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Board Directors & Chairs

The Next Frontier of Board Diversity

Ensuring diverse representation reaches board leadership roles

  • February 2023

Progress has been made on getting more underrepresented minorities onto corporate boards. But this same level of progress hasn’t translated to committee chair and board chair/lead director roles. Our Global Board Diversity Tracker found that 90 percent of board chair positions in Russell 3000 companies were held by white directors in 2022, and 87 percent of committee chair positions were held by white board members. Women don’t fare much better, with 8.4 percent of non-executive chair roles and 3.7 percent of executive chair positions held by female directors. The committee chair level is higher, with 25 percent of those roles held by women globally.  

Boards now face the challenges of intentionally addressing this representation gap. We hosted seasoned board leaders Shellye Archambeau, corporate governance and policy committee chair of Verizon Communications Inc. and nominating and governance committee chair of Roper Technologies Inc.; Rodney Adkins, chair of Avnet Inc., compensation committee chair of WW Grainger Inc., and risk committee chair of UPS Inc.; and Wayne Hewett, governance and nominating committee chair of Wells Fargo & Co. to lead a discussion with more than 25 corporate directors on how to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in board leadership roles and how to be an effective leader once you land the role. 

Why Representation in Board Leadership Roles Matters

While every board member has an impact on the company, leadership roles offer additional opportunities to shape strategy, CEO succession planning, future board composition and more. “Being a committee chair or a lead director gives you more power to influence,” Archambeau said. “The committee chairs, along with the board chair, tend to be the executive committee of a board. And, of course, the lead director or chair sets the agenda of the board, has the ear of everyone, and works closely with the CEO.” 

But before you consider a formal committee chair or board chair role, you must demonstrate leadership as a board member. This could take on the form of showing courage by directly addressing the elephant in the room, bringing forth a contrary perspective (in a collaborative manner) or by bringing clarity to discussions. Hewett noted that the moments that call for someone to cut through the noise are tremendous opportunities to show your leadership abilities. “There is always an occasion where it’s not clear if we should go left or right—there’s no obvious answer,” he explained. “Be able to step in and say, ‘Based on the information we have, here is a direction for us to go in,’ and then get the team to go there.”

Be Seen and Heard in the Boardroom: Strategizing About Your Board Leadership Role

If you do aspire to chair a committee or the board, you need to be intentional with your planning, much in the same way you were during your executive career – charting your path forward and noting the additional skills and topics you may need to gain a greater depth of knowledge in. “When I decided I was interested in becoming the chair of Avnet, I took some specific steps in positioning myself for consideration,” Adkins shared. “I would go to some of the director education courses offered by different institutions and take the lead director classes. I would also spend time with the current lead director and the committee chairs, along with the key executive leaders of the company.” 

All three board leaders cautioned that putting your head down and working hard and counting on someone to notice will not be enough. “Hope is not a strategy,” Archambeau noted, going on to share her own ascension into chairing the nominating and governance committee. “After I was about three years into my service on that board, I approached the current nom/gov chair, letting her know I really admired the job she does and that it’s a role I aspire to in the future. I kept being very active in the committee and about a year and a half later, when she retired from the board, she passed the baton to me and there was no discussion about it – I was the de facto choice.”

Some other ways to prepare for board leadership are to gain experience serving on as many committees as possible as well as utilizing the buddy system – forge relationships with key members of management and with your fellow directors. “A lot can be learned outside the boardroom,” Adkins noted. 

Once you land the board leadership role, then you need to shift your planning to how you will be the most effective. One key thing to keep in mind is how you ensure everyone is able to contribute in meaningful ways. It’s similar to leading teams as an executive – you have a talented group of board members and it’s up to you to get the most out of them. “The most effective leaders allow everyone to have a voice and leverage the collective wisdom of all,” said Adkins. 

Leverage Diversity as a Leadership Strength

While some directors from underrepresented groups shy away from overtly showcasing some aspects of their diversity, possibly at the risk of seeming like a token minority board member, there is great value from drawing on wisdom you’ve gained from different experiences. “My view is bring up race in the context of how it ties to strategy – for example, how are you thinking of diversity of talent in order to execute on that strategy,” Archambeau said.

Hewett agreed, adding: “I’m not afraid to address diversity wherever I see the opportunity in the boardroom. Not to drop a bomb on anyone, but as a way to look for collective solutions as a team.”

Being open about the different perspectives on your board is critical to having more meaningful discussions and bringing in points of view that might have otherwise been overlooked. Hewett noted that sometimes different directors perceive discussions in very different ways. Being able to openly talk about it leads to richer conversations and deeper relationships.

There’s also value in taking a hard look at the cultures of a board before you join to ensure the dynamics that they have in place make these discussions natural.  “Over time, I got smart about the boards I joined, and one thing I look for is if the company and board had a culture where diversity is a natural discussion,” Adkins shared. “On the boards I am on now, when it’s time to get into tough areas it’s part of our natural business dialogue.”

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