July 15, 2021

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Richard Stringham

Three Considerations when Recruiting for Board Diversity

As more research comes in, the case for diversity at the board table grows even stronger. Diverse perspectives at the board table translate into greater board success and reduced risk.

This has some boards asking how they can increase diversity at the board table.

1. Stop going to the same sources when recruiting board members.

Let’s face it, our social circles are limited to those with similar perspectives and when we seek fresh faces at the board table, we often seek those who look and think like us. After all, that leads to comfortable results.

That is not to say that all white males in their mid-sixties (including this writer) have identical perspectives. However, as a white, privileged, senior male, I don’t have the first-hand experiences of glass ceilings, systemic racism, prejudices based upon sexual orientation or disabilities, or trying to buy my first home in a housing market that has become absurd in its price escalation. In other words, if the board is stacked with people from the same background, it will be woefully handicapped to reach out to and relate to those of different backgrounds.

Going to the same circles that your board members frequent will perpetuate a cycle of sameness in the board. Instead, look for different avenues to connect with people of diverse backgrounds. Not sure where to start? Consider those organizations which are composed of people that are typically not in your circle.

At a recent Govern for Impact Conference, AJ Crabill described how a school board had great success in recruiting women by partnering with an organization that focuses on leadership development for women.

2. Recruit people who do not have board experience.

Say what!? Shouldn’t we be recruiting people who have relevant experience?

Speaking at the same conference, Marlene Janzen Le Ber noted that “in 2020, nearly 36% of diverse board seats are occupied by persons on multiple Fortune 500 boards.”. Consequently, the pool of experienced directors who can bring diversity to the board table is both smaller and likely has less availability for taking on more board positions.

This is symptomatic of the broader issue. If those who bring the diversity you seek do not have board experience, how are they to get it? Your board could be a starting point.

But more to the point, too often we see boards recruiting those who mirror the skills needed at the top of the organization’s management. It’s an indication that they view governance as “management one-step-up”. In other words, the board is viewed as a management decisions centre.

I much prefer the Policy Governance® perspective of governance as “ownership one-step-down,” in which the board is not expected to manage but to govern on behalf of its ownership. That may seem a minor distinction; but once it is well understood, it can be transformational.

It also means that the abilities of the board need to align with the board’s governance role. If the board is using Policy Governance, it needs directors who can ask good questions of the ownership and listen to understand the owners’ values. It needs directors who can employ a myriad of skills to bring together different values, knowledge, and perspectives to generate wisdom when formulating policies. It needs directors who can learn and are willing to apply the board’s governance system because learning how to govern as “ownership one-step-down” while understanding how to link with and listen to a diverse ownership may well be more valuable than having experienced board members who cannot do these things.

3. Do not seek directors simply because they fit into a particular gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

Each of us should be valued as an individual with a unique combination of perspectives and talents. To approach a person simply because your board lacks “representation” from a particular segment of society is as offensive as not recruiting from those sectors. None of us want to be the subject of tokenism.

This is an extremely challenging concept for those boards who are content with “warm bodies” when recruiting board members.

However, with an appropriate focus, those boards that apply the techniques of recruiting board members for the qualities the board needs , including, but not limited to, diverse perspectives, will add meaningful value to the organization.

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