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The Table in the Boardroom: Ways to Increase Diversity

The Table in the Boardroom: Ways to Increase Diversity

A public company board director opportunity was recently circulated to one of my legal networks. The requirements were around a paragraph long. The company was looking for a “female finance expert and/or general counsel” with “deep international” experience in a handful of broad topics. It also mentioned that a “No. 2 person” of a larger company could fit the role, if she met the requisite expertise.

The initial e-mail replies were positive. After all, a board director role with a public company is not often distributed to a community of lawyers. One general counsel noted that as companies push for diversity, she had yet to be approached with such an opportunity.

Then, the group dug into the description’s brief requirements. Despite specifically requesting a female candidate, not many women, especially women of color, would qualify. For example, “deep international” experience likely translated to at least 20 years in an industry. And additionally, that person must have specific expertise in several business areas particularly in male-dominated industries.

The board director description contributes to the diversity “pipeline” myth: that there is a small pool of qualified and diverse professionals. When a candidate is asked to meet broad, unrealistic, and unnecessary expectations, the pond shrinks to traditional profiles of older, white, and male.

As the governing body of a company, board director roles must be carefully sourced. Those at the table must add value and lead. When the table contains diverse voices, everyone benefits. And study upon study shows the benefits of diversity on many aspects of a company, including its financial bottom line. It should not take a law to convince a company of the value of diversity.

To increase diversity on a board of directors (the company’s governing body) or an advisory board (a collection of guiding experts), here are three suggestions for each of the following scenarios, depending on your relationship with the boardroom’s table.

You didn’t realize that you have a table.

You are a founder or an executive of a high-growth company, without a board.

1) Reframe your company as worthy of a board and commit to utilizing a board.

Smaller companies, just like the larger companies, benefit from a board of directors and an advisory board. If you see your company as a rocket ship, a qualified and diverse board can act as the rocket fuel to provide power and guide your flight.

2) Use data to craft the role description.

Keep your business priorities top-of-mind, examine the missing skill-set of your team, and specify the expertise, network, and experience needed to scale. Think about the board member’s role, the bandwidth, the compensation (which may come in the form of equity), and any other requirements. This is the beginning of a role description.

3) Thoughtfully assign seats.

Each board member must bring unique talents to the table while aligning with your business goals. Also, independent board members or advisers can provide insulation from overarching investors down the road. This is a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.

[Related: Creating Opportunities for Women to Succeed in Male-Dominated Industries]

You place people at the table.

You influence board requirements - for example, as a CEO, a founder, or a recruiter.

1) Use data to craft role descriptions.

Focus on your company’s priorities and examine the skill-set (and the skill gaps) of your current board and executive team. Then outline the necessary expertise, and evidence of expertise (for example, projects or years). To ensure inclusivity, quantify the number of women or people of color that qualify for all “must haves” for the role. Remove any requirements that are unreasonable, unnecessary, or are only held by few unicorn people.

2) Expand your search beyond your usual suspects.

Studies show that most board roles are filled through networking. Do not simply ask your existing board for recommendations. Get creative to publicize and fill the opportunity. Diversity is not accomplished by relying on existing homogeneous networks.

3) Set high standards for your board and its future.

Ensure that each board member contributes and treats each other with respect. Consider term limits and plan for upcoming vacancies. Some documents and expectations may need updating. Inclusivity and diversity starts at the top.

You sit at the table.

You are a current board member.

1) Broaden your network.

Again, most board seats are landed because of word-of-mouth. Board members must focus on growing a diverse network.

2) Hold each other accountable.

At the table, pay attention to who is talking, contributing, listening, or being overlooked. Acknowledge your privilege; use it for good.

3) Assist with diversity.

When there is an opening, assist with brainstorming the necessary skill-sets and the next steps. Perhaps, it may be time to move aside. For example, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian stepped down from Reddit’s board, and then was replaced with a black candidate. Once you pave a path, it is your duty to make the road clearer.

[Related: How To Use Roadblocks As A Jumping-Off Point To Learn And Grow]

You want that empty chair at a table.

A board role comes to your attention.

1) Apply for it.

Studies show that the majority of women will only apply for a role if they meet every single requirement. Yet, men tend to apply if they only meet most of the requirements. Quiet the voice of perfection. Stare imposter syndrome in the face. Even if you do not check every single box, show your expertise and the tangible value you will add to the business.

2) Pass along the opportunity.

Encourage diverse professionals to apply. Work together, lift each other up, and share best practices.

3) Keep positive.

Research shows that it can take years to land a board seat. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Hearing "no" (or nothing) is proof that you tried.

You want a seat but can’t find a table.

You hope to start a board career.

1) Expand your definition of a boardroom.

Boards are not limited to nonprofits or public companies. For example, smaller companies, startups, and family businesses also benefit from a board of directors or an advisory board. In return, a board member will gain expertise, expand their network, and possibly earn compensation and/or equity. Members may also use board experiences to leverage a more prominent role, like with a larger company.

2) Decide that you are qualified and prepare your pitch.

Get specific about the value you add to a business. Fine-tune your vision of the ideal position and company/industry/leadership, etc. Create your elevator pitch, a two- to three-sentence statement about your superpower. Practice your pitch so that you are ready when an opportunity surfaces.

3) Voice your goals and keep your eyes open.

Cultivate relationships while searching for aligned board opportunities. These relationships may lead to a board placement. Let your network (especially recruiters, current board members, VCs, current CEOs, and ex-CEOs) know of your specific goals. If a company seems interesting, start a conversation or suggest a small project to test a future relationship. Board roles are long-term commitments; it takes time to develop trust.

After the legal executives voiced frustration with the specific job posting, they offered solutions and support. There was a discussion about how laws must encourage boardroom diversity, not just for gender, but for race. There were thoughts about how to ensure that recruiters present diverse candidates for serious consideration. Some participants suggested that to gain a strategic boardroom advantage, executives should attend courses and join networks. And one general counsel told the group that she applied to the position.

It takes a community to create positive change in the boardroom. Those who structure a board, sit on a board, place people on boards, and strive to be on a board must work together. Hopefully the next time a public company board role surfaces to my legal network, it will be specific and achievable to the fantastic group of diverse board-ready thought leaders.

[Related: Top Questions to Ask When Choosing a Board-Matching Service]


Sarah Feingold was the general counsel/first lawyer at Etsy and Vroom. She’s a co-founder of The Fourth Floor, a creator and producer of Legal Madness, an NYU Law School Engelberg Center fellow, a board member, an investor, and a speaker. You can also find her hammering silver, eating candy, and chasing her child. Contact her at

This article was originally posted on ALM.

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