Strength in diversity

By: Jane Buchan, Kathleen Camilli, Sarah Davis and Judy Goldring • March 8, 2019 • Special Feature

The women on AGF’s Board of Directors recently participated in a special roundtable to discuss what makes a successful board, providing a number of insights from their experience.

Questions and answers that follow have been edited for clarity and length.

What makes a board of directors successful?

Judy Goldring (JG): Attracting really top quality talent is key, but, in addition to that, diversity is critically important. AGF currently has four women on our ten-person board and the dialogue and tenor of discussion that occurs with that kind of a mix is materially different than other boards that I've previously sat on where the members are predominantly men.

Jane Buchan (JB): I totally agree with what Judy says. What I have found over the years is that when you get more women involved, the nature of the discussion completely changes for the better.

Sarah Davis (SD): When I think about what represents a good board there are four key qualities that are essential. The first is diversity of thought and that can be achieved by more equal gender representation as well as through differing ethnicities and geographical and/or cultural backgrounds. Second, a board needs to operate with integrity and transparency. Third, there needs to be a focus on managing risk and the fourth key element is making sure performance is measured. All of these functions are enhanced when a board is more diversified.

Kathleen Camilli (KC): Globalization has resulted in a diverse labour force across the G20 economies and also a diverse investor base. As board members, that’s who we represent, so it's only natural that we see an evolution towards more diversity in the boardroom in terms of gender and ethnicity. The all-white, all-male board will be part of history as we go through this process, but we still have a lot more work to do.


Based on your own experiences as board members, what is it that each of you brings to the table?

JB: I just retired from running a US$32-billion asset management firm and have a lot of experience in the institutional investment world here in the United States. In particular, I have a very strong background in the alternatives [investment asset class] space.

SD: I’ve spent most of my career in finance and have experience working at large Canadian corporate companies and family-controlled businesses as well. So, whether it be an audit committee, compensation committee or governance committee, my professional background allows me to contribute in a number of different ways.

KC: I spent 25 years as a Wall Street economist serving the institutional investor community and have also been trained within the U.S. Federal Reserve system. Because of that, I can offer a perspective on what's happening in the U.S. economy and also some expertise and forecasting related to the business cycle. At the same time, having started my own firm 15 years ago, I can bring an entrepreneurial perspective to the table and try to stay on the cutting edge of changes in technology, such as artificial intelligence that can be disruptive to a business like AGF.

JG: As a management executive, I do my best to contribute to the strategic direction of the company, but I'm also a lawyer by background so add value in that regard as well.

Has the pace of change on diversity initiatives been fast enough?

KC: In the U.S., we've had very few states that have moved forward to mandate diverse boards. Among S&P 500 companies, for example, women still only represent about 17 percent of all board positions and the needle on that hasn't really moved in about 15 years. So it’s been very slow.

JB: There are still a lot of companies with very few women on boards. In California, a bill was signed into law last September to have at least one female director for each public company headquartered in California by 2019 and have two or three depending on the size of the board, by the end of 2020.

JG: In Canada too, there is growing sentiment that change is not happening fast enough. Publicly-traded companies are now required to disclose their policy regarding board diversity, but if they aren’t hitting the target, they only need to be able explain why. So, it’s more of a disclosure regime that we have here rather than a quota system that mandates a fixed number of women be on a board as is the case in some European countries like Norway.


Are quotas necessary to move the needle further?

JG: I never used to believe in quotas but maybe we need to consider them now – even if it is a trial period – in order to force more effective change.

SD: I’m with Judy. I was sort of anti-target [i.e. quota] as well, but if nothing actually happens naturally, than maybe there needs to be a little bit more force involved.

KC: I’m also not a big proponent of quotas, but these changes are slow in coming and perhaps that is the way to achieve it. Employees get frustrated not being able to see themselves in a boardroom.


How else can greater board diversity be achieved?

KC: In addition to legislation, another way to tackle the issue is through proxy voting and the institutional investor community in the U.S. is starting to take a more aggressive stance in this area. Some of the world’s largest asset managers have publicly said they will vote against companies that don't have a certain percentage of women on the board.

SD: What companies can also do is definitely look at hiring and promoting practices. This is where you can really make a difference that leads to a more diverse organization, including at the board level. For instance, who's the interviewer? Is it always a male? Does the company have a natural, unconscious bias where they always like to hire people in their own image? If so, it’s important to understand these biases and strive for ways to change the process.

JB: There still seems to be a very strong preference, at least in the U.S., for choosing people who have gone to certain schools, or have certain credentials, or have very similar career paths. Picking from a more diversified pool that includes self-made entrepreneurs, or people who worked their way through university can help provide the type of diverse perspective that is needed on a board.

KC: There is a generational aspect to all of this too. I recently joined the board of a crypto asset exchange in Chicago that was founded by two young entrepreneurs age 24 out of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Diversity doesn’t seem to be an issue for them – they chose three senior women to be on their board and have a highly diverse workforce.

JG: Ultimately there needs to be the culture and desire to make change happen. It was a conscious effort to ensure we brought on very talented women who could bring depth and a different thought process to AGF’s board. As a result, we were one of the earliest companies in Canada to hit a 30 percent target of women on boards.


Are there at least more opportunities as a woman to become a board member today than in the past?

KC: There is a lot more potential for board positions to open up in the U.S. given some of the legislation we’ve talked about, but during the past five years, I would say there hasn't been much movement in this regard. If anything there seem to be more opportunities with smaller and/or privately owned companies, but for whatever reason, that’s not as true at many of the top, larger companies in the country.

SD: I would say opportunities on some boards in Canada are still reserved for men, but overall, I definitely think there are more opportunities for women now.

What advice would you give other women interested in becoming a board member of an organization?

JB: Most people don't get plucked out of thin air and start on a big corporate board. Normally, you spend some time on a charity board and/or some other type of smaller-sized board. But I can't tell you the number of times that I've seen really good women pass up these opportunities. So, the first thing to do is not to say no when you're asked.

KC: I would add that we do have the phenomenon in the U.S. known as the “golden skirts”, whereby the same few women are the ones always being invited to be on boards. This is a bit of laziness on the part of the recruiters who also have a tendency to focus their search solely on female CEOs. So, it's up to them as well to recognize that there are plenty of women of diverse talent, not just in the C-suite, who are very capable of serving on a board.

SD: I think women who are open to being on a board too often wait to be asked instead of being proactive. It’s important to let companies know or the headhunting firms they employ that you’re interested and available. Furthermore, if you do join a board, make sure that you put in the time and put your full energy into it.

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