Leadership Expert On Benefitting From Crazy Diversity Board Targets

Diversity and inclusion done wrong can benefit you, if you make the right moves. 

Forced diversity on boards may create the wrong board hires, but don’t use that as a reason to hold back your personal progress.

In September 2018, California became the first state to legally instruct corporate board diversity by stating every public company had to have at least one female director by the end of 2019. This may not stop in California. New Jersey and New York are considering following suit.

This checkbox approach to diversity is disastrous at best and potentially illegal at worst. While this article is about board composition, the lessons can be applied to any numerical diversity target well intentioned companies set.

I don’t agree with the premise of a numerical goal, because where will it stop? First a quota for women, then what other quotas will be introduced? The list could be endless, and the activity is focused on a checklist rather than improving company performance. Despite all of this, there are some advantages of this legislation, 

The optimists view:

  • No longer a whispered conversation. Boards in California have had to hold difficult candid discussions about precisely who is around their boardroom table. Optimistically, I would like to hope that the conversation started with reviewing strategy, and subsequently reviewing what talent is required on the board to support that future growth strategy with the solution just happening to be a woman.
  • Shattering the typical networking club. This legislation has forced board members to shatter their tried and true methods for doing business, or at least put a few cracks in it. Existing board members recommend future board members. To build a pipeline of qualified women executives in many cases requires the typical referral club of who-I-know to be shattered and rebuilt. In my book Rapid Growth, Done Right: Lead, Influence and Innovate for Success, Kogan Page, May 2020, I provide a toolkit for evaluating and increasing your power of influence that applies to anyone whether you are new to managing, an executive, or board member.
  • Encouraging reevaluation of board qualifications. Historically, diversity on boards didn’t happen because of a self-fulfilling tradition that board members must have previously served as a CEO or CFO in a public company. As the majority of those positions have been held by men, the diversity absence cycle continues. The criteria for future board members is slowly changing, which makes this the perfect time for you.

You might be reading this thinking, I am not ready, or worse, I am too old. I had a remarkably successful technology executive say to me recently “I have left it too late, Val, to get on a board!” I explained that nothing could be further from the truth and that I knew many boards would be delighted to have her expertise. The issue was not one of age, but of how magnetic her brilliance was.

It is never too early, and it is never too late to consider how you can explore serving on a board. 

How you can take advantage:

  • Take inventory of who you already know who serves on boards.
  • Connect with the board of your current company.
  • Ask for introductions from those in your network who know board members.
  • “I’d love some advice” is the magic phrase to ask those who you know who serves on boards. Share your own brilliance and experience, then ask for advice about how you can successfully become a board member.

While I question if this diversity legislation is really progress, I do wonder how the newly appointed solo female board members in California feel right now, as they take a seat at their next board meeting knowing that it was in some proportion due to forced legislation pressure and a pending fine.

But for now, let’s all just take advantage of the heightened awareness, renewed energy, and willingness to consider conversations with leaders who may not look, think, or act like your stereotypical board member.

Val Wright

Global Innovation and Leadership Expert

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