Different boards are in different places in their diversity evolution, but overall, I’m somewhat heartened by what I’m seeing. As I look around, there seems to be some progress, albeit slower than we would like. Frankly, 30 years ago there probably weren’t 200 African-American directors in total. In fact, I would like to thank LP Green and Savoy for recognizing and connecting this distinguished group. While clearly there is still room for progress, this list shows we are making strides in a positive direction.
In my experience in serving on four public company boards, boards have undergone an evolution in their diversity. With respect to my first board, from which I recently retired after a decade of service, I was the first person of color. Today, that board is very diverse from a gender and ethnic perspective, and I feel gratified by the role I played in helping them diversify. The board became much stronger as a result of that diversity, and over time, the management team became more diverse, too. Witnessing that change was very encouraging. I also had the privilege to eventually serve as the lead independent director for that board. Considering there are relatively few African-Americans who have had that opportunity on a public company board, this is something I’m very proud of.
Companies that have diverse boards are more likely to have diverse management teams because if the board has shown its own commitment to diversity and says, “We urge you to have more diversity in your management ranks,” top management is more apt to make it a priority. With diversity efforts, you have to start at the top of the house, which is the Board of Directors. There is a trickledown effect. If you have a more diverse board, then you are more likely to have a diverse management team.
Having directors with different backgrounds can enrich the dialogue you have in the boardroom. And similarly, having a diverse management team absolutely enriches that dialogue. Diverse directors truly have a different perspective. On many issues, our perspectives are going to be very aligned with others, but there will always be certain issues that we see through a slightly different lens as a result of our experiences. For example, for consumer-driven companies, there are going to be unique nuances that should be considered as they market to a particular demographic group. Companies need to have leadership teams that are reflective of the larger society. This has to start at the board level, so when the average person looks at a board, they see some people who look like themselves. If they just see a narrow subset of society, then they may perceive the leadership as being “out of touch” and an anachronism.
Having a search firm involved when identifying new directors is critical because if a board just searches on its own, it’s likely to tap its narrow existing network and it can end up in a continuous loop of recruiting the same types of people again and again. And if you are starting with a non-diverse board, there is a good chance that will result in a pool of non-diverse candidates. So it is important to have a search firm involved that is experienced in presenting a diverse pool of candidates. In my roles at Allegis Partners and Major, Lindsey & Africa (sister companies), we have a network that is extremely diverse, and we bring a great deal of confidence to the board searches and other searches we perform because we are able to identify strong diverse candidates.
As African-Americans seek to join the highest ranks of the corporate community, the pinnacle is serving on the Board of Directors. Kudos to Savoy for celebrating those who have the privilege—and the responsibility—of serving in that role.
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Paul Williams is a Partner in Major, Lindsey & Africa's Chicago office. Paul focuses on conducting in-house searches, particularly general counsel and other senior level positions. He also works with law firm partners and associates who are interested in making lateral moves.