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March 4, 2013Below is a guest post from Carolina Klint, Country General Manager of AIG in Sweden.

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The venue’s address was in the board pack. Approaching an impressive building in the old part of town, I was both excited and nervous. As the first woman to serve on this ancient and very traditional organization’s board, I was not sure what to expect. I was let in and shown to a beautiful room with an arched ceiling and Chesterfield chairs surrounding a dark mahogany table. On the table was a brass tray bearing eight crystal tumblers and a bottle of whiskey.

The meeting commenced and it was just plain awkward. I felt like an extraterrestrial. Whenever I made a comment or raised a point, the other members looked at me as if I had a flower pot on my head. I was feeling quite hopeless when it suddenly dawned on me: they were just as uncomfortable as I was!

My fellow board members and I were all trapped in this anxiety-provoking context together; their discomfort wasn’t personal. If I wasn’t prepared to challenge the existing structure, prove my value, and drive change, then who would? I ventured a little joke, and when at least three of the men around the table laughed (albeit out of politeness), I felt a ray of hope.

Three years later, I am a valued member of the board. I don’t think anyone marvels at the fact that I’m a woman. We are all individuals, and we bring different experiences and perspectives to the table to provide dynamic leadership for our organization.

Here are my suggestions for new women board members and their more established male colleagues:

  1. Dear Ms. Newly Appointed Member of the Board: The initial tension in the room isn’t personal, even if it feels like it. Remember that they are just as uncomfortable as you are. Don’t be upset. You are breaking new ground. Be excited. Be patient.
  1. Dear Mr. Chairman or Seasoned Member of the Board: If you can avoid making your new colleague feel like your reaction to her is personal, please do. Change is never comfortable, but when this new situation becomes business as usual you will realize that having a woman (or women) in the room has made board discussions more interesting, diverse, exciting, challenging, and fun! You represent modern and progressive leadership, and your board is better-equipped than ever to remain competitive in a diverse and rapidly changing marketplace. Good for you!

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Carolina Klint is the Country General Manager of AIG in Sweden. She speaks frequently about values-based leadership, empowerment for breakthrough results, and the importance of diversity as a keynote speaker, panelist, and guest lecturer. She has appeared on Swedish business weekly Veckans Affärers’ list as one of “The 125 Most Powerful Women in Business” for two consecutive years and received the 2010 Business Supertalent Award.