Women in the Boardroom: Kari Hayden Pendoley Interview | Evolving Diverse and Dynamic Leadership

8 min read

Nick Holder

Kari Hayden Pendoley's experience in the corporate world shows that the journey to leadership is more than just a climb… it's about making real change. Known for her expertise in Environmental Social Governance (ESG) and growing experience in digital innovation and artificial intelligence, Kari brings a transformative perspective to the boardroom. This interview looks at how her career mirrors the broader shift for women in leadership, combining determination with new ways of thinking. Embracing her unique strengths and overcoming challenges, Kari’s journey is proof that personal traits, even those perceived as flaws, can become powerful assets in leadership.

She advocates for including younger voices in board discussions, recognizing the rapid evolution of the business landscape and the need for fresh, up-to-the-minute insights. Kari's commitment to work-life balance and mental well-being in high-pressure environments shines through, offering a refreshing approach to modern corporate governance. Her story is about redefining what leadership looks like and turning boardrooms into platforms for meaningful change.

A huge thank you to Kari for sharing her time and invaluable insights with us. Her participation is deeply appreciated and offers valuable inspiration to those looking to find their own way in the corporate world.

Kari Pendoley headshot Kari Hayden Pendoley
Kari is the Founder of Impact Savvy, a strategy firm bringing profit and purpose together for its ESG and DEIB clients. Kari has worked with Fortune 5 companies, private equity firms, Nobel Laureates, Forbes Top 10 Self-Made Women, celebrated social entrepreneurs, and government agencies. Kari is a National Diversity Council certified practitioner, a corporate Board member, and a thought leader writing for industry blogs and speaking at events.

What challenges did you face as a woman getting into the boardroom?

I serve on the board of an enterprise software firm boasting a female founder and 50% female board member representation. I felt fortunate to be asked to join my first corporate board by the founder, whom I had known for over a decade, but I was simultaneously overwhelmed by fear that I was over my head. I quickly learned that my tenure as a generalist, my mid-career perspective, and my subject matter expertise in online communities and ESG lent itself to thinking outside the box in the boardroom.

This trend is consistent with the study Competent Boards released earlier this year. It shows that traditional boardroom competencies like financial acumen and C-suite legacy experience are being replaced by the need for expertise in ESG and digital/technological proficiency. This will encourage more professionals with these attributes to join corporate boards. Research also shows firms with diverse boards achieve higher ESG ratings (Harvard Business Review).

How do you perceive the role of gender diversity in the boardroom, and have you noticed any shifts in gender representation throughout your career?

The word diversity is often interpreted or defined according to our worldviews. For corporate boardrooms, that often looks only like diversity of gender. I think it's essential to distinguish gender diversity from all the other important dimensions of diversity defined by lived experiences, including ethnicity, gender identity, expression, orientation, age, religion, nationality, disability, and so much more. We tend to gloss over these categories and treat them as distinct identities when, in fact, like a venn diagram, they are fluid, intersectional, and evolving.

Progress has been made, with women currently comprising one-third of U.S. corporate board seats (Wall Street Journal), and companies with at least one racially/ethnically diverse director increased slightly from 32 percent in 2020 to 35 percent in 2022 (Harvard Law).

However, in order to fulfill our fiduciary duty to govern the company we serve, the boardroom must reflect the customer base and the broader society in which the company operates. In addition, our role is to ensure that company products and services are built around the complex customer venn - which is only possible with diverse employees and management.

What advice would you give to women aspiring to reach the boardroom?

You are enough. You are also holding you back.

When I founded my firm Impact Savvy, I wanted to bring authenticity, coupled with action, to the ESG space. Even with a 20-year career working for Fortune 100 companies, Nobel Laureates, and Forbes Top 10 Self-Made Women, I still had to overcome the emotional hurdle of starting my own business.

The turning point came when I began to see my skillsets and flaws as assets. Around the same time I started Impact Savvy I took a Dyslexia Screener for Adults and scored off the charts for phonology and morphology, which are consistent with dyslexia. Rather than feeling shocked, I felt relieved. Made By Dyslexia, a nonprofit focused on helping the world better understand and value dyslexic thinking, validated what I’d always felt about my writing gaps. But more importantly, their resources showed me that I was equally off the charts for connecting, influencing, empathizing, visioning, and analyzing. All of these skills make me good at my job and particularly good in a boardroom where big-picture thinking is critical.

What is missing from corporate boardrooms?

Boards would benefit by having more early-to-mid-career professionals in the boardroom. In 2002, the average age of board members at Russell 1000 companies was 61.8 (Bloomberg).

Companies and their investors must challenge the status quo to operate and stay competitive in an ever-changing consumer market and complex world. The areas most vital to a company's growth and success are emerging as we speak, and younger professionals are best positioned to interpret and understand these areas.

Speaking directly for myself, my experience in ESG, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, online communities, and other emerging issues brings practical industry knowledge coupled with the perspective of my particular generation. These are areas of expertise that younger board members can and should bring to the table - these voices can help any company understand its strategic opportunity and new ways to find innovation. It should also be noted that Generation Z is the most ethnically diverse generation (NPR).

How do you see the future for women in the boardroom, and what key initiatives or policies should organizations adopt to bolster their presence?

Investors, owners, and shareholders are essential in shaping corporate governance, influencing strategic decisions, and holding boards accountable. Investors play an active stewardship role in overseeing voting rights, proxy voting, and shareholder proposals. In addition, they are responsible for ensuring policies are in place for recruiting or removing board members. This includes succession planning, term limits, and other mechanisms to improve boardroom diversity. Does your board engage in regular board evaluations to identify new skills, external board assessments to evaluate board effectiveness, and/ or have transparent selection criteria for succession planning to mitigate reliance on internal referrals?

How has your perspective as a woman influenced decisions in the boardroom, and can you share a specific instance where it impacted a board decision or direction?

As the parent of a 7-year-old daughter, starting my own business and joining a corporate board meant redefining my work-life balance. I wanted to show her that you can build a career focused on doing good in the world but not lose sight of friends and family. This also meant modeling work-life balance for other board members, the board chair, and the company CEO. When our company CEO went through an unexpected personal crisis, they needed to hear directly in our one-on-one conversations - and in front of the entire board - that there was unequivocal support for time off, personal leave, and a plan to support their workload in their absence. CEOs often don’t hear this message or don’t have trusted relationships to believe it and don’t permit themselves to step away from their professional selves during a personal moment.

Once again, our sincere appreciation to Kari for this enlightening conversation.

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