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With Board Service Comes Responsibility

"It is not your job to sit quietly on the board...."

For five years our editors have developed the annual report on boardroom power to examine whether corporate America embraces true diversity and inclusion at the highest level. As such, we have produced the BLACK ENTERPRISE Registry of Corporate Directors—our exclusive roster of African Americans who sit on the boards of the nation’s largest corporations.

To give an accurate picture of the composition of America’s boardrooms, we have expanded the universe. This year, we examined the entire S&P 500—an index based on market capitalization—up from the top 300 S&P companies that we evaluated last year. Amazingly, we discovered an even greater percentage of corporations have not made a commitment to black representation on their boards. In 2017, 70% of the S&P 300 have black board members and only 60% of the S&P 500 have black corporate directors. While there has been a slight increase in high-profile appointments of blacks at Silicon Valley-based tech companies, the overall diverse representation at all such companies is still woefully lacking.

Make no mistake about it, corporate directors represent the most powerful participants in corporate America. They play pivotal roles in overseeing companywide policies, issues, and strategies of the CEO and senior management team that impact both internal and external stakeholders.

(A collage of board directors and members. Image: File)

It is just as important to ensure that major corporations populate boards with proactive African Americans. When an African American can be found on a board, he or she is usually one or two seats on a body composed of anywhere from 10 to 12 directors. I’m here to challenge all black board members with the specific responsibility to voice issues of concern that affect African Americans across the board. Our fiduciary responsibility is a given. As an African American corporate director, you hold a greater responsibility to unapologetically advocate on behalf of African Americans to ensure our greater participation in senior management, the supply chain, and professional services such as the “protected classes” of legal, accounting, and asset management services. Likewise, it is your duty to ensure that an equitable share of corporate marketing dollars is directed toward African American media as well as philanthropic organizations and causes.

John Rogers, a corporate director for McDonald’s and Exelon as well as co-founder of the Black Corporate Directors Conference, said, “If we don’t speak out, nothing will change because the traditional leadership has other agendas. They’re not thinking about us unless we remind them of how important it is, and hold them accountable for the commitment and promises they’ve made about diversity and inclusion.”

So it is not your job to sit quietly on the board, collect a handsome paycheck, company stock, and countless corporate perks to allow the CEO and senior management—all of whom answer to you—to perpetuate the status quo. I have served on an array of corporate boards throughout my business career and have often told African Americans coming on boards that corporate America did not run out of smart white people to put on boards. African American board members must be so vocal and relentless that they are prepared to walk in harm’s way or lose their seat.

Your voice matters. In some cases, one corporate director can have global impact. As the only member on the board of General Motors in the 1970s and 1980s, the late civil rights activist Rev. Leon Sullivan used his position to push for and institute “The Sullivan Principles,”—guidelines for corporate America to campaign against South Africa’s apartheid regime. His activism led to scores of corporations divesting from the nation and eventually dismantling its segregationist policies.

Use your board seat for its intended purpose: To challenge the CEO and management to make the company in which you serve better. Quite frankly, if you’re unwilling to take on that responsibility, do your stakeholders a favor by relinquishing your position and giving your seat to someone more deserving.

 

For our “Power in the Boardroom” package, click here.

For the list of companies with black directors, click here.

For the 2017 B.E. Registry of Corporate Directors, click here.