A diverse group -- three woman and two men of various races -- sits around a conference room table. At the head of the table is a smiling Black woman; behind her is a floor-to-ceiling window..
Companies need diverse leadership now more than ever, but creating one will require more work than just tweaking your hiring practices. — Getty Images/fizkes

Improving diversity at companies of all sizes has never been of higher priority. Diverse businesses are shown to be more profitable, more innovative and better places to work.

State governments and private businesses now realize that building a culture of diversity and inclusion starts from the top. California, New Jersey and Illinois have passed or are considering legislation to require public companies to report on and commit to improving diverse leadership. Consumers are using their purchasing power in favor of businesses that take measurable steps to improve diversity and inclusion.

One such measurable step: creating a more diverse board of directors. Improving the diversity of your board can have a ripple effect on other parts of your business, attracting other diverse talent, improving innovation and contributing to long-term success. Here’s how to get started.

[Read more: A Guide to Creating a Board of Directors]

Examine your selection criteria

Historically, a board of directors is made up of individuals who have significant professional achievements or financial giving power. However, these types of qualifications exclude minority candidates from joining your board.

“[F]ocusing on an individual’s giving power or how high on the corporate ladder they may have reached glazes over the fact that women and people of color have historically faced barriers that white men have not,” explained KelloggInsight, part of the Kellogg School of Management. “Similarly, certain communities have been systematically excluded from accumulating generational wealth. Continuing to focus on these traditional selection criteria...will not increase board diversity for your nonprofit organization.”

Expand your selection criteria to include lived experience, technical expertise or function-specific knowledge. New businesses, for instance, should look for board members with experience growing other ventures from scratch. A good board of directors will provide mentorship and guidance, not just money and prestige.

Expand your network

Affinity bias is a type of implicit bias that means we gravitate toward people who are “like us” in appearance, beliefs or background. Affinity bias plays a significant role in limiting who we reach out to in recruiting board members.

“You’ve heard the argument that board diversity reflects a pipeline problem. Actually, it’s a marketplace problem,” reports TechCrunch. “There is no shortage of exceptionally-qualified female and minority candidates. The real issue is that within the personal networks responsible for appointing most directors, these candidates are often simply invisible.”

Combat implicit bias in your recruiting process by making an effort to expand your network. Go to events that wouldn’t normally be on your calendar. Reach out to candidates on LinkedIn. Ask others to recommend people who aren’t on your radar.

"Continuing to focus on these traditional selection criteria...will not increase board diversity for your nonprofit organization"


Avoid tokenism

Research by Harvard Business Review found that diversity is not an automatic guarantee of better performance; it’s the culture of the board, as well as the diversity, that makes a difference.

“Board diversity matters but concentrating on only one form of diversity isn’t enough,” found the study. “Our interviewees suggested that social diversity (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity and age diversity) and professional diversity are both important for increasing the diversity of perspectives represented on the board.”

Tokenism is the practice of doing something—like adding a minority member to your board of directors—to give the appearance of a commitment to diversity. Diversity is a broad term that encompasses not just race, gender and ethnicity but also experience, professional backgrounds and ideas. The best boards are those that focus on “diversity of thought” in their directors.

[Read more: Looking for Diversity? How to Build a More Inclusive Small Business]

Create the right environment

If you have an existing board of directors, consider how those members will be equipped to welcome and work with new members. “Think of the current board as a Thanksgiving table,” said Sophia Shaw, Adjunct Professor of Social Impact at Kellogg. “Many delicate topics are being avoided to keep the peace. When somebody invites anew member to the table, whose traditions or assumptions may be different from the status quo, this can bring to light underlying biases or differences in opinion that have lain under the surface.”

You may need to provide training to your board members to help them understand your commitment to diversity and inclusion. The goal will be to create an environment that is inclusive of new ideas and new ways of doing things, and that fosters productive discussion and debate to move your business forward. Keep in mind that your employees will be impacted by changes to your board of directors; it’s important to demonstrate how seriously you take inclusion.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Follow us on Instagram for more expert tips & business owners’ stories.

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.

Brought to you by
Simplify your startup’s finances with Mercury
Navigating the complex finances of a growing startup can be daunting. Mercury’s VP of Finance shares the seven areas to focus on, from day-to-day operations to measuring performance, and more.
Read the article