How We Increased Gender Diversity In Our Boardroom
Last October, I looked around the table during a Lessonly board meeting and thought to myself, “How do the women on the team feel when they walk past this room and see a bunch of men making big decisions on their behalf?” Probably not great, right? After all, 45 percent of the team is women, but 100 percent of the board is not. My next thought was, “Not your best work, Max.”
Study after study proves that diverse thought on a team drives better performance. McKinsey notes that gender-diverse teams are 15 percent more likely to outperform their peers. Ethnically-diverse teams? Thirty-five percent more likely. Different perspectives on customers needs, product improvements and company well-being fuel a better business. Nowhere is this more true than on a board of directors.
So we made a decision: Lessonly’s next board member needed to be a woman. Not just any woman, of course -- someone with charisma, a wealth of knowledge and just enough experience to be wise but not infallible. We decided to seek out someone with senior experience leading a complex product organization. This background was essential as we scaled from the first one million learners to the next 10 million. As with all board members, this woman would also would need to align with our cultural values and be able to share unique perspectives of her own.
Now I needed to do the hard part: find this person. The following day, I scoured my LinkedIn connections and found that I do not have a vibrant personal network of trailblazing women who also have experience running complex product teams. I think this happens a lot -- attempts to diversify a company falter because the team doesn’t have a sufficiently diverse network.
So, I did what I do pretty much all day. I asked for help.
Founders and employees alike often believe they need to solve every problem by themselves, and that asking for help is a sign of incompetence and weakness. I couldn’t disagree more. On the contrary, asking for help is sign of realistic self-evaluation and means putting the team over self. Founders should absolutely turn to their board members, friends, mentors and VCs in times of need.
I shot a note to my partners at OpenView, and as is so often the case, they knew what to do. They introduced me to a woman named Coco Brown, who runs a nonprofit organization called The Athena Alliance. Athena cultivates a network of female operators who are interested in joining company boards.
I cannot tell you how relieved I was to learn about the Athena Alliance. They had the playbook, and Brown walked me through it on our first call. After collecting my desired profile for a potential board member; she returned a week later with eight candidates, all of whom fit the profile and were at least tacitly interested in talking with me. This was a dream.
Seven steps to fill that independent board seat.
If you’ve ever filled a board seat, you know how important it is not to screw it up. Board members matter a lot, and independent board members are a particularly special opportunity for a company; they are purposefully not monetary investors in the business. This is big. Because they aren’t trying to protect the multi-million dollar investment they made in our business, independent board members hold a more objective view than the VCs around the table. They just want to help me, the CEO, understand all my options and guide me to build the best company possible. (To be clear, great board members who have money in the business are asked to do the same thing, and they do. But you can see how they are undeniably conflicted, even if they are chock-full of integrity.)
So, in the hopes that it will help you fill your next independent board seat, here’s how we ran the process after Brown's intros:
Survey the field. I vetted my top choices from Brown's list via a brief phone meeting with each potential board member. I spent time asking about their pasts and what they wanted out of a future board engagement. Then, to ensure alignment going forward, I set expectations around how we compensate board members. (Most startups do not pay board members. We are no different. Instead, we incentivize with options and reimburse for any board-related travel costs. Getting this out there early in conversations is crucial.)
Loop in your team. I introduced my favorite candidates to other members of the Lessonly executive team, scheduling time for them to connect via phone. Whenever possible, if a Lessonly executive’s travel lined up with a candidate’s location, we arranged in-person visits.
Don’t forget the board. I also introduced top candidates to current board members.
Host an on-site visit. From there, if all thumbs were up, we scheduled an on-site visit. We asked the prospective board member to come see our office and spend a day talking with our team. When the day wrapped up, the candidate had dinner with a group of six Lessonly teammates -- no managers allowed. We chose contributors who represent all of our primary business units and serve as cultural keystones. I encouraged the candidate to use this time to learn a lot from the people who are on the frontlines, making the business move.
Listen to feedback. After the on-site, I huddled again with the folks who engaged with the candidate during the trip to determine if the candidate was the right person for the role.
Ask more questions. If any questions lingered, I scheduled more calls to ask more questions. Like I mentioned before, this person will drastically affect your business. It’s worth the additional follow-up to get all the information you need to make a great decision.
Make the ask. The Athena Alliance gave me templates for board member agreements. They offered a wealth of experience that helped me run the best process possible. I used these templates to get things moving, and then ran them by our legal team to ensure it aligned with our existing documentation.
In our case, we started with enough candidates so that as conversations progressed, we began to get a better sense of what we were looking for. By the time we found it, there was no doubt our desired candidate was the right fit.
The big takeaway here is do not rush it. You are working to put someone in a uniquely powerful position in your company. This process should take time. Don’t stress out too much when it does. Not every part of your business needs to move as fast as your revenues.
This experience has been big for our company -- and for me.
As CEO, it is my responsibility to cultivate a more diverse workplace, where our collective differences make us better. In many areas of the business, this was already happening. In others, I was letting people down by gravitating toward the familiar, when what we needed more of was the unfamiliar. Making a turn took our time and effort, but I think I can speak for all of us when I say it was worth it.
While only one of the candidates became a board member, I still speak with many other people who were part of the process. They are new friends, and we’ve developed a rapport that allows us to get on the phone every now and then to talk through the opportunities that Lessonly is working through. Like the best mentors, they help me get better at life. Most of these people have learned how to harmonize their work and their life, and I need more of that in my system.
All in all, I get a lot of comfort knowing so many smart people are just a phone call away. I would know fewer of them were it not for this process.
To all of you who are looking to fill an independent board seat, my advice is take the time to go out of your network, and don’t stop until you find someone who is just right. Ask for help. Make a plan. Meet in person. Listen to your team. Ask more questions. And don’t rush it.