Lilia Jolibois is a non-executive Director and Member of the Audit Committee of Theolia S.A. and was recently named a Trustee serving on the Finance and General Purposes Committee of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics. Borderless reveals the path she has taken to assume roles on two highly influential Boards.
You have quite an international background. How has this contributed to your business outlook and the way you relate to people professionally?
By the age of 22 I had lived in at least six countries, to include Greece, the US and France. With such a background, you learn early on to open up to other ways of doing things. I find it easy to relate to people from different cultures and backgrounds, and I recognize and appreciate similarities and differences among people. It also provided an opportunity for me to learn a number of different languages.
What key lessons for business did you learn at Harvard?
First Harvard was very diverse and at the time about 15% of its student population was international. It contained pupils from elite prep schools as well as talented students from the inner city. All around me I witnessed diversity and inclusion.
Second, it helped me find my way and determine what I wanted to do. I come from a family of mathematicians, but opted for economics as a way to understand the dynamics of business. I also recognized that understanding business can be a way of working towards achieving global peace, as many wars are economically driven.
Third, I learned that when you fall down, you’ve got to keep on getting back up. Entering Harvard, your ego takes a beating because you’ve grown accustomed to being the top of your school. Then you enter an institution where everyone else was at the top too! So I felt Harvard taught me lessons that inspired me to want to make a unique contribution to society.
And what do you wish they’d told you?
At that time, they spoke less about potential inequalities in the workplace. So in 1986, we all went into the workforce thinking there would be no barriers related to gender differences.
In a sense I wish they would have told me in advance that “Yes, you can do what you want, but you’ll also run up against treatment that will seem unfair. Therefore you and likeminded individuals will have to fight.”
Have you ever experienced a “glass ceiling”? And if so, how did you break through?
Yes, every single time I moved into a new role! I once told a manager, “I would like an operational role,” and he said, “But you’ve never worked in operations before.” So I said: “Neither did you before someone gave you your first chance.” I was very grateful that he decided to give me my chance.
When, if ever, did you start thinking about wanting to join a Board?
I used to follow press reports about mandating Board positions for women in Norway and think “Now, that’s interesting”. But I never really considered it for myself.
Then I got a call from a headhunter who introduced me to a network of female Board members. These women explained that a Board role can be interesting while you are mid-career as it allows you to contribute your expertise to a company. Additionally, it enables you to take the leadership lessons you learn from that Board position back to your day-to-day management duties.
So when the opportunity at Theolia came about, I was excited to have the chance to learn more about the business of renewable energy.
What advice would you give to women who are interested in pursuing a non-executive Board position?
1. Focus on why you want to be on a Board. Motivation is important because you really need to want it. To be visible… to carry a level of risk.
2. Try to figure out what professional strengths you have that would be of interest to Boards. Does a company need someone with financial acumen on their Board? Someone with an IT background? Communication skills? Social Media skills – that’s a new, yet important one!
3. Put together a special Board CV that is brief and focuses on leadership and sector knowledge. Highlight how your know-how could enhance businesses in this sector. Then make the rounds to reputable executive search firms because their networks will stretch well beyond your own.
4. You may want to also consider non-profit organizations such as hospitals, schools and charities.
5. Ask people for advice and don’t be afraid to reach out for support.
What advice would you want to give to companies who realize that they must do better in diversifying their leadership teams?
1. Go for the best talent. But also go for diversity – be it diversity of competencies, gender or culture.
2. Develop talent. Don’t assume, for example, that women would not accept a particular role. Ask.
3. Have measurable business objectives. If you really care about diversity and inclusion, then that behavior has to be reflected from the top and radiated throughout. People don’t listen to what you say, they watch what you do.
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Brief Biography of Lilia Jolibois
Lilia Jolibois began her career in investment banking at Merrill Lynch, before embarking on an 18-year career at Lafarge Group, the world leader in building materials. Former roles within the company include Director of Development, Central Europe Cement, President and CEO Ukraine and CIS, Lafarge Gypsum, Senior Vice President, Vice President Compounds Business Worldwide, Lafarge Gypsum and Marketing, Sales and Supply Chain Director, Lafarge Aggregates, Asphalt & Paving Business. In June 2012, the French renewable energy producer and distributor Theolia S.A., quoted on the NYSE and Euronext, appointed her as a non-executive Director and Member of the Audit Committee. On 25 February 2014 CARA (the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics) appointed Lilia as a Trustee to serve as member of the Finance and General Purposes Committee.
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