Actually, the Pool Is Quite Deep

“Dick Costolo, Twitter’s chief executive, has prioritized finding a woman to be on the board, but has found it difficult.”

“The issue isn’t the intention, the issue is just the paucity of candidates.”

“… the pool for board-qualified women in technology is shallow …”

“There is definitely a supply-side problem.” So asserts Twitter’s Chief Technology Officer, Adam Messinger when asked about women on boards …

New York Times, October 5, 2013

Wow. Where to begin?

Let’s start with a fact: There are fewer women then men who write and debug software code for a living. No denying that.

Now an observation: Having been in many, many board meetings over the years as a director, and other times as an adviser, I have never, not even once, been in a meeting where at any time, even for five minutes, any board member of any gender was asked to give a company directive in machine language, scratch out a decision policy in Ruby on Rails or, for that matter, code anything at all in any language.


Image copyright hxdbzxy

Most of the meetings I have attended have called on board members to ask questions, make introductions, discuss potential acquisitions or acquisition inquiries and, most importantly, to debate and discuss product strategies, marketing plans, management challenges, compensation structures, financial progress, financing options, investment decisions, how to deal with Wall Street and short- and long-term business goals.

None of these topics requires a CS degree or years in the CTO’s office. Tech companies may well choose to have some engineering prowess on the board, but companies with nothing but technical directors will, in all likelihood, lose out to companies strategically advised by those with a diverse set of opinions, perspectives and experiences.

The problem isn’t a “shallow pool” of qualified candidates; it’s a dearth of high-profile individuals with the right skill set. The real question is how many companies are building boards to provide actual advice versus how many are looking to put impressive, “A-list” names on a list. Sure, it would help any organization to have Marissa or Sheryl on the board, but as genuinely gifted as those two leaders are, they are not the only females in the Valley with demonstrable talent for thinking strategically, solving problems creatively, analyzing financial performance, negotiating terms and perhaps most importantly, assessing management skills.

The blame for misguided myopia does not rest solely with management teams of tech companies, or even with their existing boards. The problem, or the “need a rock star” mindset is pervasive in the executive recruiter industry, too. Willingness to consider a proven executive who doesn’t already sit on a board is hard to find.

Speaking from personal experience, I was fortunate enough to be a board member and committee chair for a Nasdaq-listed company some years back. During that time, I received multiple inquiries about my interest in joining other boards, but as the first one required a substantial time commitment, and as I had a day job, I declined. Eventually, our company caught the attention of a few private equity firms and then some strategic partners as well. After a period of active negotiation and a resultant significant bump in the price, we were acquired in what all considered a very successful exit. After the dissolution of that board, my name fell off the “active director” list, and the board inquiry hotline went silent. I relate all this only as one first-hand view of how the board selection process often works.

Women aren’t on boards in Silicon Valley because the half dozen who regularly get the call are busy, and no one is asking the rest. Yet far from shallow, the actual pool of viable candidates is deep with CMOs, CFOs, those with capital market expertise, product managers, general managers and a whole host of others who could bring talent, perspective and useful know-how to any board.

Not every company needs representation from every demographic, and selecting a board just to get the right mix of faces for the annual report photo is a disservice to investors and management alike. When Facebook came under pressure for having an all-male board, it was truly a tempest in a teapot. Mark Zuckerberg had clearly surrounded himself with a management team packed with powerful women charged with actually running various aspects of the business on a day-to-day basis. That inarguable fact — coupled with the company’s dual-class stock structure that insures that the board can offer opinions, suggestions and guidance, but has no real decision making power — made the howling for a woman representative on Facebook’s board a distracting sideshow.

However, companies run and advised by a homogeneous band of brothers, and those where the board vote really can swing policy, are a completely different story. In those cases, it’s not okay that the existing board looks the other way with a shrug proclaiming that it’s too hard to find talented candidates.

None of this is to say that every single board needs representation from both genders or from every other demographic profile. What is being said is that those companies that claim to want to diversify, particularly those with products that are as often used by one gender as the other, should try a little harder. The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.

A company that actually wanted to could fix the problem in no time by hiring talent, not title.

Lise Buyer is the founding Principal of the Class V Group, a former Director of Business Optimization for Google and a Google Founders’ Award recipient.

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