Four Critical Steps to Build Transformative Boards
This post is a guest-authored commentary piece from the California Partners Project and the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab spotlighting the Board Diversity Playbook, a free web resource to help companies diversify their boards.
While leaders seek to strengthen and diversify their boards, they often discover that the strategies and actions that led to their current state are insufficient to achieve this new goal. In addition, the new pathways can occur as unclear and unproven. Yet it is possible. Between June 2018 and September 2022, the number of public company board seats held by women in California tripled. To discover what worked, the California Partners Project convened focus groups of top business leaders, investors, and experts in board diversity and governance, directors and corporate executives to clarify the barriers facing boards and to identify proven, effective strategies for change.
A key insight is in the way boards approach their recruitment processes. While diversity is front of mind in recruiting conversations, according to the focus group participants, there’s an ongoing tendency to recruit talent from the board’s existing networks or by looking to CEOs and other boards for talent due to a feeling that candidates outside of that inner circle are too risky. As a result, they overlook talented women who could add needed perspectives, skills, and expertise to their boards.
The Board Diversity Playbook
To help companies overcome these hurdles, the California Partners Project and the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab created a free web-based Board Diversity Playbook that offers four empirically sound, community-sourced strategies for conducting an effective search for new talent and perspectives to add to corporate boards. The Playbook includes tools and templates as well as implementation advice from board directors who have successfully utilized each strategy.
The Playbook is intended for any CEOs, board members, or board nominating committees recruiting new directors to their board, especially boards that do not have the resources to hire experts to run the search process, as well as investors, organizations, and educators who work with boards on governance, effectiveness and oversight.
Four Steps to Build a Transformative Board
Leveraging the following four steps in the Playbook, companies can find a broad range of highly credentialed women leaders with insights and skills to enhance their board’s performance and success. Each step includes downloadable tools, evidence-backed articles and research, and implementation tips from board directors.
Step 1: Find the Gaps – Update and Use a Board Skills Matrix
This first step is to write a robust, forward-looking description of the expertise and demographic characteristics needed to build a strong, diverse board. Utilizing a board matrix can help companies identify and concretize the skills, experiences, and perspectives they are looking to add to their board while taking into consideration what attributes and demographics already exist.
Creating a board matrix can help to make the process as unbiased as possible by sticking with the facts rather than relying on “feel,” which can often lead to homogenous groups. The playbook offers an example Board Matrix companies can use to develop their own matrix that aligns with their organization’s current and long-term strategy.
Experts suggest using interviews rather than self-assessments as a way to make sure the competencies and characteristics are filled out consistently and objectively and sharing the matrix with key senior executives to make the matrix more forward-looking and comprehensive.
Step 2: Expand Your Networks
Next, we suggest beyond first-degree connections to increase the diversity of the slate of candidates and bring in new talent. One way to mine existing networks is to reach out to local bankers, accountants, lawyers, insurance brokers and other professional service providers for connections to leaders from historically marginalized groups whose expertise would be valuable. Additional tactics include asking the company’s leadership team to connect the board with their networks, especially if they are connected to people from historically marginalized groups, and looking inside membership organizations, which often have subgroups such as women’s initiatives.
Boards can extend their search beyond existing networks by connecting with organizations and professional associations to help them identify top candidates, and utilizing search firms that focus on bringing in diverse talent. The California Partners Project’s Resource Hub can point search committees to affinity groups that offer opportunities to network with their membership, as well search firms and organizations that offer curated lists of qualified candidates.
Step 3: Create an Equitable Interview Process
Once a search committee identifies its slate of candidates, the next key step is to make the interview process as effective as possible by systematizing practices to block bias. We each have our own set of biases (conscious and unconscious) and the equitable interview process steps outlined in the Playbook identify how to make the interview process for board candidates as intentional, objective, equitable, and inclusive as possible.
Key concepts include seeking clarity and removing ambiguity by clarifying the criteria used in making decisions and how the group will come to a recommendation, aligning the team by calibrating the expectations of interviewers to create a process that is consistent and inclusive while monitoring for bias, and checking the group’s work by looking at gender, race, disability, affinity and other demographics and experiences to see if interviewers are inadvertently favoring some candidates or being unduly harsh on others.
Step 4: Onboard Intentionally
The real work begins after a board elects its new member(s). Onboarding is when new board members learn about board culture and how things work behind-the-scenes. The Playbook offers a checklist to guide boards through one potential onboarding process to support new board members in becoming impactful and engaged thought partners.
The Board Diversity Playbook provides companies with best practices and tools necessary to diversify their boards, benefiting companies and society. As California First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom recently shared, “To continue to move the needle on gender equity, we must increase women’s representation at the tables where decisions are made. The private sector is critical to this work, as decisions made in corporate boardrooms radiate across companies and communities. When there is a dearth of diverse women’s voices in the boardroom, particularly women of color’s voices, there is an absence of unique perspectives and experiences in decision-making that are critical to the well-being of society.”
Contributors to this article include Elizabeth Cheong and Leigha Weinberg from the California Partners Project, Lori Nishiura Mackenzie from the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, and the Playbook Editorial Team.
The Board Diversity Playbook was developed by the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab and the California Partners Project, with an aim to empower change agents with research-based approaches to advance diverse women’s leadership. The collaboration brings together leading experts and people in the field to capture the best ideas for those seeking to diversify their boards.