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How Your Board’s Personality Dictates Your Gender Diversity

Your company likely has one of these boardroom personalities. But which one?

How Your Board’s Personality Dictates Your Gender Diversity
[Photo: Flickr user IAEA Imagebank]

Why don’t more companies have women on their corporate boards? It’s 2015 and we still don’t have the answer.

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While we’ve already heard–and busted–a few of the most common excuses that companies use like the board is “fine” as it is or there aren’t any qualified women, how a search is conducted for a new board member to fill a vacancy is a huge reason many boards get it wrong. In fact, the search can tell you a lot about the kind of board a company has in the first place.

Is your search for new board members “inclusive,” meaning it casts a wide net to identify the best candidates with different backgrounds and skill sets, or is it “exclusive,” meaning it relies only on other board members’ personal contacts to identify candidates? Is it an “active” search that spends the appropriate time and money to identify the best candidates or is it a “passive” search that identifies candidates only when they present themselves?

If a search is inclusive and active, that sets a company up best for a diverse, effective board. Exclusive and passive searches, on the other hand, lead to more of the same and a homogenous, less than optimal board.

Like a Myers-Briggs personality test for corporate boardrooms, here are four personality profiles that many boards adopt:

1. The Progressives

This type of board results from an active and inclusive search for new directors and shows that your company values diversity. Progressives are often boards that contain a critical mass of women directors. These boards usually operate in a larger corporate environment that values diversity of thought and perspective. Women tend to have a presence in the executive suite and among the top-compensated people at the company. Progressive boards defy stereotypes. They are well-informed and understand the business case for gender diversity.

2. The Fraternities

Corporate boards categorized as Fraternities prefer to operate under their own rules and in secrecy. But their desire to maintain a positive image may lead them to check the “diversity box” with a token woman.

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As with other exclusive searches, fraternity boards only approach candidates who are known through personal contacts, not as the result of a comprehensive search. It’s still an “insider” model. Pressure from activist shareholders or media attention comparing them with more diverse competitors might be effective in influencing Fraternity boards given their concern for the reputation of the company and the board.

3. The Oblivious

Oblivious boards tend not to be opposed to diversity in the boardroom, but it just isn’t a high priority for them. These boards may have no women directors but may have one or more women in the executive suite or among the top paid employees. Or they may have one or two female directors but little or no diversity in the executive suite.

Candidate searches are not intentionally exclusive, but also not intentionally inclusive either. These boards don’t search for women as part of diversity efforts because they don’t have diversity efforts. They get women by happenstance when they need a new board member, one is included in the pool of candidates, and she makes the cut, often because a trusted person vouches for her.

4. The Reactionaries

Reactionary boards not only have no women directors, they oversee organizations that often have no women in their executive suites. These boards want to keep everything status quo.

Reactionary boards rely mainly on director nominations from current board members and the CEO. Similar to the Fraternities, they favor candidates from a narrow range of experiences and backgrounds such as current or former CEOs.

When conducting searches, Reactionary boards are unlikely to require a diverse pool of candidates or may screen out any proposed female candidates for not meeting their criteria. Alternatively, it’s not unusual for Reactionary boards to go through the motions of conducting interviews with women candidates but then end up reverting back to their preference for male directors.

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So which “personality” best describes your company’s board? Regardless of where your company lands, immediate steps can and should be taken to make a change.

Smart planning to choose new directors will go a long way to ensuring that over time your board becomes more diverse to better reflect and serve your audiences and better lead your organization.

The time for change is now. It’s time for leaders to get on board with diversity.

Susan Adams is a professor of management at Bentley University and the senior director of Bentley’s Center for Women and Business.

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