In the Board Monitor article you said, “You need to push for diversity in its broadest sense.” Explain how you define “broadest sense”?
One of the first things you need to focus on is what do you mean by diversity? One of the leaders of the Kresge Foundation was quoted as saying, ‘diversity of thought, background and beliefs leads to better investment decisions and returns…’ I agree with this thinking. To me, the first step is always understanding what you mean by diversity and inclusion. If you’re focused only on one aspect, it waters down everything. And, you can’t call it “good” if you say we have to have a certain percentage of women. You need to look at the entire picture, define not only what you mean by diversity, but also define what the outcomes of a good approach to diversity will be. And I don’t just stop at one; the outcomes need to be many.
Diversity of thought really comes from the broader elements of diversity – gender, race, geography, ethnicity and experience. An organization needs to be sure its embrace of diversity equity and inclusion is full, authentic and practical in its application.
What do you consider the most important impact in having more women on boards? The benefits of diversity on boards?
There have been various studies over the last number of years about the benefits of having more women on boards. Having women on a board offers that immediate diversity of viewpoint. And interestingly, more women on a board, naturally begets more women on a board. Having a female chair helps as well. And reputationally, more women on a board raises the profile of that company. What I worry about are quotas – that isn’t my view of what works, authentically. In fact, it’s often just the opposite.
I am firm in my belief that the conversation around the table is better – it benefits from more women’s voices.
What do you believe was the tipping point in corporate boards finally making diversity a priority?
Years ago, working for a major corporation, I was sitting at the Board table and a company director said, “I think we should have another woman on the Board, but I just don’t think we’ll find enough qualified candidates.” Imagine thinking that today?! Then, in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, we started seeing more women working – more getting their MBAs, but still not as many female CEO’s. Then, in the ‘80’s, the topic and attitudes around diversity started to take hold. There were more and more of the financial firms starting to bring up female leaders – and the C-suite opportunities started broadening to female CFO’s and COO’s. Women were taking charge of their careers and thinking big.
Assurant’s board has a high percentage of female members. Was that the result of a deliberate effort? What are the benefits?
For Assurant, I would say it was a very deliberate effort. When I became chair, we wanted to reshape the Board from the one of a Dutch-company that was more than 100 years old. When Alan (Colberg) became CEO, we made the shift in the organization to be “more than an insurance company.” To do so, we needed to broaden our thinking in many ways about what kind of board we should be. We thought long and hard about how to really shape the Board – we considered candidates based on quality, certainly, but we also looked at diversity, knowledge and experience. We were somewhat diverse earlier on, but not what it should be in terms of the way the company was transforming. We considered things like gender, race, geography – US vs. international. Diversity of all aspects was absolutely fundamental to how we recast the Board.
When we were looking to fill two new roles, a few years ago, we thought we’d like at least one of those to be a woman, but we really didn’t expect to find two stellar female directors, adding to a now already strong board.
In the end, we took what was a good board and made it better through our choices. We recognized the skills of our existing board members and added to those. We looked at the new members’ backgrounds and found logical committee roles where they could add value.
Now, we’ve got three women on our Board and the level of quality that comes from our diversity is incredible. It’s a high caliber board that is so, because of its diversity – and that enhances both the strategy and strength of the company.
Do you agree with the notion that more women on boards equals more women executives? Is it a chicken and egg thing?
I’m not sure. I do believe that women looking to join a company or women within a company will look at the Board and think there’s a dedication to diversity and opportunity.
What one piece of advice would you give to young working women coming up in the ranks today with regard to management and board aspirations?
I actually have a few thoughts. First, know your stuff – know the business, cold! Read and learn everything about your business. Second, if you’re considering a board seat, be ready. Understand what you’re taking on. A board seat is not for everyone. You have to ask yourself, how will this fit into my life – and as always, your “day job” comes first – so again, be ready. And finally, the “soft stuff” – in other words, be yourself. Whatever that means. You must know yourself and always be yourself. Authenticity is a paramount quality.