Board Diversity in Homogeneous Industry

Although not-for-profit boards are more diverse, on average, than for-profit boards, achieving optimal board diversity is especially challenging for associations that represent industries that are lacking diversity in the upper executive ranks. However, even in situations where the bulk of industry leaders are white males, there are steps that can be taken to formulate a diverse board.

Ultimately, the goal is to achieve diversity of thought; diversity of thought is achieved by intentionally recruiting people with varied backgrounds to a board that embodies inclusivity. An inclusive board is a welcoming board where members feel comfortable in expressing their views and everyone’s point of view is valued and considered.

The first step is to truly internalize the belief that organizations benefit from diverse boards. Diversity is important for many reasons and delivers a wide spectrum of benefits. Diversity of perspective enriches generative dialogue and positively impacts issue framing. Diversity of thought enhances creative thinking opportunities and is equally helpful in an analytical regard. Diversity is paramount if one desires a strategic thinking board, as it makes it easier for boards to see distant things closely and to take a distant look at those things that are close. And, a diverse board sends a powerful message about the organization. If you are committed and your Board is committed, diversity can be achieved.

Gaining board commitment is an absolute must to achieve your diversity goals. This begins with identifying some diversity champions on your board. Ideally, the chairperson will champion diversity. You need champions that are as committed to diversity as you are. If you don’t feel you can get the commitment that you need from the current chair or potential champions, patience might be in order. Ultimately, it is important to memorialize the commitment to diversity in writing. This can be done in the form of a board diversity resolution, a written board profile document expressing the need for diversity among other attributes, or as a prong of organization’s overall strategy, if it is part of the strategy.

Keep in mind, the goal is not to create a quota program. The goal is to create a board of diverse individuals who have the requisite skills and background to make a quality contribution to the board and the organization. As such, the board selection process should place considerable weight on candidate attributes.

In discussing the need for and benefits of diversity with the board, it is important that judgments are not made about why up until now the board has not been diverse. Extra care should be taken to ensure that the discussion remains positive and about the future, not the past.

Early in the process of transitioning to a diverse board, diversity and inclusion training should be provided for the board. Training on inclusion is key to ensuring a healthy environment once your board becomes more diverse; it is not about diversity alone, its about diversity and inclusion. A more advanced understanding of diversity will also be helpful in reducing any feelings of guilt that some board members may have and in strengthening the commitment of others. Check with some of your larger members; some of them might have diversity and inclusion professionals on staff that might be able to provide training for your board.

You or the Board may also want to create a diversity task force to identify mechanisms to increase board diversity. The task force members should be as diverse as possible. As such, you may have to go outside of the board for additional task force members. If you do create a task force, make sure that it is given clear objectives and a set timeframe for completing its work and reporting back to the board.

In the meantime, here are some ideas you could implement to increase the diversity of the pool of qualified candidates or to start the diversity dialogue:

  1. Create a profile of the current board to determine missing links.
  2. Identify current barriers to achieving board diversity and develop strategies to overcome the barriers.
  3. Seek maximum diversity on the committee that is responsible for nominating candidates. As your organization becomes more diverse, seek to continually increase the diversity of this committee.
  4. If necessary, amend your bylaws to allow for outside directors. It can be a challenge to find outside directors to fill association board seats; consider approaching other association CEOs who meet your diversity requirements.
  5. Allow for some board seats to be filled with people who have not yet reached senior executive status in your industry. This is especially important if your industry has few people of color or women in its senior executive ranks. This approach will also allow you increase millennial participation.
  6. If you currently have some diverse board members, seek their advice and exploit their networks to identify additional candidates.
  7. Find out where the diverse candidates are and go to them. What organizations do they belong to? Are there LinkedIn groups where they might be congregating? Identify and nurture “sourcing channels.”
  8. Develop relationships with groups that focus on diverse populations. For example, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce or women’s executive groups. Ask these groups for advice or assistance in identifying qualified, diverse candidates.
  9. Launch a diversity education program for your industry that promotes the benefits of diversity in the executive ranks. Although this is a longer-term proposition for future association leadership, if your organization takes a leadership role in promoting diversity in your industry, your organization and industry will be better off in the future. This could take the form of speakers at your convention, webinars or a social media campaign, or it could be a mentorship program.
  10. Be public about your desire to increase the diversity of your board. Use your website to let people know about your board diversity efforts. Use member communication vehicles to inform your membership about your goal to identify qualified, diverse candidates.
  11. Celebrate the diversity that you currently have. Include photos and stories of your diverse board members on your website. Look for opportunities at high profile events to engage them or highlight their involvement.

Building and maintaining a diverse board requires an ongoing commitment to proactively seek diversity. Although memberships and boards ultimately determine who is on the Board, identifying qualified diverse candidates should be a prime responsibility of the chief executive officer. If you are starting with an all white male board, you will want to give attention to the appearance of a “token” board member; one way to overcome this is to recruit three women or three people of color as you begin your transition to a more diverse board.

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