How Twitter Could Create a More Diverse Board

November 18, 2015, 7:21 PM UTC
Dorsey, interim CEO of Twitter and CEO of Square, goes for a walk on the first day of the annual Allen and Co. media conference in Sun Valley
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter.
Photograph by Mike Blake — Reuters

It’s the final stretch of 2015, which means it’s time to reflect on the last 12 months, make predictions for the next 12, and plan for what companies and individuals will accomplish in the coming year. Like other leaders, I’m sitting down to make my predictions for the next tech industry boon. But it’s not software or the hottest unicorn that I’m predicting will be the next disruptor. No, it’s the concept of inclusion and a more diverse culture that I think will take the tech industry by storm in 2016. It’s not inevitable, but it’s essential for future success.

One company – Twitter (TWTR) – and its returning CEO Jack Dorsey – have been handed a golden opportunity to set the tone for diversity in the organization when replacing three members of its board of directors who are expected to retire early next year.

I can’t claim to know what is right for Twitter’s board or for the company, but diversity is one of those issues that can define a company’s reputation either as a leader or a laggard. As a CEO of a public company, I’ve been in Dorsey’s shoes and I know that diversity makes for a better board and a better company. My experience is backed by research from Credit Suisse (CS)
, Citigroup (C) and others that found that gender diversity on corporate boards improves financial performance.

In the brief time that remains before Twitter nominates its new board members, Dorsey is going to be tugged in different directions, and I hope some of the learnings I have mapped out from my own board search will be helpful as he undergoes this important step.

Misconceptions breed misbehavior

First, there is a misconception that fundamentally needs to be altered among tech leaders looking for diversity on their board of directors: that there are simply not enough diverse candidates in the pool. It’s easy to believe our own stats – too few women in STEM, too few African American engineers – and therefore think that there are barriers to hiring that are out of our control. This is a falsehood, as there is a healthy pool to choose from but it’s often about timing.

As companies dip into new talent pools, they don’t realize that there may be other priorities on the minds of candidates. When searching for female leaders for our board, for example, several supremely well-qualified candidates came back to us saying that it just wasn’t a good time for them. In my past experience with male candidates, these executives jumped at exploring the opportunity. Whether this represents different priorities or a more sage approach to life balance, I don’t know. But it was an interesting theme that I had never come across.

Look beyond who you know

If Twitter truly wants to move the needle on its diversity numbers, it should use this opportunity to buck convention and look in new places. Do not work with a traditional recruiter. They will talk about all the ways that they’ll approach building a diverse candidate pool. In the end, however, they’ll just reach into their database and send more of the same, counseling you to hire the best person for the open board slots, regardless of their background, race or gender.

There are now better options and the “I don’t know how or where to look” excuse is just that – an excuse. I used Trewstar, a firm that’s dedicated to placing highly qualified women on boards. I’ve appointed three women to Marketo’s board – two seasoned executives from Time, Inc. (TWX)
, and Nintendo in the last few months. We wouldn’t be this diverse had I listened to the traditional firms who claim to “know” the right recipe for success in Silicon Valley.

Trewstar quickly demonstrated that there was no shortage of viable female candidates. In fact, the more I’ve gotten to know the firm, the more I’ve marveled at its ability to find scores of well-qualified women in any field, be it tech, healthcare, financial services, mining, timber, clean energy, or beyond.

Why doing the right thing is right for your brand

Twitter has always been a brand that helped push transparency and has served as a catalyst for change around the globe. Since it came on the scene, Twitter has changed the world in profound ways, serving as a lens that people use to engage in spirited – and global – conversations. Yet, the company is now facing criticism over issues of transparency and inclusion.What better time than now to reconnect with that mission and lead by example?

Diversifying a board is a good first step and should be a harbinger of real change coming to an organization. Otherwise, it’s just window dressing.

Fostering a culture of inclusion

As much as there should be an emphasis on diversity, there should also be an emphasis on inclusion; members of a company or board should feel that they are accepted and valued no matter their race, gender, orientation, and ethnicity. Therefore, tackling diversity on a board or workforce is not only about who you appoint or hire, but also about how you nurture and support those people. Fostering inclusion can be just as daunting, because it goes a step beyond creating a strong company culture.

When I created the board at Marketo, I was looking for an ally that could help me create a truly diverse workplace. I wanted the board to set the tone for what we would accomplish. Already our board’s done amazing work fostering a culture of inclusion that’s considerate of all people and their differences. In fact, we recently expanded family benefits to include same-sex couples and extended paternity leave for new parents.

Diversity is just one aspect of the challenge we face building the workplace of the future. My contention – and I think most CEOs in our business would agree – is that the workplace must evolve from yesteryear’s 9-to-5 era and accommodate all people and needs from child care, to flex time, to paternity leave.

We’re dealing here with the larger, sometimes frustrating legacies bequeathed by history. But there’s an opportunity for Twitter and the technology industry to demonstrate to the rest of the business world how to overcome these deeply entrenched biases.

Since Dorsey returned as CEO, Twitter has won plaudits for its public commitment to build a more diverse company. But this is just the beginning and it will take time to change. The best and boldest decision is to put that pledge into action when choosing your new board members. That would signal to everyone that there’s a new sheriff in town and he’s not about to settle for window dressing.

And as Twitter knows better than anyone, the whole world will be watching. If it leads, others will surely follow.

Phil Fernandez is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Marketo, Inc., a marketing automation company based in Silicon Valley.

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