boards.  I will report more on those reactions later this week.

 

While the larger story is fascinating, I was equally intrigued by the person of Mr. Gabrielsen.  How is it that a lifelong politician, a conservative, a self-avowed non-feminist, took the leap of forcing such a dramatic change?  What did he understand that other men in positions of power with responsibility for delivering the highest returns to their stakeholders do not?  What compelled him to take action when other  did not?

 

The following is a largely unedited version of our conversation over fiskesuppe (fish soup) and jorbaer (strawberries), Norway’s signature spring lunch.   The challenge that I set to Mr. Gabrielsen:   What message would you send to boards outside of Norway who will not be subject to such legislation, but who want the most effective boards they can assemble?

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AG:         This is about shareholders rights.  This change gives shareholders more choice about a key element in value creation in a company, diversity. Diversity is a value in itself that creates wealth.  It’s important that boards have diversity in education, experience, expertise, age, gender, etc.  Too many boards have seven, nine, eleven people who are made in the same factory, very often with the same education, very often in the same year.  They go sailing, boar hunting and salmon fishing together.  They dine in the same restaurant.  They are very alike.  I believe in the opposite. It is important that people think their own, different thoughts, and gets to say what is needed, not what is wanted.

 

KS:          So this really isn’t about women per se.   It is about how boards are organized and function to get better results.

 

AG:         I am not feminist.  I am a conservative.  I am practical, rational and I want Norway to flourish.

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KS:          So why focus on this? There are so many other ways to get at that objective.  Why women on boards?

 

AG:         I was trying to maximize value.  For that to happen, we need 100% of our best people. We have spent billions on educating both the boys and the girls – and then we cut the girls out. That doesn’t make sense.  I had found on the Internet a report. I forget which one.  I saw what the scientists say [about the positive economic impact of gender equity at the top of organizations]. The reports were somewhat contradictory but I decided: ‘It cannot be worse if we use the other 50% of the population.’  I was not interested in arguing.

 

KS:          And it would have been an argument?

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AG:         This issue of advancing women was a topic every two to three years in Norway.  The project never made progress.  I realized:  ‘It is not ME who should provide the evidence.  It is the ones who think their 50% know it all that needs to prove THEIR case.  What is the reason for keeping 50% of the population out of the boardroom?  My career has been about helping companies and the public sector to understand each other. I know the business sector. I had been in parliament. 

 

KS:          And so you forced the issue.

 

AG:         Conservatives were in the majority and we were not making the big step.   If you wait for everyone to get on board around an important change, you can wait forever.  In October 2001, I was made Minister of Economics and Trade.  In six months, I decided for myself: ‘I will be the one who makes the difference.’ I knew that the person who would make a difference had to be a conservative man from business – or a minister of trade – not from a female or a female advocate. 

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KS:          So what did you do?

 

AG:         My strategy started with the question:  ‘Who do I need to make an alliance with?’  I realized: ‘I do not tell anyone.’   When I switched my vote, in effect, I made the conservative majority the minority on this topic.

 

KS:          Bold move.

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AG:         I found a debate in our Parliament from 1910.  It was about giving the women the right to vote. Many men in Parliament made the same arguments against that as they give against having women on boards.

 

KS:          Norway and the other Scandinavian countries are world famous for having greater gender equity than just about anywhere else on the globe.  Families receive great social support when they have children, allowing both men and women time with their children when they are born, and quality care for their kids when they go back to work.   Why wasn’t the situation already taken care of at the top of the house? Why, in all places, was this still a problem?

 

AG:         From the time the first man came into the world, the one who gets power wants to keep it.

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KS:          Just men?  Isn’t that true of mankind in general, women included?

 

AG:         I believe that women are equal to or better than men.  Why? Women don’t take high risk.  These big international scandals – Enron, Elf – the people who got them in trouble were men.  The whistle blowers were all women.  I wanted to break up the alpha male club. We had educated 50/50 boys and girls.  The women had the experience. There was no reason why they should not advance to the highest levels.

 

KS:          You did this in such a bold way.  On 22 February 2002, the headline suddenly appeared in the paper, and by 6 PM you were in the office of a rather furious Prime Minister’s office.

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AG:         Yes, and I didn’t move.   I knew it would work out.  On 8 March 2002, I invited six men and 94 women to parliament.  For the six men who were there, the effect was very visual and visceral.  They got it.  They felt what it was like to be in such a small minority. And they realized that they knew almost all of the men and none of the women – maybe one or two.   The fault was not with women but with the men’s own entirely male networks.  By November 2003, Parliament supported the legislation.   It took a little longer for certain members of the business community to get behind it.

 

KS:          I have to say that you went about accomplishing your goal in what can only be described as a very male way:  a forcible  sort of strength and courage that took on what needed to be done with no one else’s permission.  And then, when you had advanced on the issue, you creatively found ways to co-opt others to join your side.  

 

AG:         I had to force it because I knew that both the party leader and the prime minister would have said no. 

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KS:          Why do you think the situation exists in the first place?   Not just in Norway, but anywhere?

 

AG:         There is something between men and women where they fight each other.  In my view, we need both perspectives because men and women are different.  Think of 10 boys on a hiking trip. Think of 10 girls on a biking trip. It is hard to name what the real difference is. The older I get, the more I see that nature is driving us.

  

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