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Minority representation on corporate boards

Corporate, Nonprofit Leaders Provide Insight on How to Position Yourself for Board Service During Wells Fargo-Led Event

Consortium alumni received a crash course last week on how to successfully secure a coveted spot on corporate and nonprofit boards. During a one-and-a-half-hour virtual event, co-sponsored by The Consortium and Consortium corporate partner Wells Fargo, business leaders shared their insight and experience to help attendees position themselves to serve on both corporate and nonprofit boards of directors. 

The event, titled “Career Moves for Diverse Leaders: How to Position Yourself for Board Service,” took place February 18 and was moderated by Dewey Norwood, senior vice president and relationship manager, talent acquisition strategy and targeted programs at Wells Fargo. It featured Consortium alumni and retired financial services executive Kim Harris Jones (Michigan Ross) and vice president of leadership initiatives at BoardSource Jim Taylor (UNC Kenan-Flagler), as well as René Picazo, executive vice president and head of the Wealth Client Group at Wells Fargo Asset Management. 

Norwood prefaced the event with information about the underrepresentation of minorities in corporate America, including on boards; the roadblocks they have traditionally faced to board service; and the benefits of having diverse boards. Collectively, African Americans and Hispanics make up just 14 percent of directors on the country’s top 200 boards. 

Despite the need for greater diversity on boards, there has been growing interest and action by the boards of both corporations and nonprofits to diversify in recent years, particularly following the events of 2020. “Over the last six months, with all of the things that have gone on in the country, board diversity is certainly the topic in every boardroom now,” said Jones, who serves on the boards of three public companies and two nonprofits. “I’ve gotten as many calls in the last six months as I’ve gotten over the last several years. Everyone’s looking for people of color on boards.”

With this in mind, the panelists offered advice on how underrepresented minorities in particular can get their foot in the door. According to Taylor, who has served on boards of directors and advisory boards of various local and regional nonprofits, the process is not unlike that of a traditional job search. 

“Do your research — look at the organization’s website, their mission and focus areas,” said Taylor, referring to the process for securing a nonprofit board seat. “Then, if you’re inspired by that, if you have passion for it and feel that you have something to offer, contact the organization.” He also recommends using LinkedIn to see if you have any connections who are part of the organization or who know people who are. Be sure to be ready with questions for when they respond. 

“You want to know about the mission, the organization’s financial stability, the constituents they serve, their customers, the structure of the board, the roles and responsibilities and how often the board meets,” said Taylor.  

If the opportunity exists to first serve on a committee, this provides a chance for you to get a feel for the organization and vice versa. This can lead to you organically being considered when a board position opens up, Taylor noted.

One way you can raise your hand when positions open up on corporate boards is by sharing your interest with recruiters. “When you get a call from a recruiter, and he asks if you are looking for a new job, you say, ‘No, I’m not looking for a job, but I’m interested in a board,’” said Jones. “That’s an inroad to getting your name [out there] because, once your name gets on that list, then you’ll get the calls.”

Difference between corporate and nonprofit boards

She recommends creating a board resume — a tailored version of your standard resume that includes information relevant to board roles and responsibilities. Such information may include how you’ve interacted with boards at your current or past companies or specific areas you have experience in or knowledge of that relate to board committees (i.e., finance, ESG, etc.). “Tailor your resume toward the types of experiences that boards are looking for,” Jones said.

Ideally, Taylor said, what boards are looking for should depend on what they are currently missing. However, that is not always the case. “They should be looking at composition as a whole, holistically — diversity of age, gender, race, community connections, financial resources, area of expertise, lived experience,” he said. “There’s a disconnect between how [board seats] are filled and how they should be filled.”

But, that is changing — at least in corporate America.

Whereas companies have traditionally sought individuals of similar backgrounds — older, retired, white, male executives — for board roles, they are now more often seeking younger, less senior and more diverse (in both race/ethnicity and area of expertise) business leaders who are still working in their chosen industry. According to Jones, expertise in areas such as sustainability, strategy and diversity, equity and inclusion are now becoming equally as important as those such as finance or governance. “If you have experience in information technology or cybersecurity, for example, those areas are becoming much more important on boards,” she said.

Jones also noted that while the majority of corporations have historically sought individuals at the VP level and above for board roles, that is changing as well. For those who lack seniority in their current role, she recommends gaining experience by first serving on nonprofit boards. 

Both Jones and Taylor emphasized the importance of making sure a position is the right fit as board roles often require a significant time commitment. Most corporate boards meet four to five times a year, with four to five additional meetings if you are serving on a committee, and require approximately 500 hours per year. The paperwork alone for joining a single board can number around 600 pages, Jones said. On the nonprofit side, Taylor said you can expect at least quarterly meetings and, sometimes, upwards of eight each year, in addition to committee meetings. 

“The tenure on most corporate boards today is about 10 and a half years, so when you [join] a corporate board, you’re likely to be there a long time, so fit really matters,” said Jones. “So, it’s about making sure that when you interview with boards, you feel comfortable that they want you for the right reasons and you want them for the right reasons.”

When it comes to nonprofit boards, Taylor urges people to pursue a topic or cause they are passionate about and to make sure they contribute their diverse perspective. “When that opportunity comes and you’re on that nonprofit board,” he said, “do not shy away from sharing your opinion and your perspective because it might be the only way to remove the blind spots that were there before you got there.”

Despite what have in the past been obstacles to securing board seats for underrepresented minorities, Jones believes there has never been a better time or more opportunities for people of color to position themselves for board service. 

“It really hurts me when [organizations] say they can’t find qualified people. We have lots of qualified people, but you have to put your iron in the fire; people have to know you have an interest,” she said. “There is a lot of opportunity right now, and I would try to seize on that.”

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