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How Men and Women Board Members Handled a Scandal in Norway

Observations on a scandal highlight one particular benefit to having women on boards in strength.

Norwegian board members both male and female share a perspective on one particularly important governance issue:  women bring an ineffable something to the conversation that supports a board’s own highest values. 

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Former Minister of Trade Ansgar Gabrielsen frames this quality in terms of risk:  “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.”    

 

For a concrete example, we need look no further that Norway’s own StatoilHydro.  A former board member of StatoilHydro shared the story with me. In the fall of 2004, the eight members of the StatoilHydro board were informed that the firm had provided a series of bribes to Iranian ‘consultants’ during 2002 and 2003 to gain access to oil fields.  This behavior completely violates StatoilHydro policy as well as both Norwegian and US securities law (Statoil Hydro trades on the NYSE as well as the Oslo Stock Exchange ).     

 

What was the reaction of the board?  At the time, the eight member board consisted of four women and four men.   According to my source, who I will disclose is a middle-aged man with a long and successful career both as a chief executive and as a member of multiple boards, the men on the board wanted to contain the matter.  The four women said:  “This is unacceptable.  We need an open investigation of this matter. We need outside people to come in and find out what is going on.” When the vote came around whether or not to fire the CEO, the four men voted to keep him and all the women voted to fire him.  At the time, the acting Chairman of the Board was a woman, and she broke the tie by voting to fire him. 

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What do women bring to boards?  According to the Norwegians, more of a willingness to speak up and act on the firm’s own best principles – and less of a willingness to let clubby loyalties interfere.  Said one male board member summarizing his take on the StatoilHydro story above: “The real issue is the fraternity of men.  It is necessary to break up the in-breeding.  It is unhealthy how the men protect each other.  They are unwilling to go up against the CEO.  Women are.” 

 

For more on this highly sensitive issue of “male pattern bonding”, I highly recommend a column by Nicholas Kristoff that appeared a few months ago in the NY Times. In this piece, he reports on what psychological research tells us about the peculiar downside of certain all-male teams.  See Mistresses of the Universe.

 

I also have to share with you a link to a reader’s website.  Kim Dougherty enjoyed yesterday’s blog on Norway, and sent along her blog on what today’s entrepreneur can learn from the adventurous Vikings.  Worth a look:  www.awordfromthewise.org

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And a big THANK YOU to everyone who e-mailed me following yesterday’s blog. The response has been so enthusiastic.  Keep ‘em coming: katesweetman@verizon.net 

 

Tomorrow:  what advice do the Norwegians give any organization looking to on-board more women onto the board? What do they tell us that women in particular need to do differently to be successful in that lofty perch?

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