Expand Your Board’s Borders

By Jim King

Most healthcare boards have a goal of greater diversity and broader representation among their members. In its 2019 National Health Care Governance Survey Report, the American Hospital Association noted that, while board diversity is increasing in the industry, progress is extremely slow. According to AHA, for instance, 87 percent of today’s healthcare board members are Caucasian, while 70 percent are male.

A recent report jointly produced by WittKieffer and the Health Management Academy found that there is a significant disconnect between boards’ diversity goals and their implementation. I encourage you to read Governance & Executive Leadership Trends Across Leading Health Systems for ideas on creating change.

There are a host of ways that boards can begin to successfully address issues of board diversity – among them, setting term limits to increase turnover, expanding how roles are defined, paying members for their service (or increasing their current stipend). I believe one of the most direct opportunities is for each board to expand its geographical reach. Only 26% of boards that AHA surveyed had members outside of their organization’s service area. (This is especially notable for subsidiary and freestanding boards, and less so for system boards.)

Expanding a board’s geographic horizons can be a key to enhancing its diversity. For one thing, it gives the board greater access to qualified women, minority and younger candidates. Candidates from afar also bring fresh perspectives on health issues faced by a given community, business issues faced by the organization, and also may represent critical skills and competencies (e.g., cybersecurity, M&A) that today’s boards need. Going out-of-community is a way for boards to go outside their comfort zones.

The following are suggestions that boards should consider as they look farther and wider for new members:

  1. Rethink your expectations. Going beyond your typical sphere of member recruitment means that you’ll likely consider candidates who look, speak or think differently than your current members. Be open to this opportunity to engage with candidates who don’t necessarily fit the mold of your current membership. New types of members may bring more friction into board proceedings, but that’s not a bad thing.
  2. Consider more candidates. Quite simply, the more candidates you consider, the greater the likelihood that you’ll be able to find those who fit the strategic and diversity goals of your board. Resist the temptation to place the first qualified person who comes along for a new role.
  3. Reach out to personal contacts. Make use of your leadership team’s networks across the industry and in industries (e.g., technology) that align with your expertise needs. A note to your LinkedIn connections is a good starting point.
  4. Advertise broadly. Promote your open positions in national or industrywide publications. You might be surprised at the interest or nominations that come in.
  5. Enlist a search firm. I am obviously biased in this view, but reputable recruiters have broad and deep connections nationally (and even globally) and are expert in uncovering candidates your organization may not be able to identify on its own.

As your board considers members from far and wide, remember that bringing more diversity to your board is not a perfect science. What is important is moving in the direction of broader representation of individuals and ideas, which will ultimately lead to a stronger, more productive board.

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