Diversity in the Corporate Boardroom

Coming less than a month after a report concluded that corporate board diversity is at a “standstill,” the emphasis on boardroom diversity at Diversity MBA’s 2013 Gala and Conference might have seemed prescient. But a lack of diversity in corporate boards is, unfortunately, an easy-to-predict problem.

“A Culture of Change: Insights on Board Diversity” was the title of the opening general session for the conference. Moderated by Beverly Behan, president of Board Advisors, LLC , the session featured a panel of corporate executives who have served on corporate boards: Milton Carroll, Chairman of the Board of CenterPoint Energy, chairman of Instrument Products and member of several corporate boards; Michael Millegan, president of Verizon Global Wholesale who has served on a number of nonprofit boards; Adela Cepeda, president of A.C. Advisory, who serves on the boards of the UBS Funds, Consulting Group Capital Markets Mutual Funds, and is chair of the Mercer Mutual Funds; and Sallye Liner, chief clinical officer for Novant Health, who has sat on various corporate and nonprofit boards.

Though he was preaching mostly to the choir, Carroll set the tone for establishing the importance of board diversity in the first place. “Diversity is not a play thing; it’s a real thing,” Carroll said. “These boards need diversity. They need people who think differently, they need people from different backgrounds, different experiences, different eras. It’s not unusual for people to grow up in society and never have experience in diversity, so they don’t know anything about it. …But they want to get to that point, so you have someone sit on the board with you to help you keep it real.”

In the general session and in a Fireside Chat with CEOs that followed, panel members discussed how conference attendees – which included more than 800 corporate executives, a number of them minorities and women – can become members of corporate boards. It is not only acceptable but even desirable for corporate executives to serve on boards of other companies, panelists said. Many CEOs encourage their executives to serve on boards because it gives them insight they can use in their own companies, panelists said. They cautioned, however, to clear outside board service with corporate and legal authorities and to be willing to commit the time – including evenings and weekends. Sometimes, you just have to ask, Cepeda said.

She related to the audience, seated around tables in a large hotel ballroom, how she became a member of one board. She had gotten to know a high-ranking executive at the company and was having lunch with him to discuss an unrelated matter. “During the lunch, I said to him, ‘By the way, if an opportunity should come up for a board member, I want you to know that I’m very interested and finance is my strength.’ ” The executive’s response was that he didn’t think she would be interested. She assured him that she was; she got the board appointment.

Liner advised a strategy of making yourself as visible as possible to corporate executives. “Go the extra mile at work,” she said. “Some people think that doesn’t pay off, but it puts you in front of senior leadership. Take every assignment and work very hard at it… sometimes you have to be the guy who raises his hand and says ‘I’m the guy who stays after work or I’m going to do it over the weekend…You might move into these other opportunities more quickly.”

Panelists acknowledged that becoming a board member – and serving on boards – can be a time-consuming commitment. But they said the key was to do something you love doing in the first place.

Millegan recalled doing volunteer work for a zoo in Seattle and meeting several people who later achieved high-level success in business and politics. “You can never tell where your decisions are going to get you,” he said. “I didn’t know these people from the man on the moon and if I had overlaid [volunteer efforts] with success criteria for who I needed to play with, where I needed to be…I never would have met those people. One step sometimes opens up the door for another step.”

The discussions came amid reports that efforts to diversify corporate boards are as necessary as ever. According to a report released in August by the Alliance for Board Diversity, “women and minorities remain vastly underrepresented at the decision-making tables of corporate boardrooms.” There have been “only very small gains in boardroom representation” since 2004, the report stated. It found that white men make up 73.3 percent of Fortune 500 boards.

The gains that women and minorities have made could help expedite change, panelists said, – but that will take the right attitude.

“We have an obligation once we’re [on boards], that we’re going to ask for a panel of candidates that is diverse – ‘Don’t just bring us, for the next two board seats, only white males,’ ” Liner said. “It’s our obligation on boards to ask for a pool of diverse candidates. If we don’t, it’s going to continue to look the way it does today. We can’t wish our way there.”

Added Millegan: “I think you’ve pierced the veil….It takes a lot of courage when you’re on the board to step up and say: ‘I want to make a change.’ ”

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