Association Considers Practical Steps for Increasing Board Diversity

November 20, 2020

"When people get to some position of prominence, they ought to remember to send the elevator back down," noted Barry Lawson Williams, founder of Williams Pacific Ventures and past director on 14 corporate boards.  Williams was joined on an HR Policy webinar by Association Director and Freddie Mac CHRO Jacqueline M. Welch in a provocative and insightful conversation on increasing board diversity.

Board diversity has gained particular importance as companies continue to engage employees and investors on their efforts to increase diversity and create cultures of inclusion.  Noting that diversity needs to “start at the top,” stakeholders such as ISS and the state of California have announced initiatives to mandate board diversity specifically on the basis of ethnicity and race.  Meanwhile, only 4.1% of Russell 3000 directors are Black despite efforts to develop boards that better reflect the broader makeup of society.

No lack of talent:  Williams outlined a new project to identify qualified Black candidates for board seats.  Initially hoping to identify several dozen, Williams and his colleagues have now identified 500 potential candidates.

Williams noted that board turnover averages about one seat per year.  To see any significant change, he observed, board turnover would need to increase.  This should be linked with filling empty seats with new, forward-looking roles, including those with expertise in risk management, international markets, customer satisfaction, or data analytics. 

If it can be measured, it can be improved:  Williams suggested HR leaders collect and disclose specific diversity information, including data on race, gender, and position. 

Williams offered practical advice for getting on a board, including focusing on developing relevant skillsets, expanding networks of sponsors, and maintaining a streamlined resume.  Such a resume would include the individual's: 1) reason for wanting to be on a board, 2) skillsets they bring, 3) vision for the board, 4) leadership and experience, and 5) references.

Relationships to build on:  In a project examining the extent to which qualified Black candidates were being overlooked in board succession planning for major Bay Area corporate boards, Williams found that relationships played a prominent role in filling board seats with Black candidates.  Other important factors included skill sets and fit (i.e., whether the candidate was able to function on a board).