Diversity, equity, and inclusion: How board members can drive action
Mary O'Hara Chief Human Resources Officer and SVP, Internal Communications at Blue Shield of California
Never has the discussion around diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace been so amplified as it is right now. With recent social unrest in the world, one thing has become abundantly clear: there is still much work to be done.
I recently had the honor of speaking about diversity, equity, and inclusion with the Women Directors Salon. I shared my experience around getting diversity, equity and inclusion to a strategic dialogue in the organizations I’ve been a part of and specific learnings from my eight-year journey at Blue Shield of California.
In that time, we’ve achieved some important diversity, equity, and inclusion milestones, notably: our board composition is 50% women and 40% ethnically diverse; we have achieved pay equity by ethnicity and gender for all staff; and more than half of our executives (director and above) are women. In addition, Kristina Leslie was elected in September as the first female board chair in the company’s 81-year history.
While there is no “one-size, fits all” approach, here are the key actions I recommend to put diversity, equity, and inclusion on the agenda, to elevate it to a priority among peers and company executives, and to inspire action: Lead with courage and vulnerability.
When board members raise the conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion with courage and vulnerability, you role model that same permissible behavior amongst your peers and the company leadership. By asking and persisting on the right questions, you encourage others to speak their truth, and share perspectives, which is essential to learning and advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Educate and inform. There is a constant stream of new information and much wisdom that exists from many sources. Tap into it. Stay connected and current. Ongoing board training and education are essential to give everyone the ‘know how’ necessary to build inclusively, now and for the future.
Set goals and be accountable. We know what gets measured gets managed. Asking for clear evidence and data is essential for effective goal setting and establishing clear milestones that are tracked with regular and transparent reporting. Consider making diversity, equity, and inclusion part of how your CEO is evaluated on performance.
Lift up company leaders. Look for opportunities to champion diverse executives. Engage beyond the boardroom. Ask yourself, what relationships do you have beyond the CEO? Are you strategically engaged with the Chief Human Resources Officer? How can you amplify and sponsor the important work on culture and diversity, equity and inclusion?
Elevate your people strategy as an extension of business strategy. If, as a leader, you want to accomplish and sustain anything of significance, you need to be a magnet for diverse talent. What are you doing to set a tone at the top? Are you ensuring dialogue at the board level about how the people strategy connects to enabling the business strategy? Is there a strategic human capital plan discussed every time a new business strategy or investment is contemplated? Do succession plans exist with diversity reflected in the pipeline? Are there opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to get exposure to the key decision makers and to the board members involved in leading those big ideas and investments? Is value creation inclusive of investments in helping all people in the organization grow and develop? Placing value on a culture of emotionally agile leaders who lead with intention and inclusiveness leads to greater retention, engagement, and productivity – which all benefit the bottom line.
Advocate for newcomers. Companies still overwhelmingly prefer board candidates with prior board or CEO experience, which can limit diversity. Fortunately, change is already taking hold: last year, directors with CEO experience—a requirement that has traditionally shut out many female and nonwhite candidates—made up only 50% of new board members. Be a voice and advocate for “different” types of experience when recruiting new board members. And hold the expectation with your search partners that the net is cast wide until a diverse slate is presented.
Find and engage allies. Working together with like-minded board members will have more influence and can be more effective at turning good intentions into actions. Advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion through the subcommittees you sit on – such as Nominating, Finance and Investment, Audit, Compensation and HR Committees – which all influence enterprise goal setting, what gets valued, and who gets hired. Articulate and embed a philosophical stance about diversity in your committee charters that push for the strategies you are endorsing. When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, there’s no silver bullet. Your efforts must be rigorous, multi-year, and multi-faceted. Be humble and be persistent. By committing to a diverse board, leadership and workforce, you will unlock the individual and collective creativity required to confront both present and future challenges.
How is your board and company turning intentions for diversity, equity, and inclusion into action? I welcome your thoughts.