Fired up: Speakers detail how corporate boards can boost their diversity — and why they should

By Meg Fry
Woodbridge | Oct 31, 2019 at 5:00 am

According to Linda Willett, the board of directors of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey — a $13 billion health insurer headquartered in Newark — currently consists of nearly 20% women and 30% people of color.

But Willett, senior vice president and general counsel for HBCBSNJ and president of the Women’s Forum of New York, said she guarantees that will change.

“There is such a premium on diversity now,” Willett said as she spoke at the Executive Women of New Jersey’s Corporate Gender Diversity Awards breakfast Tuesday at the APA Hotel Woodbridge. “We have to reflect the world of our customers and our board has to oversee our company the way our members see us.”

EWNJ, a senior-level executive women’s organization committed to increasing the number of women in leadership and on corporate boards for New Jersey companies, held the event in recognition of its fourth biennial “A Seat at the Table” report in collaboration with PwC on advancing board diversity.

Willett discussed the report’s findings in a fireside chat with Pamela J. Craig, current board member at Merck & Co. and Progressive Insurance, former board member at Akamai Technologies and Walmart, and former chief financial officer of Accenture, where she worked for more than 30 years.

“The word is finally getting out that board diversity really does make a difference,” Craig said.

Craig, who joined Progressive Insurance’s board last year, said adding women to a company’s board should not be difficult — in theory.

“When I joined Progressive, there were three women on the board and a woman CEO,” she said. “We now have six women, which comprises half our board, and we did that in two years.

“It’s just not that hard.”

However, while the “A Seat at the Table” report shows signs of progress, the 18.1% of women directors at New Jersey’s Top 100 publicly held companies lags behind the national average, with women holding 19.3% of all board seats in Russell 3000 companies.

Furthermore, 16 of those New Jersey companies still have no women on their boards at all.

Willett said that, while board diversity can be challenging, it is certainly not impossible.

“HBCBSNJ is capped at 17 directors on our board, of which six are gubernatorial- or legislative-appointed,” she said. “That leaves the CEO, who also is a director, and 10 elected spots, all of whom can serve until the age of 75.

“We don’t get a lot of turnover.”

Still, Willett, who has worked with HBCBSNJ for 10 years, said progress has been made.

“When I joined the company, there was one woman on the board who also was our only person of color, so, when we did have a board opening, there was a high premium on diversity at its broadest,” she said.

Willett said her company also used a “skillsets approach” when searching for board candidates.

“We needed to strengthen our skillsets in finance and marketing, so each time we had an opening, we searched for potential directors with those backgrounds,” she said. “We also employed recruiters, because we had tried informal networking and it wasn’t producing quickly enough the pipeline that we needed.

“However, the recruiters then gave us lists of the same white male CEOs we had gotten before.”

Willett said HBCBSNJ pressed on and ultimately was successful.

“Within my first couple of years, we onboarded two additional board members — a woman with a finance background and a man of color with a marketing background,” she said.

The pipeline often can be difficult to manage, Craig said, with the “A Seat at the Table” report highlighting the fact that just 19.7% of executive officers at New Jersey’s top companies, just 12.7% of high earners, and just 5% of CEOs are women.

“I personally think that adding women to boards is not that hard, and that it’s much harder to grow and groom over many years talented people for the C-suite,” Craig added. “But, when we focus on it, we can get it done.”

EWNJ and PwC recommended that current CEOs, board members and nominating committees look beyond sitting or retired CEOs and those who already have served as board members when identifying board candidates, as well as ensure that at least one woman is under consideration on every slate and that board directors work to identify and sponsor senior and mid-level women in their companies who have potential.

Craig said more women also should be educated on both the benefits and responsibilities of a board position.

“It’s really about listening and trying to understand what is important to the company, its employees and its customers,” she said. “You also can do a lot of reading, as public companies are written about a lot in the press, and you can and should tap into any and all information about what is on everyone’s minds.”

Gaining experience on nonprofit boards first also can provide the insight needed to secure opportunities with larger corporations later, Craig added.

“I believe not-for-profit service is critical, because you learn what it is like to be on a board and if you even like it or not,” she said. “Sometimes it can be frustrating when you can’t take control and make something happen, but rather must simply advise and influence.

“So, try to pick a not-for-profit that not only is a passion of yours but also one in which you can network and meet others in the corporate world.”

Regardless, getting one’s first board seat can be the hardest part.

“You are not yet known in a boardroom, so it is very difficult to demonstrate your potential to be successful,” Craig said. “The first board can also be difficult to find because, if you are an active executive, as I was with Accenture, it cannot be a competitor, client or partner, and there is left only a small universe of public companies to explore.”

It also comes down to nothing else but one’s chemistry with the other board members.

“If you’re interviewing for a board seat, it’s because your accomplishments already are recognized,” Craig said. “At that point, it’s simply seeing how you fit in with the team.”

Willett said women often lose sight of this when interviewing for boards.

“Women were interviewing for board seats in a different way than men, and particularly if it was their first board or their first publicly traded company, because many of the women sounded as if they were interviewing for a job,” she said. “What we heard was, ‘I can help with that balance sheet because I have a finance background’ or ‘I can tell you whether or not your systems are up to date because I have a background in information technology.’ Some of that is important to the board discussion, but we weren’t looking for somebody to replace our chief information officer. We wanted a board member who was going to come in and add value to the oversight function.

“So, if you are thinking about seeking a board seat, you must shift your mind toward becoming the person who is going to be sitting at the board table in an oversight role — not in a management role. Nobody personally thinks they ever step over that line, but other people do.”

Willett said it also is an issue that women often do not voice loudly enough that they are actively searching for a board seat.

“Women often do not speak up and say, ‘This is what I want,’” she said.

And opportunities for board seats don’t often come from search firms, Craig said.

“Instead, it will depend on your network within your own company, with organizations such as EWNJ, and with people you know from your not-for-profit boards, and your ability to get the word out there that you are interested in being on a board and asking the right people to help,” she said.

In Craig’s case, she expressed her interest to the CEO of Accenture.

“I had seen the Accenture board in action and was very interested in it, and ultimately it was his network that produced an opportunity for me,” she said.

Even if that meant being the only woman on a board.

“One time, when we were loading into a minibus to go to a board meeting, I was in a line of about six people and I got a tap on the shoulder from the person handling the logistics, who said, ‘We have a separate car for you,’” Craig said. “She thought I might be more comfortable, but I told her I would much rather be part of the conversation that was going to happen on the way to the board meeting.”

However, even prior to her first board seat, Craig was helping pull other women up with her.

“When Accenture went public in 2001, I was on the nominating committee for putting independent board members onto our brand-new board, and my assignment was to go out, find and interview the one woman for Accenture’s board,” she said. “I wasn’t in the C-suite then, but I called the CEO and said, ‘You have to add two.’ I had interviewed two impressive women from different industries with different skillsets and perspectives and it was the right thing to do. He met with them and agreed.

“All of us can speak up. If you’re at one of those companies in New Jersey that doesn’t have a single woman on its board, just start asking the question and I think we can make a difference.”

Willett especially encouraged those attending EWNJ’s event to speak up.

“We are looking for someone with a background in information technology, information security or cybersecurity, because we have an open board seat right now,” she said.

Pros and cons of quotas

A bill introduced in November 2018 by Assemblywomen Nancy J. Pinkin (D-Edison), Yvonne Lopez (D-Perth Amboy) and Angela V. McKnight (D-Jersey City) would make New Jersey the second state in the nation to mandate board diversity for publicly held corporations with executive offices in the state by December 2021, following California.

To comply with this law and avoid the hundreds of thousands of dollars in proposed fines, New Jersey companies would have to add 136 women to their boards over the next two years.

Linda Willett, senior vice president and general counsel for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey and president of the Women’s Forum of New York, said she at first was completely antagonistic toward quotas.

“There are so many fantastic women out there that can get on boards; why on earth should we have to have quotas?” she said. “But then I looked at countries with quotas, like the United Kingdom and Sweden, and saw how quickly women not only got on those boards but also brought other women along — and the companies did better financially.”

Still, quotas can have unintended consequences, said Pamela J. Craig, current board member at Merck & Co. and Progressive Insurance, former board member at Akamai Technologies and Walmart, and former chief financial officer of Accenture.

“In Norway, where they have 40% quotas, what has happened is that women have gone to boards and then there are not so many in the C-suite,” she said. “So, I actually think the most important thing is to develop women for the C-suite.”

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Meg Fry | mfry@roi-nj.com | megfry3