Ensuring that your board is broadly diverse—in every sense of that word—can and most likely is impeded by unconscious biases. The NACD-hosted Diversity Symposium yesterday opened the 2015 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit in Washington, D.C., with presentations from Judith Williams, global head of diversity at Dropbox, and former manager of the global diversity and talent programs at Google, and Howard Ross, founder and chief learning officer of Cook Ross, a consultancy that works specifically on inclusion issues.
Google, which lives and dies by data, wanted to understand where bias might exist in key decision-making processes so started its unconscious bias program in 2013. Google researched whether training was effective in helping employees mitigate unconscious bias, Williams recounted. One example: For interview processes, Google developed a tool that would generate questions based on role-related knowledge, leadership, and “Google-y-ness.” Questions such as, “Describe a situation where you went above and beyond to help a colleague” was a better gauge of that quality than asking “Where did you go to school and what is the highest degree that you have?” The question generator also created a rubric for rating the questions so that the interviewer would know what a great response looked like. To level the playing field even further, all candidates were asked the same slate of questions.
The question directors should ask themselves, said Ross, is not “is there bias?” but rather, “What biases do we have that keep us from making choices counter to the values that we say we believe in?”
In a business context, bias comes into play when looking at a candidate’s qualifications for a particular job. Here, the trick becomes looking beyond traditional qualifications that maintain the status quo, venturing out to find new, unique qualities that a candidate can bring to a role. For example, seeking candidates with a college degree is a standard criterion; however, this would mean that talented innovators like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates would never be called in for an interview.
Organizationally there are two things that companies can do to overcome making these snap judgments.
Education. From the top down, everyone in an organization needs to understand the myriad distinctions among people in the workplace and the mechanics of unconscious bias. By keying employees in to how people think results in more egalitarian behaviors across the organization.
Systems and structures: Closely examine company processes to discover how they are susceptible to unconscious bias. For example, look at how are resumes collected and screened. Before they go to a hiring manager for review, could names or other markers be removed so as not to trigger biases? Also, look at where breakdowns in the company’s various systems can and do occur.
Williams also stressed that, when thinking about problem solving, consider who is asking the questions. For example, Google was designing mobile products for state-of-the-art smartphones; however, in developing parts of the world where mobile device use is high, those users are not working with high-end equipment. In other words, Google was missing a substantial portion of a potential consumer base. Now the company operates on the idea that its next billion users are not going to be exactly the same as its last billion users, and figuring out the characteristics of this evolving consumer base requires innovative and free flowing dialog. Business leaders in both the C-suite and the boardroom need to identify and overcome their unconscious biases because if they fail to bring a variety of perspectives to the table, no one will be asking the kinds of questions that will lead to the next big business opportunity.
Jesse Rhodes is the associate editor of NACD Directorship magazine.
For years, boards have discussed diversity but little action has been taken. Demographic shifts and the continuing focus on global competitiveness point to change on the horizon. While it won’t happen tomorrow, all signs point to increasing diversity within the next few decades — when the current millennials are in their 50s, the boardroom will be much more racially diverse.
I recently addressed two highly engaged groups in Washington, D.C., and the attendees reflected very similar attributes and a common aspiration — a desire to gain their first board seat. My advice for gaining that first board seat was clear. It’s all about who — and what — you know.
The first group I met with was from Ascend, and the second group was from Women in the Boardroom. While the composition and mission of the latter is evident, the former may be new to you. Ascend is an association consisting of nearly 50,000 Pan-Asian leaders who are passionate about ascending the highest ranks of business. I spoke during Ascend’s recent global conference of more than 2,500 people.
NACD believes diversity is a global business imperative. I mentioned during my talks that NACD has been a champion of diversity in the boardroom for more than 37 years, dedicating content, events and actions to the issue. Further, we don’t define boardroom diversity as being simply about color or gender. It’s about diversity of thought, perspectives and experience – from a cognitive perspective. Ideally, the skills, experiences and perspectives of a company’s directors should reflect those required to proactively oversee the company’s strategy.
The state of the economy was remarkably different the last time NACD issued a governance survey dedicated to nonprofit organizations. In 2009, companies were just starting to stage a recovery from the financial crisis, and action plans were in the formative stages. At that point, survey respondents indicated the areas of most critical importance to their board were “board leadership,” “ethics and social responsibility,” and “board effectiveness.”
Fast forward three years to the 2012–2013 NACD Nonprofit Governance Survey, which shows that nonprofit boards have altered structures to meet the economic climate. Across the board, nonprofits have shifted focus to areas directly related to performance and strategy. Today, survey respondents indicate the priority governance issues are those that drive results: “strategic planning and oversight,” “fundraising,” and “financial oversight/internal controls.”
In addition to a more performance-driven outlook, nonprofit organizations have also increased the number of diverse directors present in the boardroom. According to NACD’s 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission on the Diverse Board, this development is a logical step, as boardroom diversity is a business issue: a means to competitiveness. Nonprofits are therefore more than competitive—female representation is ubiquitous with 97.7 percent of respondents reporting at least one female director on their board. The percentage of boards with at least one minority director has increased nearly 20 percent since 2009 to 76.4 percent.
Nonprofit organizations are ahead of their public and private company peers with respect to boardroom diversity. For public companies, diversity is a focus of pension funds and other institutions, as noted in last week’s NACD Directors Daily. Groups such as the Thirty Percent Coalition are urging Russell 1000 companies to increase gender equality on boards specifically—setting a goal that 30 percent of board seats are held by women by 2015. To meet this, U.S. public companies would need to work fast—current reports estimate that just 12 to 16 percent of board seats are currently held by women. Furthermore, according to NACD’s 2012–2013 Public Company Governance Survey, 27.4 percent of boards have zero female directors.