A Catalyst Research Center report on women in the Fortune 1000 issued earlier this year certainly caught my attention: While women occupy over 51 percent of professional and management jobs in these companies, the report said, only 14 percent reach the chief experience officer (CXO) level, and only 17 percent serve on boards. And this is just in the Fortune 1000.
What do these numbers say about the diversity of perspective and experience that American business leadership is providing?
In the tech industry, the growing frustration around the underrepresentation of women on boards and at the C-level is well documented. Accordingly, we need action: Ensuring that women are well represented on boards, and equipping them for successful upward mobility within companies is a good place to start.
However, if that is all companies are doing in hopes of achieving diversity, they should go further. Specifically, they should be looking closely at the components that build success in an organization, and their leaders should be striving to attract executives who can bring different thoughts, opinions, backgrounds, cultures and approaches to their market.
As the founder and CEO of a strategic marketing firm in the tech industry, I thought about these issues when I started outlining what I wanted from our own advisory board. I then put a discovery process in place to better guide me to the right individuals, rather than trust my mental shortlist.
Given the process I created, I now believe that there there are key questions for nearly any CEO to ask himself or herself in order to form a diverse board:
- What are my company’s potential barriers to success?
- Are our customers/clients at the center of our product/service strategy?
- How do I remain differentiated in a fast-moving industry?
- Are we keeping with/driving the market?
- Do we have the right internal team? What senior skill sets are missing?
- Whom do I know either personally, or by reputation, that can challenge me across those facets of my business that are not among my core competencies?
- Whom do I admire?
- Who has networks far different than my own?
- Who are the people we want who have tremendous career-track records?
Once I had assembled a list of 35 people who fit the above criteria, I looked more closely at each of the potential advisors. I talked to people I trust about whether these individuals exhibited core values similar to mine, whether they approached their lives and careers with integrity, passion, creativity, and fortitude. I looked at their education and their backgrounds. I thought about their interests outside of work, the markets they serve and their reputations.
The list narrowed quickly. I thought about the people listed who had risen to the top. Then I asked myself more specific questions:
- Who thrives in an environment of disruption?
- What unique skill sets can I tap into so I don't take on massive overhead? (i.e., who can help us create a tighter contract process, is a savvy negotiator and has religion around the issue of operational efficiency?)
- Who has vertical industry expertise?
- Who is active in his or her respective market or industry?
- Who will stand up to me and challenge me to be a stronger leader? Keep me grounded? Keep my company focused and differentiated?
- Whom can I learn from?
- Who doesn’t already sit on numerous boards and will be motivated to be an active advisor?
My company’s board of advisors is comprised of my overall answer to these questions. It may be surprising to some, but by starting with more critical questions, versus focusing on a specific individual, we arrived at a good, diverse board. Our new members include five women and four men with different areas of expertise, vertical experience, career paths and styles.
Each member has a specific role to play in our continued growth, and the diversity of thought and power is a crucial component of what makes this group work.
This is what I wanted for my board. And for the honor of working with such a terrific group of leaders and original thinkers, who are highly complementary to our internal team, I’m grateful. We don’t have a group of shrinking violets, we have an extended team that keeps us challenged and is there as a sounding board as needed.
My advice to other CEOs, then, is simple. How you utilize your own board is a personal decision; but develop a discovery process and ask yourself the right questions for your company. The answers will likely guide you to a truly diversified team of advisors.
And they'll likely support the view that diversity is key to differentiation inside your company and out, and that it starts at the top.