Paul S. Williams On Diversity and Making the Most of Summit
Paul S. Williams is a partner in the Chicago office of Major, Lindsey & Africa, the nation’s leading executive legal search firm, and is a member of the board of directors for three public companies: Bob Evans Farms, Compass Minerals, and Essendant. He recently was named president of the NACD Chicago Chapter, and has served as the lead independent director of State Auto Financial Corp. The NACD team recently sat down with Williams to discuss his insights on board diversity and to ask him how to make the most of the 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit.
NACD: You are a fierce advocate for greater diversity in the boardroom. Could you tell us why diversity at the highest level of a company is so important?
Williams: As a director, I feel a sense of obligation to make sure that I am helping to pave the way for diversity on boards. Unfortunately, there have not been many people of color that have served on public company boards. I think when you step back and think of the credibility of these boards—the credibility of corporate boards with the rest of the business world and the rest of society—it’s incumbent upon us to demonstrate that diversity within companies should start with the board.
When I say that I am a staunch advocate of diversity, I don’t want to limit it to ethnic diversity. I feel strongly about gender diversity, as well as diversity of ethnicity and sexual orientation. I truly believe these boards need to be diverse in all aspects.
Boards also need to be diverse experientially. Directors can’t all be people with similar backgrounds and ways of looking at critical business issues. It’s important that the discussions in our respective boardrooms include truly diverse views.
NACD: What kind of impact do you think a diverse board has on company culture?
Williams: I think it has a tremendous impact. When a management team sees a diverse board talking the talk and walking the walk, it sends a message that the board has taken to heart the importance of diversity. As a board, we don’t want to be hypocritical. Boards without diversity undermine the management team’s ability to bring about change.
A diverse board definitely impacts corporate culture in a number of ways, starting with the commitment to diversity within the company. There’s a sense of appreciation for people who bring different perspectives. It sets a tone of progressiveness and the mandate of being open to different ideas.
Diversity as a concept is somewhat intangible. Compared with financial results, it’s harder to measure. Yet I believe a company can’t have impressive financial results without an underlying culture that is productive and effective.
Last year I attended NACD’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit. It was uplifting to be able to go to Summit and meet a number of other diverse directors. I knew that I would be assuming leadership of the NACD Chicago Chapter and thought it would be great to meet other chapter leaders. I had heard rave reviews about the programs and I wasn’t disappointed.
The sheer number of attendees at Summit is impressive. There is such a diversity of experience and expertise at Summit. It gave me an opportunity to meet people from around the country to network with and discuss the challenges boards are facing in terms of board diversity and other challenges.
What advice would give to someone attending Summit for the first time?
Get out of your comfort zone and meet new people. It can be tempting for people who are more introverted to stay with the people they know. Sit at a table with folks you have never met, or who are from a different part of the country, or who sit on boards that are in different industries.
Have a game plan in advance, especially in terms of programs you plan to attend. It’s important to know which programs you want to focus on.
Most importantly, have fun! Really allow yourself to enjoy the things that come up in the spur of the moment, whether it’s talking to someone that you didn’t anticipate meeting, or going up to one of the speakers after a program and asking a follow-up question.
Click here to learn more about diversity-specific programming offered at the 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit.