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First-time directors face social pressures as boards diversify

July 29, 2022, 11:58 AM UTC
Boards-First time directors
Understanding a board’s culture and group dynamics will help new directors integrate quickly.
Shannon Fagan—Getty Images

It takes courage to walk into a room filled with relative strangers, especially when those strangers have deep familiarity with one another, speak the same shorthand, and behave according to an unspoken code of conduct.  

But scores of new board directors have summoned the confidence to enter these rooms in recent years. And with boards increasingly prioritizing diversity—gender, race, and even work experience—their recruits are more likely to be people without directorship experience, says organizational psychologist Laryssa Topolnytsky, a partner at the talent and consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles. 

This sea change presents a unique opportunity to devise new guidelines during the introductory period, which is an underappreciated yet critical part of the onboarding process. Several consultants and organizations, like the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), offer excellent certification and training programs, says Topolnytsky, who heads her company’s CEOs and boards consulting practice in the Americas. But she pushes new directors to go deeper, building awareness of the group dynamics and culture well before their first board meeting. 

New board members should strive to forge strong interpersonal relationships from the outset, she says, and understand the values and motivations of fellow directors so that they’re comfortable enough to disagree during meetings “and make the best decisions as a group.”

“At that level of corporate achievement, you’re going to run into some big personalities,” Topolnytsky says. First encounters with powerful, even legendary, executives can be exciting. But they can also be stressful, particularly if the company is in crisis. Boards meet far less often than executive teams, she notes, which makes it harder to build trust quickly. 

Here’s some of the advice she shares with board novices: 

  • Confirm that the board is inclusive. New board members from underrepresented groups might ask themselves two questions: How open is the board to someone like me, with my unique skills? And is this board choosing me because I’m underrepresented or because of my expertise? Have conversations with the head of the nominating and governance committee or the board chair to gauge the level of inclusivity. (The vast majority of boards, especially at large companies, do understand why boards should be diverse, Topolnytsky underlines.)
  • Do research. Turn to online resources and your search firm to get a sense of your fellow board members—and what makes them tick. Beyond LinkedIn, seek out press interviews and videos, such as TED Talks. These are the places to get “rich” information, says Topolnytsky. “Are they succinct? Are they more effusive? Do they have causes they care about?”
  • Book one-on-ones. Proactively set up meetings with all members, especially those you haven’t yet met, ideally before the first board meeting. Continue to meet regularly. Topolnytsky recommends setting up at least one meeting before and after every group board meeting for the first year.

The onus to integrate with fellow board members shouldn’t just fall on newcomers. Board chairs and committee leaders also have a duty to become well acquainted with new directors and understand what they have to offer, Topolnytsky says. One tip she gives chairs is to look over the meeting agenda and pinpoint areas where new members can lead a discussion and flex their subject matter expertise, rather than expecting them to force their way into the conversation—if at all. 

Peter Gleason, CEO of the NACD, says that expectations have changed for new directors. In the past, “people would take their time, sit, and listen for several board meetings before they jumped into the conversation,” he tells Fortune. “You don’t have that luxury anymore.”

It’s worth noting that for new directors from underrepresented backgrounds, there’s also a risk to being a polite, quiet observer during their debut. “Research shows that for some underrepresented groups, that could fuel the unconscious bias that some people might have” about their merits, Topolnytsky says. In other words, speak up early. 

Lila MacLellan
lila.maclellan@fortune.com
@lilamaclellan

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By the way, I’m also new around here. I recently joined Fortune, and this is my first newsletter as lead writer for The Modern Board.

Help me out! I’d love to hear about the issues and developments that you would like to see covered in the coming weeks and months. What questions do you have? Who are your boardroom heroes? What is the most interesting trend in the corporate governance space right now? What are your pain points? Shoot me a message at: lila.maclellan@fortune.com

Word of Advice

“I found myself saying to the group, ‘Okay, I don’t have the background that all of you have on this particular topic, but here’s how I see it today.’ I realized I was never going to start a sentence with that statement again, because everyone in the room knew I wasn’t there 10 years ago. I didn’t have to validate or justify the fact that I was asking a question. That may not have been a question that anyone else would have asked.” 

—Samantha Holroyd, a longtime energy executive who is now on the board of three companies, talked to Fortune about her first board experience.

On the Agenda

👓 Read: Despite an uptick in layoffs in the tech sector, talent retention remains an urgent concern for most corporate boards. These are the top reasons why workers are quitting, according to McKinsey.

🎧 Listen: Have boardroom aspirations? Hear how Alissa Hsu Lynch, head of global medtech strategy for Google Cloud, landed a board seat at an NYSE-listed company in this episode of the Take on Board podcast. 

📖 Bookmark: When your teen asks what you do as a director, send them this TikTok video by Dulma Altan, creator of “TikTok B-School for women.”

6 ways boards can respond to the abortion access crisis

Abortion access has found its way to the boardroom regardless of whether a company is based in an abortion-restrictive state. And for good reason. “Access to reproductive care has been documented as being a critical factor for women to have the agency they need to thrive in the workplace [and] to be able to have the types of careers we’ve seen over the last 50 years,” says Lorraine Hariton, president and CEO of Catalyst, a nonprofit that advocates for women in the workplace. What’s more, competing in a tight labor market requires attracting and retaining the best talent, including remote workers who might live in states where abortions are prohibited. 

While hundreds of companies have publicly shared their plans to support employees who want to access reproductive care, many more are still formulating their response to the overturn of Roe v. Wade. 

This week, I spoke with several abortion advocates and board experts about what directors can do to support employees’ access to abortions. Here’s what they said:

  • Recognize that reproductive benefits affect the entire workforce. Abortion bans do not only affect people with unintended pregnancies; they also affect those whose pregnancies have become health risks and, sadly, children, says Jill Habig, president and founder of Public Rights Project, an advocacy group. “It’s really important for companies to remember that this is everybody’s problem.”

 

  • Press insurance providers for options. Those options could be travel stipends, additional paid leave for miscarriages, bereavement, or other needs, Habig says. Boards should also be in contact with their lawyers, asking how they can protect employees while offering the most comprehensive benefits possible.

 

  • Examine what kind of data is collected. Employers should not collect superfluous data, because it could be used to prosecute individuals who receive abortions, Habig says. Companies should also police their vendors and contractors to make sure that they’re respecting people’s privacy and medical data.

 

  • Extend the same benefits to contractors. Many abortion policies conspicuously leave out gig workers and the contract workforce, Habig notes. One example: Thousands of delivery people who drive Amazon-branded vehicles are not eligible for benefits.

 

  • Use corporate sway to influence state laws. Amelia Miazad, a professor of law at UC Davis School of Law, says companies can lobby for legislation to protect reproductive rights. However, they “will be exposed to legal risk if there is any inconsistency between their public pro–reproductive justice statements and their behind-closed-doors lobbying or support of lawmakers who are restricting access,” she says.

 

  • Prepare for the future. “The Supreme Court has been clear that this is not the end of this slide—it’s the beginning,” says Habig. Some boards are building expertise and a greater understanding of complex social issues by meeting with advocacy groups and civil liberties organizations to gather information.

📣 Some professional news… 

Fortune is launching a daily newsletter for HR executives and anyone who needs to round out their C-suite know-how. Get essential insights, news, and analyses to supercharge your workplace management skills. Sign up here!

Onboard/Offboard 

Apoorva Mehta, the founder and former CEO of Instacart, will step down as executive chair when the company goes public. (The expected date for the IPO is TBA.) CEO Fidji Simo will replace Mehta to lead the board. Bennett Dorrance, grandson of the man who invented condensed soup and the longest-serving director on the Campbell Soup Co. board of directors, is retiring from the board. His son, Bennett Dorrance Jr., will join the board in his place. Employee well-being software platform Limeade named tech and finance veteran Lisa Nelson to its corporate board. Alex Dimitrief, partner at Zeughauser Group and a lecturer at Harvard Law School, joined SmileDirectClub, an online retailer of clear teeth aligners (known for its legal woes), as an independent director. Joseph Verbrugge, chief commercial officer at Sirius XM, was named to the board of directors at Stride, an online education company.

In Brief

Editor’s Pick 

Fortune’s Geoff Colvin brings readers inside McDonald’s complicated, monthslong exit from Russia. Here’s a snippet:

“The days rolled by, winter turned to spring, and other companies announced their exits from Russia: Warner Bros., Universal, and Sony stopped releasing films there; Disney halted all business in the country; Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan started winding down. Still no word from McDonald’s.

Kempczinski says he was not going to be hurried: ‘My general approach on leadership stuff is, don’t make a decision until you absolutely have to make a decision. If you have the ability to buy yourself more time to get some more information, why wouldn’t you take advantage of that?’”

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