Women On Boards: What It Really Means to Be ‘Board Ready’
It’s been proven that board diversity leads to better business results. Research shows that diverse board members offer varying perspectives and insights, encourage a greater exchange of information, and have essential skills that help improve board functions. The problem is that a significant amount of companies turn to their own director for board recommendations, which most likely means that the network of individuals recommended are somewhat homogeneous. This limits an array of skills and experiences that contribute to company growth and greater promotion of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. So how can companies expand their pipelines at the board level?
To learn about the important role that diverse board members play in positively changing company culture through diversity of thought and value, I (virtually) sat down with an amazing panel of women board members for a Consciously Unbiased LinkedIn Live conversation.
We discussed steps companies can take to diversify their boards, why personal reflection contributes to what it means to be board ready, and the importance of building our relationships and our networks so that we can tap into both to attract diverse members. Here are some key takeaways from our discussion.
The Board Should Reflect the Company’s Customer Base
“The customer is important to think about,” says Maria Renz, Executive Vice President, SoFi and board member, DoorDash. “The board needs to reflect that company’s customer base. If your board isn’t diverse, then you’re not going to outperform in terms of outcomes, especially at a strategic level in guiding companies in that three to five-year horizon. I think you have to take that into consideration. If you don’t have diversity of opinion or input at the board level, you’re not going to end up in the same place.”
Boardrooms Need to Overcome “Group Think”
“Group think is not beneficial for a board,” says Jocelyn Mangan, CEO & Founder, Him for Her; Director, ChowNow, Papa John’s International. “If you think about the risk for a business, if you have everybody who thinks the same or if everyone always agrees, you clearly have the wrong board.
Board members are there to ask the right questions around the executives to make sure the business is making the right decisions and heading in the right direction. If you have all seen the same story before, whether it’s how you grew up or the type of business you came from, it may stifle innovation, which hurts the company in the end. Group think, or thinking alike, and agreeing all the time, are enormous risks for your business.”
Diversity of Thought is Key in the Boardroom
“We talk about women on boards, but what we really should back up and think about is diversity of thought as well,” says Kim Newton, Founder, Advisor, Author & Independent Board Director. “Women and people of color especially have a different experience, and they can bring their perspective to the boardroom. When attracting talent, employees want to make sure that they can bring their best thoughts that will be absolutely supported. I think talent and retention of talent are huge benefits that I wish we were talking about more.”
Personal Goals and Responsibilities Contribute to Being Board Ready
“I do think that there is something about board readiness in your own head about why you are joining a board,” says Susan Chapman-Hughes, Founder, Adviser and Independent Director, Toast and JM Smucker. “I think a lot of people really need to just be thoughtful about this, especially if you are in an operating role, you have a lot of other responsibilities, like having little kids at home.You have to be really clear about taking on the responsibility and ensure that it is going to be accretive to the goals that you’ve set for yourself. Really being thoughtful about your reason for why you want to join a board at a certain point in time is important.”
Ask Your Network For Feedback When You Want to Join a Board
“Be cognizant of the network that you have as an executive and the people that you know,” says Renz. “I think they can be incredibly useful in really helping you hone your story. There are people to talk to and ask, ‘Do you think I’m ready for a board?’ They will give you great feedback and tell you how you can contribute. They can also connect you with people who are looking to place people on boards.”
Operationalize Your Intention That Diversity is Important
“There is no pipeline issue,” says Mangan. “For every single role and industry out there, there is a woman or women of color who could fill that board seat. But, if you’re looking at your personal network immediately, you may not see that person. It starts with setting the intention that diversity is important.
The second part is a little bit harder, which is operationalizing that intention. I’ve noticed that if you are in a position where you’re looking for a board member, stop and think about who are the women in your personal network? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to a male CEO and reminded him of a woman he already knew. They always say, ‘Why didn’t I think of that person?’”
Diversify Your Board By Tapping Into Untraditional Resources
“If you are in a position to hire new board members, seek out different resources and not ones you’ve always used,” says Newton. “I got on every list I could when I was ready to get on a board. Start tapping into some untraditional resources. Pick a new woman or a new person of color to connect with on LinkedIn to start building a relationship with. It doesn’t have to start with, ‘I need a new board member.’ It really starts with, ‘I want to expand my network.’”
Bringing Your Whole Self to the Table Contributes to Business Growth
“I think we have all experienced unconscious bias as a board member on some level,” says Chapman-Hughes. “I’m a Black female executive, I wear my hair naturally, I am pretty loud, and I say what is on my mind. But, the best part of bringing your full self to the table is that you will be able to help navigate a problem or bring a different perspective to an issue, especially if a business is going through a crisis.
Everything I do has been acreetive in terms of how impactful I can be in the boardroom, particularly marrying my passion for community and for young Black girls. I’ve been able to leverage the relationships in the boardroom to create new opportunities, like internships or the partnerships with the organizations, that I think are doing really great work to help the business grow.”
Be Confident in the Value You Can Bring to a Board
“I took a class on what it means to be board ready,” says Renz. “The program was designed for female executives to explain to us what boards do and what are the different roles of board members. We were all encouraged, as diverse candidates, to go out there and just take a board role and start being part of a board, because we have valuable experience and can contribute to a board.
When I was thinking about joining a board, I was going through a personal process of questioning the new role and whether or not I have the requisite experience. But then I thought, ‘Why do I need to take whatever is offered?’ I realized I had to be selective and start to think about my experience and what types of companies I think I can be helpful to. I encourage people to just really go through a bit of a reflective process and gain some confidence in the experience that you have.”
Board Members Play a Role in Implementing a Plan for D&I Policies
“The board or CEO is there to answer, ‘What’s the plan to get there and is there a plan to get it there?’” says Mangan. It’s important because if you don’t see the plan, intention or structure, it could be a pretty frustrating role. It starts at the top, but it goes throughout the organization. I think it’s really important to understand where they are in their journey to implementing D&I strategies and policies, because you’re going to be a part of that journey.”
At Consciously Unbiased, we do a lot of trainings with clients who often say that they can’t find diverse talent. I think the reason they can’t find diverse talent is because they’re looking for people like themselves. There really needs to be a mental shift. If you start looking at it from the perspective that we are all unique, then you start looking at talent that you may not have noticed before. Our panelists offered a few action steps leaders can take to help attract more gender and racial diversity on boards: provide exposure to the boardroom, encourage people to get over that hump of asking, ‘Am I board ready?’ and open the door to others by offering introductions.