Over the course of my career, I have had the privilege to view the diversity and inclusion agenda from many angles. The first was as a young woman working in the male-dominated media world. I was lucky to have a male colleague who saw my potential and took proactive steps to advance my career — which, in today’s parlance, means that he sponsored me. It was clear that he envisioned an industry in which women, and others who didn’t look like him, could succeed — and lead.
I worked to pay that spirit forward as I climbed the career ladder and eventually led D&I as an executive vice president at Time Warner, and later as chairman of NBCUniversal News Group. Last fall, I stepped out of retirement to serve as CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit think tank that runs on the mission of a more equitable workforce — D&I is our lifeblood.
For years, I have also measured an organization’s strategy and success around D&I from the vantage of a board member. And I believe boards hold a critical perspective and have unique power to drive an organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts. After all, the job of a board is to make sure the business is profitable, and there’s no better business than diversity and inclusion. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation reveals the “diversity dividend”: Diversity unlocks innovation and boosts market growth. It makes companies more competitive in our increasingly global world.
Initiatives such as CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion encourage bold and timely engagement on these critical issues. But there’s opportunity to better leverage boards for D&I oversight, too. A recent Deloitte study analyzed Fortune 500 board charters and found that very few included governance of inclusion practices as a board responsibility. Now is the time for boards to tap into their potential as changemakers.
In my experience, here are a few ways individual board members, and the board as a collective, can catalyze an organization’s D&I efforts.
Impact The Agenda
Board members have the power to put D&I on an organization’s agenda. In doing so, however, they must be prepared to ask the uncomfortable questions and sustain a dialogue that challenges the status quo and spurs change. Board members can probe the executive team on issues including pay equity, advancement and retention of diverse talent and hiring efforts. As a board member, you have the ability, for example, to keep the spotlight trained on diverse hiring and promoting at each meeting. If the executive team requests equity for a new hire or promotion, require them to be transparent regarding whether the candidate is a female or a person of color.
Hold The Organization Accountable
Once D&I is on the agenda, the board must keep it top of mind, and work with the executive team to develop an actionable, measurable plan. While serving on the board of a corporation lagging in D&I efforts, fellow board members and I asked for a diversity plan to share with the board. I didn’t just issue the command; I was happy to lend the knowledge I gathered running D&I at major companies, and I worked with the HR team, sharing my thoughts about the biggest levers to drive diversity.
Within a few months, the executive team crafted and presented a robust plan, with goals for representation over a five-year period. After we approved the plan, the work had just begun. The executive team sends semiannual updates to the board to track how the organization is doing against the plan. The firm’s commitment to accountability and transparency has allowed it to consistently hit its annual targets and move the needle on ERG presence and diverse hiring slates.
Walk The Talk
At the Center for Talent Innovation, we often talk about the importance of “tone from the top” in D&I practices. This does not only mean the executive team: A call for increased representation through an organization rings hollow if the board itself lacks diversity. Research shows we’re already making progress on this front, as it’s predicted that we will reach gender parity on U.S. Fortune 500 boards by 2023. But this change won’t happen on its own. Board members must continue to prioritize racial and gender parity. When searching for new board members, this means looking for candidates in nontraditional ways, employing a more holistic evaluation process and keeping an open mind about those who may not have previous board experience. And, once a diverse board is convened, it requires remembering that diversity doesn’t stick without inclusion.
Realizing the goal of a more diverse, inclusive and equitable workforce will require participation from every corner of every organization. I urge us all to expand our vision of what boards can do. Because when boards mandate and model best practices for diversity and inclusion, we accelerate our ability to boost the bottom line and build a better world.
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