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August 2016

Frederickson Pribula Li

Pale, Male and Stale
Seven practices perpetuating boardroom homogeneity

By Valerie Frederickson, Founder and CEO, Frederickson Pribula Li

I recently attended a leadership conference for CEOs and directors of public boards where, to my surprise, a number of the attendees jokingly referred to themselves as pale, male and stale (PMS). While I appreciated the self-deprecating humility expressed by these highly accomplished business megastars, I didn’t appreciate what accompanied it: a grudging acceptance of the status quo - not to mention the sexism inherent in the abbreviation, further highlighting the need for diversity.

It’s exactly this type of tired groupthink that diversity is so powerful at overcoming. To be clear, all types of diversity are important – from race and gender to industry and knowledge. Diversity improves innovation, decision-making, and corporate financial performance.

Despite the benefits, boards are diversifying at a sluggish pace. Heidrick & Struggles analyzed last year’s board appointments to Fortune 500 companies and found some gains for women, but few for ethnic minorities. Almost 30% of new directors in 2015 were women, up from 18% in 2009—but the number was flat last year. Hispanics, who comprise roughly 17% of the US population, claimed 4% of new board appointments, actually down from 2009 when they received 5.1%. African-American, who account for more than 12% of the US population, received 9.3% of new board appointments. This marks a nice rise from 2009’s 5.3%, but a disappointing drop from the peak level, which was 10.3% in 2013. Directors of Asian descent claimed 4.8% of new board seats in 2015, up from 3.9% in 2009, but down from 8% in 2011.

Why is diversity on boards proceeding so slowly? Below are seven practices perpetuating boardroom homogeneity:

1) Most new board members are CEOs and CFOs.
In 2015, 73.2% of new public board appointments went to CEOs and CFOs. Among the 2015 Fortune 500, 21 or 4.2% of CEOs are women, nine are Hispanic, and only five are African American. In fact, in the entire history of the Fortune 500, there have only ever been 15 African American CEOs. As long as new board positions go primarily to public company CEOs and CFOs, women and minorities will continue to be largely excluded.

2) Many new board members are retirees.
The average age for new board member appointments is 58, and the average age for active board members is 63. Nineteen percent of directors are older than 69, but fewer than 1% are under 40, according to Capital IQ. As one Bloomberg editorial states, "corporate boards shouldn’t be retirement homes." While experience should be valued, and it’s wise to include some retired executives as board members since hopefully they have bandwidth to devote to board positions, a well-rounded board should also include individuals who are well-versed in the latest technologies and trends - knowledge more likely possessed by younger, currently employed executives, and who know how to help lead high growth companies. Also, 93% of VCs at the top firms are men - 78% of whom are white and 20% of whom are Asian - so as VCs place themselves on boards, they are perpetuating the epitome of the old boys’ club.

3) Some board leaders prefer directors who "understand" their technology.
In other words, they want executives with engineering degrees. Given the dismal state of women and underrepresented, non-Asian minorities graduating from engineering schools, much less pursuing long-term careers in the technology sector and eventually breaking through to leadership positions, the stated preference for engineering backgrounds is essentially justification for gender and ethnic exclusion. There are plenty of brilliant business and academic leaders who did not study engineering but still could add greatly to even the most technical of businesses. Can you imagine any technology CEO not wanting Sheryl Sandberg or Meg Whitman on their board because they were economics majors or Mark Zuckerberg who studied psychology? It’s inconceivable.

4) Most new board members come from another board member’s social circle.
At the conference I attended, most executives acknowledged that most of their new board members were selected from among the board members’ pre-existing networks. These were not isolated anecdotes: according to a National Association of Corporate Directors survey, almost 70% of respondents said that their board used personal networking or word of mouth to identify the candidate pool from which their newest director was chosen. This typically happens even when search firms are contracted to fill board seats because most search firms are asked to rubber stamp candidates found within the board’s network. Remember: people tend to be friends with people similar to themselves - people with similar worldviews, who come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Selecting directors from the board’s network is hardly a path towards diversity.

5) CEOs prefer "friendly" bosses.
It’s only natural to desire friend(s) or friends of friends as bosses. People in CEOs’ extended social circles are more likely to support the CEOs in their roles, create a safe place for them to execute their vision, and share common perspectives on how to achieve their goals. Most people would rather spend time with people who agree with them, but that’s not how good decisions are made. Good decision making happens when individuals are exposed to diverse perspectives. CEOs should be held accountable to board members who are not their buddies.

6) Low board turnover leads to fewer opportunities for change.
Three in four directors believe in term and age limits for board members, yet 61% of directors are not subject to term limits, according to a survey by EisnerAmper. Average tenure among the S&P 500 is a lengthy 8.5 years. Just think about how quickly most businesses and industries change in that time. It’s hard to believe that most directors are still contributing significantly after 8 years. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure since most boards do not have documented performance standards for themselves, nor do they conduct regular performance reviews on each other. It’s because most boards are so deplorable at holding their performances accountable that they’d even consider draconian HR policies, like term limits, that no US corporation would ever consider for its employees, all of whom are hopefully held accountable to regular, measurable performance standards.

7) Board ecosystems discourage bold, potentially transformative appointments.
When search firms are hired to place new board positions, they are often hired either to vet and justify the suggestions sent to them by the CEO and board or to consult a list of "usual suspects" meeting the obvious criteria: prior public board appointments, CEO and CFO experience, and often an engineering background, especially for technology-focused firms. Except in turnaround scenarios, most leaders are not looking for bold board appointments, and furthermore, many senior executive search leaders are themselves pale, male and stale. Just search through the senior leadership teams of the most established executive search firms. It’s no wonder many search executives have a tough time thinking outside the box: they are the box!

In summary, board selection processes are about as modern as MS DOS or ALGOL.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In my next post, I’ll review specific steps boards can take to add diversity to their ranks, and I’ll highlight ways in which HR executives can contribute to the process.

Take care,

sig

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HR Consultant & Contractor's Corner

Our hottest global HR contracting and consulting assignments include:

  • Providing Venture Capital and Private Equity Talent Partners with HR executive search, HR advisory, and compensation consulting expertise for their portfolio companies
  • Executive leadership mentoring and on-call support for CEO’s, CFO’s and HR managers at start-up companies in tech hubs that include San Francisco, San Mateo, Mountain View (Silicon Valley), Seattle, Chicago, New York, Salt Lake City, Boise, Washington DC, London, Berlin and Singapore
  • HR assessment for multiple startups ready to shore up their infrastructure before taking their businesses through a high growth stage or IPO
  • Coaching executive teams through strategic planning for their leadership development function including succession planning and creating career development paths and retention plans for high potentials
  • Interim Head of HR assignments with pre-IPO companies in software analytics, digital advertising, big data, biotech, and cloud-based service companies
  • HR advising for several European and Asian headquartered companies interested in relocating their global headquarters or building regional headquarters in San Francisco/Silicon Valley
  • Comprehensive review of compensation programs for post-IPO tech companies, including benchmarking and redesigning of short and long-term incentive plans
  • Customized, high-touch outplacement projects for pre-IPO and mid-sized companies in the midst of restructuring or integrating acquisitions

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HR Events

HR Star Atlanta
September 8 – Atlanta, GA

Linkedin Talent Connect
October 5-7 – Las Vegas, NV

SHRM Diversity & Inclusion Conference
October 25-27 – Austin, TX

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Spotlight on...

Join us for FPL Lunch & Learns at our Menlo Park HQ! Each month we will be inviting HR up-and-comers and veterans alike to dive into some of the latest trends in the Talent space. It will be a great opportunity to deepen your HR knowledge and meet some of the newest members of the FPL team. If you’d like more details or to add your name to the invite list, shoot Ben an email at ben@fplpartners.com.

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About FPL Partners

Frederickson Pribula Li (FPL Partners) is the top global HR and strategic People Operations executive search and consulting firm in Silicon Valley. Founded in 1995 and headquartered in Menlo Park, our mission is to help our client’s succeed by elevating their people functions. Our HR executive search and consulting capabilities stretch worldwide with global hubs in San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas, New York, Seattle, Paris and Hong Kong. Clients range from startups to the Fortune 100 across diverse industries.

Outplacement Practice

Re–evaluating your outplacement vendors? Require a higher utilization rate for your outplacement dollar? Need higher touch services and consistency across all markets? Since 1995, FPL Partners is the outplacement firm of choice for sophisticated corporate buyers. Join the numerous Fortune 500 employers and small firms who have selected us over their previous vendor and are now enjoying the best of both worlds: each employee well taken care of, and consistency in every city.

Price shopping or need to customize a program? Contact our Corporate Outplacement Team at 650-614-0220 or email them at outplacement@fplpartners.com for more information on our outplacement services.

HR Consulting Practice

With the dramatic increase of global technology outsourcing and the continued geographic dispersion of corporate teams, the need for international human resources strategy, design, and project implementation has increased. Our global team of HR consultants has the specialized skills and breadth of expertise to develop and lead your initiatives—saving you time, money, and resources. We can manage the international recruiting function, help you hire key local managers or an entire startup team in an overseas market, and establish HR systems for global expansion.

Why clients choose FPL Partners:
  • Results-driven, value-oriented. To keep your HR programs in line with your corporate direction, we provide HR strategy, cost-effective HR infrastructure, and pragmatic HR advice across all critical areas of human resource management.
  • Any size, any stage. We draw upon years of experience with startups, midsize firms and large global enterprises to guide our clients strategically through any stage of growth.
  • Work smarter, not harder. In survey after survey, CEO's say the number-one issue keeping them up at night is "people problems." We help you solve them so that you can get back to focusing on your business.
  • Contact our HR Consulting Team at 650.614.0220 or email them at consulting@fplpartners.com for more information on our HR consulting services
HR Executive Search Practice

Why clients choose FPL Partners as their human resources-specialized executive search firm:

  • Prompt results. The average time from start of search to presentation of the winning HR candidate is 21 days. 50% of HR searches are completed in less than 45 days.
  • Superior results. More than 95% of HR executives placed by FPL Partners are still with their companies five years following placement.
  • High client satisfaction. More than 90% of the firm's work is either repeat business or from referrals. A number of clients have been with FPL Partners for more than a decade.

You get:

  • Access to the best global human resources executive talent available through extensive networks built upon long–term relationships with U.S. and global executives
  • Customized HR executive search solutions that fit your goals, budget and timeline
  • Interim HR management during the search process, followed by an assimilation period to ensure a smooth transition
  • Interim HR management during the search process, followed by an assimilation period to ensure a smooth transition

Contact our human resources executive search team at 650.614.0220 or email us at executivesearch@fplpartners.com to learn how your organization can reap the benefits FPL Partners can deliver: Improved performance and greater success through your most valuable asset—your people.

Diversity Statement

FPL Partners welcomes and encourages all diversity candidates to contact us directly. We highly value the diversity of our FPL Partners team, placement of diverse executives into our client companies and our diverse clients, candidates, and supplier partnerships. We want to help swing the pendulum the other way.

About Our Newsletter

The FPL Partners newsletter, "FPL Partners In the Know," and FPL Partners Executive Search Update are the intellectual property of Frederickson Pribula Li. They are a free resource to business professionals. To subscribe to this newsletter, email newsletter@fplpartners.com.

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