Why Board Service Matters

When BLACK ENTERPRISE published its first exclusive report on black board service in 1973, there were 72 African Americans serving on the boards of about 100 corporations. In the ensuing years, black Americans have established a small but growing presence on the boards of directors of our nation’s largest corporations. More than a few, such as Rev. Leon Sullivan of Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America (a director for General Motors who founded OIC), have distinguished themselves as true difference makers, changing for the better the way America and the world do business. The Sullivan Principles, a code of conduct adopted by GM and other major corporations, were critical to the ultimate transformation of South Africa through the dismantling of its racist apartheid policies.

As a current or former director of corporations including Aetna, DaimlerChrysler, Liggett & Myers, Rohm & Haas, American Airlines, and Macy’s Inc. (formerly Federated Department Stores), I know firsthand the difference it makes when there is true diversity of ideas, backgrounds, expertise, and experiences in the boardroom. Unfortunately, too many black directors believe that they were offered invitations to join corporate boards simply because they were smart and bring a certain expertise to the table, not because they stand on the shoulders of others who were willing to fight for the advancement of blacks in corporate America and the nation as a whole. Their position: they are on the board to serve the interests of the shareholders-period.

I agree that the primary duty of a director is to do what’s best for the company, to advocate for the best interests of shareholders. However, I passionately believe that this core duty serves as the stable foundation-not a ceiling of limitation-of board service. As directors, our duty to the corporations we serve and to the black people and communities impacted by those same corporations are the exact opposite of mutually exclusive concepts, especially in today’s rapidly changing, culturally diverse, global economy. Those of us priviliged to serve as corporate directors are duty-bound to be truly involved in the companies we serve, moving past mere fiduciary tokenism to true representation of the black employees, customers, clients, suppliers, and shareholders critical to the corporation’s success.

We can’t afford to be silent (remember, many of us own stock in these corporations, either directly or through our IRAs, 401(k)s, and mutual funds); we must be vocal about corporate diversity policies as they relate to recruiting and developing management talent and procurement spending. We need to know our companies beyond the 10-K reports and governance policies. For example, black board members should engage employees and managers-including, but certainly not limited to, black people-at every level of the company. We should also get to know the heads of the corporations’ respective employee associations and be familiar with the issues of importance to their memberships.

Indeed, times have changed since blacks were first invited into corporate boardrooms more than four decades ago. The days of civil rights leaders, church pastors, former politicians, and other such prominent blacks being placed