One year ago, my company set out to add a second independent director to our board. We established a core set of priorities looking for someone who had at least two of the four following qualifications: experience in financial services, expertise in risk and compliance, a background in Big Tech, or a large personal network of potential partners. We also had one nonnegotiable criteria: we wanted to add more gender and racial diversity to our board.
I thought the process would take three to four months. After all, we are in the governance business with access to an unparalleled global network of board members. I didn’t anticipate the long but rewarding process that followed.
One year later, I’m pleased to say we welcomed our new board member to the Diligent board. Not only does she meet our qualifications, but she happens to be an excellent culture fit. Along the way, I learned a series of invaluable lessons that I believe can benefit other companies, especially those intent on building their diversity.
Be intentional about what you’re looking for
I know it’s obvious but anticipating what’s ahead for your organization is critical to kicking off any board search. For us, this conversation illuminated gaps and opportunities that structured more specifically what we were looking for in expertise. We considered our needs across different time horizons: one, three, and five years down the road.
These introspective discussions gave rise to a set of criteria (and eventually a candidate profile) that served as our guidepost throughout the process. Of course, the more criteria you add, the smaller the talent pool, so it was important for us to decide which qualifications were flexible versus must-haves.
For us, diversity was an imperative. And with our long list of requirements, we knew we’d have to be a little more deliberate about our search, and a little more patient with the process.
Don’t waver, don’t settle
The list of frustrations during a search process, especially when diversity and inclusion are prioritized can be long: The candidate pool is too small for the qualifications we need; we’re struggling to find diverse candidates who are not already “overboarded;” we’re not sure how to identify rising talent outside of the executive-level ranks; we’re just not finding the right fit.
I was lucky to connect with a Seattle-based CEO early on in our search process who has built a diverse and talented team, which he believes has been a competitive advantage over the years. While our conversation wasn’t limited to board diversity, his advice was invaluable and stuck with me: “Don’t waver, don’t settle. It might take you longer to add someone with the skills who also adds diversity, but it’s worth it.”
There is no talent shortage. Rather, challenges revolve around visibility and discovery, and these can be mitigated with tweaks to the board recruiting process. The diverse talent you’re looking for may not go by the title of CEO, and you may not find them with the same methods used in the past. Although boards must be patient, they must also take proactive and intentional steps to build a pipeline long before a board seat comes available.
Building a diverse pipeline takes time
I recently caught up with a director from an impressively diverse board, and I asked for her key to success. She credited her chair of the nominating and governance committee: “He never stops networking. He’s constantly expanding his circles. He builds personal relationships with candidates. He mentors them and advances their careers. And when it’s time to fill a board seat, our committee taps his diverse pipeline. It’s that simple.”
Diverse boards are proactive in this way. They focus long-term; they build infrastructures that are ongoing and sustaining. As the board grows more diverse, so does its network, making it easier to identify rising talent that may otherwise be distanced by two or three degrees of separation.
Technology can be a network multiplier
Old-fashioned networking is a powerful tool, yet technology can also aid in both discovery and relationship building. That’s why, one year ago, our company launched Modern Leadership, an initiative that taps a global base of organizations, board members, and partners to nominate diverse, board-ready talent from their networks. Today, there are more than 1,500 diverse candidates in our director network database, which is not only accessible to boards but to the candidates themselves who can claim their profile and gain visibility into open board seat postings.
This time next year, I’m hoping this community will have tripled in size as we continue to expand our nomination process and partnerships with organizations like Out Leadership, Athena Alliance and the Latino Corporate Directors Association.
While I’m excited to see fresh faces arriving in boardrooms, the progress made over the last year is only a drop in the bucket. To continue the momentum and drive meaningful change, boards and companies of all shapes and sizes need to be intentional, relentless, and innovative in seeking out the diverse talent that exists. I look forward to the progress ahead.
Brian Stafford is the CEO of Diligent.