Diversity Gains on the Board
By Kevin Smith
“Companies appear to be discovering that a big talent pool of nonwhite people and women for board seats does, in fact, exist. Some, like Dr. Hammond, have been hiding in plain sight.”
Board Diversity Increased in 2021. Some Ask What Took So Long
Peter Eavis, New York Times, January 3, 2022
Board succession planning and recruitment has been a hot topic for a while now. This isn’t my first blog post about it and I’ve been talking about it at trade conferences and in individual credit unions more in the last couple of years. It’s heartening to see diversity gains on the board highlighted in this news story as accomplished, not just a talking point and an “elusive” goal. This is tremendously valuable to the board’s role and it can be done. But … and I hope you know this … it’s work. It doesn’t just fall in the collective lap of the board.
Do the Work
I’m not going to rehash the value of diversity here. It’s at the point where I’m going to take that as a given. However, in the same breath, I know that there are those out there who aren’t convinced. There is no doubt that’s true, because I have been part of the debate and an observer in the room while it happens.
If you’re not convinced about the value, do the work. A Google search will yield weeks’ worth of reading from qualified researchers.
Not long ago a director insisted to me that diversity is ALWAYS secondary to the qualifications of the candidate. That was his reason for pushing back on diversity efforts from his colleagues. Never once came the acknowledgement that there can and should be both qualifications and diversity. And the “qualifications-first” argument feels very disingenuous. I’ve worked with thousands of board members. One of the conversation sparks that I use in training rooms is to ask long tenured board members how long their learning curve was when first joining. This is typically measured in years. I ask those senior directors to tell the rookies in the room what they wished they’d learned first or faster. There is plenty to talk about! In fact, the majority of the directors I know don’t come from a background in financial services, credit unions, or the like. They ALL have plenty to learn as quickly as possible. So, at a basic level, those “qualifications” we’re looking for are critical thinking skills, curiosity and the desire to learn (with maybe a few more sprinkled in as well).
How to Achieve Diversity Gains on the Board
I tend to say this a lot: It’s simple, but not necessarily easy.
- Start with what you have. Write down what you want. Examine the gaps. Fill the gaps.
- With 7-9 board members you may never get to perfect, and that’s okay. Push for always just a bit better.
- Create an evergreen list of candidates. Require that every board member add a name to the list every year. (C’mon. One per year! Doable!) Names may come and go.
- You don’t have to look for existing members (though it doesn’t hurt). You can look for people in the community that show the leadership and qualities that you want and go talk to them. Figure out how to make them members when the time comes. Identify the most impressive people you can find. Set the bar high.
- Change your mindset. No longer can we look to friends who look and act just like us from down the hall to fill the seat. It’s important. Do the work.
- Sell it!
I hear from plenty of board members who lament the fact that people don’t have the time, don’t have the interest, don’t have the [fill in the blank], yadda yadda yadda. Then I ask them, “why do you do this?” They brighten and tell me all of the passionate reasons why they serve. Board recruitment means selling the job and giving candidates the WIIFM (What’s in it for me?). It’s not an understatement to say that you can change people’s lives! Yes, people are busy, but if you give them the right reasons, they will share your passion. Anything else is a copout.
A Variety of Ages Also Counts as Diversity
My colleague, TEAM Resources founder, Tim Harrington pushes for young professionals to join credit union boards. I couldn’t agree more. They come with a fresh perspective; they’re steeped in technology that some of us with graying hair are still learning. And it can be pretty easy to give them their WIIFM. The resume item, “board member of a financial services provider” yields results to someone looking to advance. And think of the connections the rest of the tenured board and senior leaders at the credit union can provide for an up and coming professional. Sell it, baby!
I’m encouraged by the article I posted above. Likewise, I’m encouraged by the discussions I’ve been part of and the growing acknowledgement of the value of diversity. But I’m eager to see more results, more diversity gains on the board. You can do it. It’s worth it. Let Tim and me know how we can help.
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