Guest Columns

All over the map: Factoring geography into board diversity

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James Gauss
James Gauss

Long-term care and other healthcare organizations are looking to diversify the membership of their boards of directors, and rightly so. Increasingly, diversity is a cornerstone of board health and success. It is critically important that trustees offer diverse and distinct viewpoints, as well as represent the varied constituencies which they serve. Boards have moved well beyond “diversity for diversity's sake.”

Board diversity initiatives typically emphasize gender, race and ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and even skill sets. Achieving these types of diversity — sometimes all at once — is a challenge, however. Increasingly, boards must look beyond their own back yards to find qualified new members who fulfill multiple criteria. In other words, out-of-community trustees are in.

This emphasis on geographical diversity breaks from tradition, when boards turned first to pillars of their communities. The rationale was that local board members have a personal stake in the work they do and, from a logistical perspective, can easily attend meetings and stay abreast of board activity. These sentiments still apply, and boards will always depend upon committed community citizens.

Looking Beyond

But there is an increasing number of reasons that healthcare boards must recruit regionally and even nationally. By doing so boards can gain:

  • Objectivity. Out-of-community members are not encumbered by the history and politics of a particular organization, thus bring a neutral, outsider's perspective to the boardroom.
  • A national perspective. While “all healthcare is local,” the influence of government regulation and national trends is greater than ever. Whether it is understanding the nuances of the Affordable Care Act, industry consolidation, or shifting market conditions, long-term care organizations need board members who know what's happening from coast to coast.
  • “Survival” skills and competencies. Fifteen years ago, healthcare boards did not recruit members for select business skills. It's an imperative today, as organizations prioritize: a) survival; and b) positioning themselves to succeed in a more cut-throat, consumer-driven healthcare market. To recruit trustees with essential strategic skills and competencies (for example, M&A, finance, IT, and regulatory expertise), boards must cast a wider—even nationwide—net.

Thinking Outside the Community

How does a board begin to expand its geographic reach in recruiting new members? The following are a few suggestions:

  1. Keep an open mind. First, make sure your board is ready to consider candidates from afar who look, speak, and act differently than your current board members. Recalibrate your traditional notions of what a board member should be.  
  2. Audit your current composition. Assessing the board's chemistry and competencies against the organization's strategic needs can highlight gaps and the need to aggressively recruit members with specific talents (often from outside the community).
  3. Consider multiple candidates for open positions.Having to present several viable options forces a board to look farther afield for qualified individuals.
  4. Mine a broad network of contacts. Reach out to peers across the industry for their suggestions regarding who might be a good fit for your needs. Keep track of promising candidates should more spots on your board open in the future.
  5. Promote open positions in national publications and outlets. Don't assume talented people in other states and regions won't have an interest in your board, even if it is a voluntary arrangement. If it fulfills them and helps their careers, ambitious professionals will come.
  6. Use executive search consultants. Recruiters and search consultants make it our business to know board candidates with specific skills and aspirations, and can serve as a valuable resource and objective partner in recruitment.  

Enlightened boards — which I feel are the majority these days — are seeing the need for a very different skill set and makeup than they have had in the past. In pursuing membership diversity, they must literally expand their horizons.

James W. Gauss is chairman of the Board Services practice at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. He has more than three decades of experience advising board members and CEOs on best practices in governance, leadership transition and succession planning. He can be contacted at jimg@wittkieffer.com.

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