Board Monitor Europe 2020
Boards & Governance

Board Monitor Europe 2020

In 2019, corporate boards in Europe sought financial expertise and directors with international backgrounds, which should help companies navigate this year’s economic and social volatility.
Heidrick & Struggles
Board Monitor Europe 2020

In 2019, boards around the world were facing a range of competing expectations for the new members they would add in order to meet their ever-growing remit. Modern boards are expected to possess significant expertise in areas as specialized and diverse as digital transformation, cybersecurity, corporate reputation management, sustainability, and social media, to name just a few, as well as to include significant diversity in terms of gender, racial and ethnic background, and national origin, among other characteristics. Beyond adding specific expertise, it’s widely accepted that more diverse teams make better decisions.

Most corporate boards in the 15 countries we study1 made some progress in adding new members with new backgrounds and skills: from different countries and regions, functions, age groups, ethnicities, and genders. This increased diversity should help boards make better decisions, even though, due to COVID-19, the situation facing all companies is now radically different from when the new directors signed on.

However, most boards also continued to add a number of more traditional directors: people with prior board experience or prior experience as CEOs or CFOs. Though such directors don’t as often add diversity in other areas, their experience may be particularly critical this year as many companies face more significant enterprise risk than ever before.

Among the characteristics of new directors we have been tracking, we note a few trends among new directors globally.

Some progress on diversity

  • Women continue to make significant gains among newly added directors compared to previous years.
  • Progress on racial or ethnic, nationality, and age diversity has been disappointing, with little progress to report anywhere in the world.
  • The range of functional experience on boards has increased, with a corresponding decrease in CEO experience. In particular, digital expertise, now essentially a given on boards, trended highest. With sustainability and cybersecurity rising as central concerns for companies, boards also focused on adding experience in these areas.

A continuing preference for traditional experience

  • First-time directors are still not as common as experienced ones.
  • Financial expertise and experience in financial services sectors remained highly sought-after backgrounds.
  • Though the proportion of directors with CEO experience has continued to decline annually, it remains the most common type of prior expertise, followed by CFO experience.
As companies rebuild and recover in the aftermath of the pandemic, there will be many new opportunities for those best positioned to compete. In large part, that means building the most capable board tailored to each company’s unique strategy.

Of course, simply ensuring a board has an appropriate mix of perspectives is just the start. To be properly mobilized to perform its work, a board must be clear on its purpose: what it stands for as an entity and whom it represents in a global society. Boards must also align on how they will serve as an underpinning for a purpose-driven, socially responsible organization that delivers value to a wide range of stakeholders. And boards must have a culture and processes that ensure they can work well together. A key first step is inclusion in its broadest sense. Many boards think of inclusion particularly in relation to their significant efforts to add diversity. But, particularly as they seek to oversee resetting their organizations for a radically uncertain world, boards will benefit most from ensuring that every board member is able to contribute fully, regardless of the board’s traditional norms or habits, varying personalities, inherent biases, or for any other reason. (For more on Heidrick & Struggles’ thinking on board dynamics, see Future-Proofing Your Board.)

That said, composition is crucial, and we believe, more than ever, that tracking where boards have been will provide the grounding to understand where they need to go to build the boards that can provide the greatest value for their companies.

In this report, you’ll find the data and our observations on the 2019 class of directors at public companies in Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.2


Thanks to the following Heidrick & Struggles colleagues for their contributions to this report: Marie-Helene De Coster, Sylvain Dhenin, and Nicolas von Rosty.


1 Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, United Kingdom, and United States are included in our studies of boards.

2 Data for each country are taken from the BEL 20 (Belgium), CAC 40 (France), MDAX 30 (Germany), ISEQ (Ireland), AEX 25 (Netherlands), PSI 20 (Portugal), IBEX 35 (Spain), and FTSE 350 (United Kingdom).

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