There’s been a growing cry for tech companies to add diversity to their leadership teams and boards, and for good reason. Those two groups are the most influential decision making bodies inside companies, and it’s been well documented that diverse teams, however you define diversity — diversity of demographics, thoughts, professional experience, lived experience — make better decisions.
Gender, racial, and ethnic representation in executive teams and in board rooms are not new topics. There’s been a steady drumbeat of them over the last decade, punctuated by some big newsworthy moments like the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the tragic murder of George Floyd.
It’s also true that in people-focused organizations, and most tech companies claim to be just that, it’s beneficial to have different types of leaders in terms of role modeling and visibility across the company. As one younger woman on my team years ago said, “if you can see it…you can be it!”
My company Bolster is a platform for CEOs to efficiently build out their executive teams and boards. But while nearly every search starts with a diversity requirement, many don’t end that way.
Here’s why, and here’s what can be done about it.
For boards, the “why” is straightforward. Board searches are almost never a priority for CEOs. They’re viewed as optional. Bolster’s Board Benchmark study in 2021 indicated that only a third of private companies have independent directors at all;even later stage private companies only have independent directors two-thirds of the time. That same study indicated that 80% of companies had open Board seats. The comparable longitudinal study in 2022 indicated that the overwhelming majority of those open board seats were still open.
Independent directors are usually the key to diversity, as the overwhelming majority of founders and VCs are still white and male. It takes a lot of time and effort to recruit and hire and onboard new directors, and in the world of important versus urgent, it will always be merely important. Without prioritizing hiring independents, board diversity may be a lofty goal, but it’s also an empty promise. I wrote about my Rule of 1s here and in Startup Boards – I wish more CEOs and VCs took the practice of independent boards and board diversity seriously. The silver lining here is that when CEOs do end up prioritizing a search for an independent director, they are increasingly open to diverse directors, even if those people have less experience than they might want. That openness to directors who may never have been on a corporate board (but who are board-ready), who may be a CXO instead of a CEO, is key. Of the several dozen independent directors Bolster has helped match to companies in the past year, almost 70% of them are from demographic populations that are historically underrepresented in the boardroom.
Diversity is stalling for Senior Executive hiring for the opposite reason. Exec hires are usually urgent enough that CEOs prioritize them. And they frequently start their searches by talking about the importance of diversity. But Senior Executives are much more often hired for their resume than for competency or potential. Almost all executive searches start with some variation of this line, which I’m lifting directly from a prior post: “I want to hire the person who took XYZ Famous Company from where I am today to 10x where I am today.” The problem with that is simple. That person is no longer available to be hired. They have made a ton of money, and they have moved beyond that job in their career progression. So inevitably, the search moves on to look for the person who worked for that person, or even one more layer down…or the person who that person WAS before they took the job at XYZ Famous Company. Those people may or may not be easy to find or available, but they feel less risky. In the somewhat insular world of tech, those candidates are also far less likely to be diverse in background, experience, thought, or, yes, demographics.
Running a comprehensive executive search based on competencies, cultural fit, scale experience, and general industry or analogous industry experience is much harder. It takes time, patience, digging deeper to surface overlooked candidates or to check references, and probably a little more risk taking on the part of CEOs. And while CEOs may be willing to take some risk on a first-time independent director, fewer are willing to take a comparable level of risk on an unproven or less known executive hire.
For some CEOs, the answer is just to take more risk — or more to the point, recognize that any senior hire carries risk along a number of dimensions, so there’s no reason to prioritize your narrow view of resume pedigree over any critical vector. For others, the answer may be to bring the focus of diversity in senior hires to “second level” leaders like Managers, Directors, or VPs, where the perceived risk is lower, and the willingness to invest in training and mentorship is higher. Those people in turn can be promoted over time into more senior positions.
Not every executive or board hire has to be demographically diverse. Not every executive team or board has to have individual quotas for different identity groups, and diversity has many flavors to it. But without doing the work, tech CEOs will continue to bemoan the lack of diversity in their leadership ranks, and miss out on the benefits of diverse leadership, while not taking ownership for those efforts stalling.