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Driving Diversity and Inclusion at the Board Level

Listen to the full episode of Untapped on iTunes or Spotify.

A company’s board of directors is its inner sanctum, a group of trusted advisors who are charged with providing guidance in every area of operation to build a great company. And one of those areas is how the organization handles issues related to diversity and inclusion

The problem, however, is that some of these boards of directors are not diverse themselves—despite the benefits of having a diverse board when addressing D&I in an organization. 

“You want the smallest group with the maximum amount of diversity on many dimensions—on backgrounds, but also on skill sets, on life experiences, on work experiences and alike,” said Mike Vernal, a member of the board of directors at Canvas, during the latest episode of the “Untapped” podcast.

“The founders that I work with, as they think about expanding the board, I think the most operative question 99% of the time is, what does this person bring to the table and how does it complement everything else that is around the table?”

Unfortunately, the people sitting around the table are not necessarily a reflection of the diversity companies want to achieve. According to fellow Canvas board member, John Jersin, there is a good reason for this: The pipeline of potential board members may not be as diverse as it could be—and building that pipeline takes time.

“In terms of progress, it’s again one of these areas where I think people have set the value a little bit more than they’ve come up with a strategy and been able to execute on that strategy. The reason is, frequently board members are on the more senior end of professionals in that industry. And if you look at the data as I have for a number of companies, we’ve seen more progress on diversity at kind of entry-level positions or maybe around above that,” John told “Untapped” host Tariq Meyers. “And it takes time to develop that talent into the higher rounds at a company, so by the time someone’s kind of board-ready, they need to have moved up through several rounds in a large corporation or had some other really interesting experience.” 

Building a Better Board

In order to ensure that there are enough diverse workers in the wings who can take a position on the board, companies need to make their workforce as diverse as possible at the lower level. This is something that organizations should consider from Day One because leaders set the tone for company culture as soon as they hire their first employee. If there isn’t a plan to make diversity and inclusion entrenched in the company culture early on, organizations may find themselves actually alienating the diverse talent they want to hire because these issues were not addressed in time.

“You can kind of lock yourself into a position where there are certain pools of talent that no longer find your company a really appealing place to work because it’s homogenous or it doesn’t look like the kind of place for someone like them,” John explained.

“And it’s mind-blowing how quickly that can happen, so that’s why it’s important to at the outset—even before you’re starting to do something about it, even before you set the strategy—make sure it’s a value you have pretty much when you’re founding the company.”   

And a tactical approach is also needed to attract people who are board-ready. One way to do this successfully, according to Mike, is to choose board members with the same kind of strategy you would use when filling an executive position. 

“Generally, I encourage founders to, when you’re adding someone to the board, think about it as a hiring decision,” he said. “You should think about this as hiring another executive into the company and about that person in terms of both their individual skill set, but as importantly, if not more importantly, how they complement the rest of the people around the table.”

Also, when looking for board members, it’s imperative to vet candidates based on their unique perspectives and expertise to ensure that every piece of the organization’s puzzle is represented at the table. 

“I think if you think about the closest set of advisors you have in a company, you don't want just a bunch of sales leaders because you'll have an incredible amount of sales advice, but you'll be missing a whole bunch of other perspectives,” said Mike. “You'll be missing the product perspective, the engineering perspective, the finance perspective, etc.”

For the full conversation about diversity within boards of directors, listen to this week’s episode of “Untapped,” where Canvas’s Chief People Officer, Tariq Meyers, speaks to business leaders about different issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

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