Diverse, Yes. Inclusive, No

As the first Latina ever appointed to this board, she decided to discreetly ask another director for advice on how to deport herself and get acclimatized within the group. He suggested she hang back; once she understood the board’s dynamics after several meetings, she should then gradually speak up.

All of which made sense, except that the pathbreaking director now believes the earnestly given tip only made the awkwardness of being a first on the board even worse. In her view, others quickly dismissed her capabilities. “There is an expectation you will make an immediate contribution, if you were selected to the board,” says Gloria Castillo, who recounted the director’s tale and is the CEO of Chicago United, a nonprofit that helps vet and develop corporate directors of color.

It’s no secret that the push to diversify boards is full-on these days, driven by new laws, activist shareholders, and a general awakening inside companies that they need a myriad of perspectives. But experts worry that the challenge of turning a homogenous group into a successfully diversified one gets far less attention—if any. Indeed, most firms struggle to roll out the red carpet to new directors, regardless of race. “It’s a difficult needle to thread,” warns Andrés Tapia, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and a specialist in diversity issues. “You don’t want the new director to feel like they are a token, or then go in the other direction and be overly solicitous and patronizing.”

To be sure, most companies continue to struggle to get more African American, Latino, or Asian representatives on their boards in the first place. According to most estimates, minorities make up less than 20% of the boards of the companies in the S&P 500. With numbers like these, many boards are still welcoming their first or second person of color, which Castillo says puts special pressure on the groundbreaker: that board member “has to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

To reduce that discomfort, experts say, more board chairs are consciously designing a welcoming process that focuses on collegiality with all new members, regardless of background, color, or gender. According to Tapia, that sends a message to the new director: we want you to feel comfortable, we value your input, and we will treat you the same way we treat all our board members.


Minority Directors: Three Identities

Korn Ferry's Andrés Tapia believes that African American, Latino/Latina, or Asian directors sitting on boards often fall into three archetypes:

  • Merit focused: This director insists they have been appointed solely on merit and doesn’t ever want to address or acknowledge racial issues.
  • Detached: This director is fully aware of racial issues, but wants to be known as a professional, not a minority spokesperson, and so often remains detached from the subject.
  • Spokesperson: This director embraces their ethnicity, recognizes that they have a responsibility to speak up for others who are still coming up, and has no problem taking full advantage of their board position to become the primary voice on diversity.

Still, many well-meaning board members from white, middle-class backgrounds are often unaware of the obstacles the new director has battled and overcome to earn a seat at the table. While the new director might smile and say smart things, they might also be struggling internally with negative voices or so-called imposter syndrome. Then what? “Rise above it,” says Kym Hubbard, former chief investment officer at Ernst & Young, who sits on two corporate boards, including PIMCO Funds. “Do your job. Have confidence you are unique and that’s why you were selected.”

Castillo suggests that a chair who wants to bypass the awkwardness that comes with appointing the first minority board member should appoint two diverse directors at the same time, or at least in rapid succession. That instantly demonstrates the firm’s commitment to diversity, it quickly changes the boardroom’s energy, and it eases the burden on the first appointee. “When you hit a critical mass of diversity on the board,” she says, “you get this increased energy and innovation, and really different questions being posed. Suddenly, all the benefits of diverse thinking display themselves.”