Achieving Board Diversity: Strategies and Steps for Success

hy is it so hard to get everyone a seat at the table? 

Making change isn’t always easy—doing so effectively often means starting from the top. Improving diversity at the board level is no exception. Luckily, organizations can take proactive steps to overcome the hurdles. In this article, we’ll cover common pain points companies face when addressing board diversity, as well as practical steps for achieving it. 

A diverse leadership team welcomes different voices at the table.

Limited Pool of Diverse Candidates: A challenge often faced is the perceived scarcity of diverse candidates for board positions. But poor diversity recruiting metrics usually are a result of one of these two causes: 1) lack of effort in the recruiting process, or 2) bias throughout the hiring process.

  • Solution: To overcome this, organizations can expand their networks, establish partnerships with diverse professional organizations, and actively promote board opportunities to underrepresented groups. Creating mentorship or sponsorship programs can also help develop a pipeline of diverse talent for future board positions.

Implicit Bias and Lack of Awareness: Unconscious biases may influence board selection processes, favoring candidates who resemble the existing board members.  Outdated recruitment practices mean that boards typically rely on their own networks when filling in positions, which are overwhelmingly white. Surveys show that 75% of white Americans have entirely white social networks with no minority representation. It's no wonder then that Deloitte's 2021 report on board diversity found that approximately 80% of board directors in Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies are white. This also helps explain why the fastest growing underrepresented group at the table is white women.

  • Solution: Organizations can implement structured and objective selection criteria, including diverse skill sets and experiences, to mitigate bias. Providing diversity training to board members and decision-makers can increase awareness and ensure more inclusive and equitable selection practices.

Resistance to Change: Some board members or stakeholders may resist efforts to improve board diversity due to ingrained norms or a fear of diluting the perceived quality of the board. 

  • Solution: To overcome resistance, organizations can foster open and transparent communication, highlighting the business case for diversity and the positive impact on decision-making and performance. Engaging with stakeholders, including investors and shareholders, who value diversity can also exert influence and encourage change.

Lack of Commitment from Leadership: Without strong commitment from top leadership, efforts to improve board diversity may face challenges. 

  • Solution: Organizations can foster a culture of diversity and inclusion, starting from the executive level, by setting clear goals, establishing diversity metrics, and holding leadership accountable for progress. Leaders can also lead by example by actively seeking diverse perspectives and ensuring a respectful and inclusive boardroom environment.

Long Tenure and Board Refreshment: Boards with long-tenured members may resist change and hinder the entry of new, diverse voices. Only 6% of S&P 500 companies and 4% of Russell 3000 companies have term limits for corporate board members. For those who do, 73% have term limits that exceed 15 years. This means opportunities for new voices are few and far between. 

  • Solution: Implementing board refreshment policies that set term limits and promote board turnover can help bring fresh perspectives and diverse talent to the board. Succession planning should also prioritize diversity considerations to ensure a steady pipeline of diverse candidates.

Lack of Transparency and Accountability: Without transparency and accountability, progress on board diversity may stagnate. 

  • Solution: Organizations can establish clear reporting mechanisms and disclose board diversity metrics in their annual reports or dedicated diversity reports. Regularly communicating progress and highlighting the importance of diversity can foster a sense of accountability and drive continuous improvement.

By actively addressing these challenges, organizations can overcome barriers to board diversity and create more inclusive, diverse, and effective governing bodies.

Board members deep in discussion in a conference room.

4 Steps to creating an inclusive board

Now that we know the challenges in our way, what can we do to actually move the needle on board diversity? Well, the most important thing is to take the first step. One widely recognized approach is to collect and analyze data on various diversity dimensions, such as gender, ethnicity, age, and professional background, among board members. This data can then be used to assess the current state of diversity on the board and track progress over time.

  1. Conduct a Board Diversity Assessment: Assess the current composition of the board by collecting data on diversity characteristics, including gender, ethnicity, age, and skills. This assessment helps identify areas where diversity may be lacking and sets a baseline for future progress.
  2. Set Targets and Goals: Establish measurable targets and goals to increase diversity on the board. These targets can be specific, such as aiming for a certain percentage of women or underrepresented groups on the board within a defined timeframe.
  3. Monitor Progress and Report: Regularly monitor and report on board diversity metrics to track progress and ensure accountability. Companies can include board diversity data in their annual reports, sustainability reports, or dedicated diversity and inclusion reports.
  4. Implement Board Succession Planning: Incorporate diversity considerations into the board succession planning process. Actively seek out and cultivate a diverse pipeline of board candidates, ensuring a pool of qualified individuals from diverse backgrounds for future board appointments.
Board diversity can only be achieved by measuring, monitoring, improving and reporting on progress.

By following these steps, companies can effectively evaluate and monitor their governance metrics. This lays the groundwork for building a culture of transparency, accountability, and progress towards more inclusive and diverse leadership structures.

Change starts at the top  

In conclusion, prioritizing board diversity is crucial for organizations committed to sustainable and responsible business practices. By embracing diverse perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds, companies can benefit from enhanced decision-making, improved risk management, and stronger stakeholder relationships. Although challenges exist, proactive measures such as expanding candidate networks, addressing biases, fostering leadership commitment, and promoting transparency can help overcome these obstacles and pave the way for more inclusive and effective governance, ultimately driving long-term success and societal impact.

P.S. Want to avoid the potential missteps to begin with? Check out our previous articles on the ins and outs of board diversity and common challenges to look out for:

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