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Three pointers for building a future-fit board

Diverse and inclusive boards of directors can bring new ideas to enhance management decision-making at growth-stage companies.

Building a diverse, inclusive board of directors is a high priority for founders and executives of growth-stage companies, whether they are eyeing the public market or looking to compete long term in a fast-paced, transformative age.

Historically focused on gender and ethnicity, the definition of a diverse board has more recently evolved to include factors like socioeconomic background, veteran status and geography.

During a recent workshop I facilitated at the Strategic Growth Forum® 2021, founders, executives and board members discussed these key themes as they seek to build boards that can flex for the future.

Look beyond your immediate circles and near-term ambitions

“You want people with different backgrounds,” says one CEO. “People who can inform you on how they look at the world a little bit differently, how they look at risk and how they look at opportunity.”

Oftentimes, companies prioritize their near-term objectives over long-term sustainable value creation. Consider the attributes, experiences and skills of your existing board members against your needs over the next decade, not the next three to five years. Challenge your thinking around diversity on your board and within your ranks.

Seek both skills and chemistry

While people with strong and varied skills are important — especially for private companies with smaller boards — one director notes that chemistry is also a must: “You have to ensure there is enough mutual respect to enable tough questions and rigorous dialogue about hard topics. To some extent, getting along matters.”

Nearly every board has a story about someone with a strong résumé and technical skills who doesn’t engage productively with others. But be careful that interpersonal fit doesn’t mean excluding others. Seek out candidates who can respectfully push thinking and prioritize inclusion and belonging as part of the board’s culture. That way new directors will feel comfortable challenging ideas and contributing to dialogue in a meaningful way.

Shake up board agendas to allow for new ways of thinking

Too often, boards and committees get stuck recycling agendas, or, as growth companies enter public markets, board and committee agendas get overwhelmed with legal, compliance and regulatory necessities. Make sure these topics don’t impede opportunities to discuss new risks and opportunities.

“Set the tone before the board meeting,” advises a CEO. “Send members a reporting packet, then identify a problem you would like to solve during the meeting. This has enabled our board to focus on solution-driven outcomes.”

Allow directors to bring new ideas and questions to the boardroom discussion — or to ask old questions in a new way — so the company truly gets the benefit of board diversity. And don’t forget, it’s not all about challenging members. Ultimately, the board’s goal is to enhance decision-making at the management level and to motivate management to succeed.

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Diverse boards prioritize different backgrounds, varied skills, meaningful dialogue and new ways of thinking so they can better support management decision-making and success.

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