Black perspectives on race in the boardroom


5 key takeaways


Recent events have created a window of opportunity for boards to better incorporate diversity. The supermajority of boards in America have no people of color on the board, so there is no representation. This is known for public companies, where there is some level of ability to track. But among private boards, it is even more difficult to ascertain how or whether they are progressing to incorporate people of Color onto their boards. People who are not Black need to be part of facilitating these conversations on their boards and to help carry the torch. Here are key takeaways:

In a recent NACD and Grant Thornton LLP virtual roundtable panel, a panel of Black directors shared insights. The session was hosted by Kim Box, chair of Northern California, NACD; and Gary Strong, CEO of California Gold-Country Region, American Red Cross, and director of NACD Northern California.

•      TaMiya Dickerson, partner and leader of West Region Advisory Services, Grant Thornton (moderator)
•      Janice Innis-Thompson, chief compliance officer, Samsung Electronics, America and North America; Board: Bridge Builder
•      Rose McKinney-James, Boards: MGM Resorts International, Energy Foundation
•      Hilliard Terry, Boards: Upstart, Umpqua Holding Company

  1. Despite — or because of — their challenges, these conversations are particularly important at this historical moment. Participants, who have deep experience in business and board service, noted that this was a rare historical moment, that it may not last and that it needs to be seized. It is precisely this kind of opportunity that leads to lasting change.

    Hilliard Terry shared: “There’s been a window that’s opened up, so it’s incumbent upon all of us, not just us who are Black, but I think everyone to take advantage of that and effect change. Now’s the time. Let’s not start the conversation if you’re not ready to start the conversation. Because once you go down a path, things can be uncomfortable... But it’s important to get there.”
  2. Directors of Color bring to these conversations a combination of business acumen, valuable life experiences and unique perspectives. While all directors have a responsibility for facing these issues, directors of Color typically have distinctive first-hand knowledge, relevant personal experiences and a deep commitment to diversity. They have a special ability to identify, recruit and mentor diverse candidates.

    Janice Innis-Thomson underlined the importance of diversity in recruitment and retention. She said, “This generation of employees who are coming into your companies are not going to come to your company, and they’re not going to give you the benefit of their expertise unless you show them that you are serious about these issues.”
  3. Courageous conversations around race need to be jointly facilitated by CEOs and board chairs, and supported by the larger corporate culture. Otherwise, a disproportionate amount of responsibility and burden falls on board members of Color.

    Rose McKinney-Jones said, “I have been the first, I have been the only, throughout much of my career. And there is both a responsibility and burden imbedded in the opportunity. There’s an obligation once you have a seat at the table to make sure that there will be opportunities for others to follow.”

    Innis-Thompson shared: “There’s absolute fear, and I’ve experienced it many times. And it’s interesting, because the moment you decide that you just don’t want to do that anymore and you decide to just bring your whole self, it is a huge relief and you find that you’re not going to get pushback.”
  4. Courageous conversations are simply a starting point. The nuts and bolts work takes the form of traditional board activities — crafting metrics, setting committee agendas, performing due diligence and fiduciary oversight, and developing talent pipelines and retention strategies.

    Looking at your Nom/Gov, Comp, Audit, ESG committees, and whether they have accountability metricsfor ongoing diversity goals is a good start. Participants noted that environmental, social and governance (ESG) committees are often the natural fit for such issues but cautioned not to forget compensation, because compensation drives so much behavior.
  5. Ultimately, diversity is good for business. Your business will better reflect your customers, incorporate more perspectives, avoid groupthink, attract and retain diverse talent, and embody your values.

    McKinney-James spoke to the overall impact: “Having diverse perspectives on a board makes a difference, makes a huge difference. There is a value proposition there. This is not a social movement. This is a way to enhance your bottom line and your business.”

Ultimately, this work is long term. The view of the panelists is that it began long before the current historical moment and extends throughout their lives and beyond.





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