Driving change for Black leaders in the boardroom
This week, Lightspeed and Rich Talent Group hosted our second annual Building Tomorrow’s Boardroom, Today event — focused on supporting and promoting more people of color to the boardroom, especially from the Black community.
We were thrilled to have more than 160 leaders — CEOs, investors, founders, board members, and aspiring board members — gather with us virtually to help drive meaningful and necessary change.
Black leaders are one of the most under-represented groups in the boardroom. In 2019, 10% of board seats in the country’s 3,000 largest public companies were held by non-white directors. And only 4% were held by Black leaders.
While for many, these statistics aren’t new news, the events of 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement brought a newfound attention to this considerable imbalance. In the five months after the killing of George Floyd, 130 Black board members were appointed to the country’s largest public company boards — compared to just 38 in the 5 months prior. A 240% increase.
In addition to the progress ushered in by individual companies, systemic changes are starting to take hold as well. Last fall, a law was passed in California, AB-979, requiring that all public companies headquartered in the state have at least one director on their board who identifies as an underrepresented minority. Even Nasdaq recently proposed a similar measure for all companies on the exchange.
This is positive momentum, no doubt. Whether the timing of it is late, or intentions sometimes fuzzy, we want to build on it together.
We want to share a big thank you to our outstanding panelists, who were the heart of our event — sharing wisdom and experiences from their esteemed careers:
- Thasunda Duckett — CEO, Chase Consumer Banking, JPMorgan Chase; Boards: Nike
- Mellody Hobson — Co-CEO & President, Ariel Investments; Boards: Starbucks, JPMorgan Chase
- Stacy Brown-Philpot — former CEO TaskRabbit, Boards: HP Inc., Nordstrom, Black Girls Code, The Urban Institute
- John W. Thompson — Venture Partner, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Chairman of Microsoft; Boards: Microsoft, Reviver, Illumio, Rubrik, Illumina
- Tristan Walker — Founder & CEO, Walker & Company Brands, Boards: Foot Locker, Shake Shack
Here are some key takeaways from our conversation about what boards are looking for, the recruiting process, assessing fit, and how to show up at your best once you’ve landed the job:
What boards are looking for and the recruiting process:
1. Boards aren’t just about governance, they’re shaping the future.
With the current rate of disruption, boards aren’t just focused on the present. They’re thinking about where the company wants to be in five to ten years and what capabilities board members need to help achieve that. While a board may hope to diversify by adding a woman or person of color, they’re also evaluating the skills and future-focused orientation that those candidates bring.
2. A global outlook matters more than ever.
The pandemic has not only impacted how boards convene (with virtual meetings being a major shift from in-person), but also what expertise they value. Across multiple boards, global public policy is a growing area of demand as it becomes increasingly important to understand what’s happening around the world — especially for companies operating outside the U.S.
3. Get clear on your brand.
To position yourself as “board ready,” the first thing you should do is get clear on the perspective and expertise you bring. If you don’t know how to talk about the areas you major in or your track record of performance and outcomes, getting a board seat will be tough — no matter who you know.
4. Build your network.
In your board search process, it’s important to focus on building and nurturing relationships. Speak at an event; connect with recruiters; talk to current board members. And don’t just look to those you view as “power players” — you want to show up as your best self in every situation, because you never know who might end up providing a great reference or be reached out to informally for an “off-the-record” check.
Assessing whether a board role is right for you:
5. Follow your passion.
If you conjured up your dream list of boards, what would they be? Define what you care about (e.g., Retail? Tech? Social change?) and use that as a filter to assess opportunities. Ask yourself: Am I curious about this? Will I be intrigued to read hundreds of pages of briefing materials? Do I have expertise I can offer? What might I learn from serving on this board? Just because a great brand comes to you, doesn’t mean it’s the right fit.
6. Be choiceful.
A board role requires significant time and is a multi-year commitment. So in addition to gauging your passion, make sure you’re really up for it. Are you ok flying from one coast to the other for board meetings? What about spending Saturday reading that 300+ page briefing? What tradeoffs will it require of your personal time? If it’s not the right fit, you have to learn to say no.
7. Consider the people around the table.
You’re going to spend a lot of time with your fellow board members. They set the tone and culture of the board, so don’t forget to factor this into your decision-making process. Ask yourself: Who are they? Do they come to the table with a sense of humility? Do I want to learn from them? What about the CEO — is it a person of high integrity that I’d like to know better?
8. You’re in the room, make the most of it.
It can be challenging as a board candidate to feel like you’re being considered for a role because of your gender or your race. Are they just trying to “check a box?” To better understand a company’s intention ask questions like: What do you want me to bring to the room? If I exceeded expectations, what would that look like? At the end of the day, if you can get on a board, it’s a great opportunity to use your power for good, no matter how you got there.
Showing up as your best, as a board member:
9. Be the boss of your own onboarding.
Boards may or may not have a formal onboarding process; just make sure you’re not waiting for someone else to do it for you. You have a right to ask for information — exercise it. Who do you need to sit with to better understand the business? The board and the executive team are busy, yes, but it’s never a waste of time educating someone to be a better board member.
10. Never stop learning.
Serving on a board is a constant learning journey. The better you understand the company, its leadership team, and its strategy, the more impact and influence you’ll have. Consider sitting in on committee meetings that you’re not part of to see how decisions get made — it will no doubt deepen your ability to contribute.
11. Relationship building doesn’t stop just because you got the job.
Fostering relationships with your fellow board members is an ongoing process and key to building good chemistry. Don’t be hesitant to reach out, whether it’s a casual hello to build rapport or a request for feedback so you can improve. It’s also important to stay connected to the executive team. Every relationship/company will vary, but for some, this looks like a quarterly call with the CEO and/or another leadership team member to understand what’s happened in the business since the last board meeting and how the board can help. Remember, boards matter most when things are bad. In those moments, you want to be around people you trust — and that only comes from relationships.
12. Bring your full self. And pay it forward.
There will be a lot of new people of color on boards this year. Whether you’re the first, the newest, the youngest, don’t forget to bring your voice and your culture to the boardroom. There are employees and customers who need your insights. It’s easy to feel like you shouldn’t speak up when the rest of the room doesn’t look like you, or you want to avoid being typecast on certain issues. But you are there for a reason. If you leave part of yourself at the door, you’re not delivering what was expected when you took the role.
To learn more about last year’s event, read our recap here.
We plan to focus our next event on the LatinX community. If you have questions about how to be involved, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.