Category: Director Education

Overcoming Unconscious Bias

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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.

Judith Williams and Howard Ross on Overcoming Unconscious Bias

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Q & A With the Mastermind Behind 2015 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit

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The 2015 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit is less than a month away. Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to sit down with my colleague Erin Essenmacher, the mastermind behind our annual conference, to get the inside scoop on this year’s big event as the final touches are being added.

Q: The 2015 Global Board Leaders’ Summit is coming up in just over three weeks. In one sentence, can you describe what this event is and why directors should attend?

A: The Global Board Leaders’ Summit—NACD’s annual conference—is the largest, most comprehensive director forum in the world, bringing together 1,200 of the world’s top directors, innovators, thought leaders, and governance experts for peer exchanges and thoughtful discussions on the most significant issues impacting the boardroom today.

Q: What are some of those issues, and how will they be incorporated into this year’s format?

A: When it comes to shaping the curriculum and choosing the focuses for our events, we consult our members directly to understand what challenges they are facing on their boards and what keeps them up at night. This year, some of the top-of-mind issues for most directors we speak with are M&A, shareholder activism, cyber governance, competitive disruption, and enterprise risk. In response, we’ve created customized learning tracks at Summit, where directors can tailor their conference experience around these issues and many more.

Q: What can attendees expect at this year’s Summit? What’s new or different, and which popular elements are you carrying over from last year’s event?

A: Innovation and leadership are key themes of the 2015 Summit, and they have influenced how we’ve reinvented our signature programming, which incorporates many new features:

  • A new state-of-the-art venue in downtown DC
  • A pre-conference Diversity Symposium on “next” practices that align board composition to globalization, disruptive technology, innovation, and other twenty-first-century challenges
  • Innovation Nation—a space where attendees can view demos, ask questions, and get hands-on with the trends and technologies that are transforming every industry
  • Small Takes on Big Ideas—short talks from groundbreaking CEOs and other leaders about the technologies and innovations that are changing the way we will live, work, compete, and do business.
  • Topic-specific learning tracks geared to key committee, company type, and industry
  • More opportunities for networking and peer exchange in small group roundtables focused by topic, committee, and industry
  • More Board Committee Forums and expanded power-breakfast offerings
  • Access to a complete digital record of session content on the NACD website after the Summit

Q: What topics will this year’s event emphasize, and how will speakers explore those topics?

A: In addition to programming on cybersecurity and corporate risk—two hot-button issues—we’re doing a deep dive into boardroom diversity, with a half-day Diversity Symposium kicking off this year’s Summit. We’re also applying a boardroom lens to aspects of technology, globalization, big data, shareholder activism, leading through disruption, value creation, CEO succession planning, mergers & acquisitions, disclosure and liability, compensation, and much more.

To get a better sense of just how much ground we’ll cover at Summit, I encourage interested parties to check out the descriptions of our 75+ sessions in the complete Summit agenda.

Q: What are the most compelling reasons for directors to attend?

A: To learn. To network. To be inspired. To get concrete takeaways that they can use in their boardrooms to leverage strategic advantage and manage enterprise risks. And above all to advance exemplary board leadership.

Prepare to gain new connections, insights, and information. Prepare to be inspired.

2015 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit | Beyond Borders. Leadership Evolved.
September 26–29, Washington, DC
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Identify the Enemies of Effectiveness and Think Like an Activist: 5 Insights From a Philadelphia Master Class

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At the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD’s) Master Class program in Philadelphia June 3-4, nearly 50 experienced directors engaged with corporate leaders on the key elements that will shape the boardroom in the coming decade.

NACD’s Master Class takes place over two days and comprises eight modules presented as panels, keynote speeches, and intensive breakout sessions. Modules are highly interactive and are led by veteran directors, leading business executives, and corporate governance experts. Each Master Class is organized around a specific theme.

In Philadelphia, discussions centered on ensuring effective boardroom dynamics and strengthening the board’s role in strategic planning, cybersecurity, and mitigating global risks. Below are five takeaways that emerged in Philadelphia.

  1. Search out the enemies of effectiveness. Vague expectations, absence of process, inadequate delegation of authority, and individual sabotage can individually or collectively compromise board effectiveness. Independent chairs and lead directors should be attentive to poor board dynamics, which often have root causes that can easily be addressed. Boards can also help counter dysfunction by establishing a foundation of shared principles that will guide the board’s decision-making, agenda-setting, discussion management, and self-assessment.
  1. Analyze the causes of gradual deterioration in performance. Management often rationalizes small performance drops by pointing to macro-economic trends or solvable business execution problems. Boards should consider adopting a forward-looking posture in order to understand the long-term impact of disruptors on business performance. They can do this by engaging with management in frequent discussions about the assumptions that undergird the company’s strategy and the “what-if” events that could invalidate those assumptions.
  1. Think like an activist shareholder. Activists usually know the industry and sometimes even the company better than the board does. To avoid being ambushed by well-informed activists, boards should learn from the consultants and investment banks that serve their company, industry, customers, and competitors. They must also challenge management’s conventional wisdom about the firm’s current performance and future direction.
  1. Clearly delineate the roles of the board and management in developing and executing strategy. Boards can offer more value by engaging “early and often” in the strategy development process, by pressure-testing management assumptions, and by selecting the appropriate metrics to assess strategy success or failure. When seeking a more active role, boards must collaborate with management on defining the boundary between directing strategy and managing it. Addressing this tension over where the lines should be drawn is a critical challenge that will demand ongoing attention from the CEO and the lead director.
  1. Anticipate the consequences of global disruptors. In a hyper-connected global marketplace, economic and political shifts in distant corners of the world can instantaneously impact company performance through supply-chain disruptions, foreign-exchange volatility, and regulatory activism. Boards can increase their understanding of emerging cross-border interdependencies and evaluate whether management is sufficiently agile to respond when conditions change.