iQ Interview Series: Marie Kennedy on Corporate Boards and DEI

March 29, 2023
By iQ Staff
iQ interview series with Marie

iQ 360's Interview Series asks leaders in our network to share their experiences, expertise and insights on the future of their industry.

Senior communications consultant Marie Kennedy has a breadth of corporate communications experience encompassing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB); cyber security emergency response; health care; biotech; product planning and more. She has decades of experience on nonprofit boards, including National Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), California CASA Association, The Amgen Foundation, Genentech Foundation for Biomedical Sciences and The Lily Project.

Below, Marie shares her thoughts on the shifting value of DEI for boards of directors and how to get started at your organization.   

 

What is the number one piece of advice you give to boards who may be thinking about DEI issues for the first time?

I would advise them to move with a sense of urgency and just begin. Any DEI initiative needs to be approached thoughtfully and systemically but there is no better time than now to get started. This journey does not have a finite ending — it is an ongoing discussion and learning practice. The process is sometimes uncomfortable as it will bring to light an organization’s unconscious bias, but it will ultimately be a journey of belonging.

As BoardSource1 says, “exceptional boards embrace the qualities of a continuous learning organization, evaluating their own performance and assessing the value they add to the organization.”

Increasingly, boards are scrutinized from an ESG standpoint. Just as leadership requires DEI training in staff development, the hiring of a Chief Diversity Officer, and the establishment of employee resource groups, the board must ask the same of itself. Ideally, board diversity and structure become one of the top governance priorities for any organization.

 

How much of embracing DEI is related to an organization’s culture?

Exceptional boards uphold the mission and values of their organizations. It is still rare, however, that boards reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. Having representation at the board level helps ensure that an organization is equipped to make good decisions and sidestep reputational risks.

It is hard to imagine an organization in today’s world where DEI and belonging are not integral to culture. The commitment will spur a cycle of intentional belonging, where the mission and vision feed a meaningful and productive culture, and vice versa.

 

How do you help boards inspire meaningful change?

Ultimately, the board chair, a board DEI champion, and the CEO will need to be committed and excited about proactive initiatives that incorporate DEI and belonging into mission and values. Also, cultural transformation must be positioned as an essential enabler of growth and value creation.

For boards that are willing to do the continuous learning, there will be a moment in time acknowledging that meaningful change is required to achieve success. To choose to start the DEI journey proactively will be inspirational in and of itself.

To approach DEI initiatives in response to a crisis is a flawed approach. If a board and/or its organization’s leadership are facing stakeholder concerns about its DEI policies and programs, you are no longer controlling the narrative and are now in an issues management response mode. Taking time to focus on DEI then becomes an urgent priority, which is way more time-consuming and less effective than a proactive approach. As suggested earlier, DEI initiatives are a journey so there are few quick fixes. If concerns are raised, stakeholders expect to see immediate results and change which is not realistic. A short-term response requires decision making with limited data and sets up the board and organization for stakeholder disappointment in the immediate future.

The ultimate inspiration will be the board’s shared experience and exposure to new ways of doing business in developing its focus on ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) policy. For prioritized ESG initiatives, several approaches can bring the expertise into the board room. The board recruitment process can identify potential board candidates with the needed expertise. Hiring a consultant can also be helpful to advance the initiatives and ensure the work is getting the attention required. And collaboration with and learning directly from the organization’s ESG leaders and experts creates strong worthwhile partnerships.

 

“Research makes it clear that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially.”

 

Finally, “the increasingly clear link between board diversity and business performance” can also inspire an embrace of equity and inclusion initiatives. “Research makes it clear that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially,” as stated in the McKinsey Report, “Diversity Wins, How Inclusion Matters.”2 There is evidence that inclusion is closely linked to employee engagement, itself in turn a critical component of employee retention, productivity and financial performance.

Clients and customers will increasingly demand that their vendor/partner teams are staffed with a diverse group that reflects their own company and communities. Also, approaching problem solving with a diversity of thought can lead to breakthroughs and innovation for any industry.

 

What is the biggest challenge that boards face right now?

With the heightened emphasis on ESG, prioritizing what once was considered optional work while meeting other pressing governance and financial responsibilities will continue to tax today’s boards. Therefore, mission and values become even more central to the decision-making process.

Specific to DEI initiatives, challenges are a) Ensuring purposeful follow-through on diversity pledges, and b) Ensuring that the work creates a meaningful culture shift in the board room and the organization.

Any given board will consist of a range of DEI experience. Acknowledging and addressing the varied mindsets that everyone brings to the table is always an early priority.

 

How does the economy impact DEI initiatives?

DEI done well brings value that is unrelated to the economy and is an investment in the future. In fact, robust DEI and belonging initiatives can help organizations navigate tough economic times thanks to leadership having a finger on the pulse when it comes to staff morale and sentiment. Overall, organizations that practice inclusion foster cultures that result in talent retention when times are tough.

DEI programs will no doubt face extra scrutiny when budgets are tight. Effective success metrics will continuously prove their value and ensure future funding.

 

How do you activate DEI work?

DEI initiatives require the same systemic, business-led approach as any other meaningful initiative or governance requirement.

  1. The board chair must be supportive of the work, the board development committee needs to have DEI goals in its board appointments and expectations, and either a DEI committee or task force should be established for ongoing support and engagement.
  2. Importantly, the organization’s CEO must also be a champion and have a link to and similar expectations of its executive leadership team.
  3. Goals, objectives, required resources, timelines and success metrics need to be developed, vetted and confirmed as part of a strategic plan. Portions of the work may require board votes such as adoption of new bylaws or policies.
  4. An assessment to determine a data-driven benchmark to measure progress should be established. That data set will vary according to DEI priorities. It is important that the goals are not about diversity for diversity’s sake but focused on the value of diverse thought at the decision-making table and achieving more representation.

A cautionary note: keep it simple at the onset. Small steps will help generate momentum and progress. Working with a professional DEI consultancy is a helpful first step in shifting momentum, particularly when the naysayers are loud.

 

Interested in more insights from Marie? Read our 2020 interview with her on health care communications during the pandemic.

 

1BoardSource, The Source: Twelve Principles That Power Exceptional Boards, ©2005

2McKinsey & Company, Diversity Wins, How Inclusion Matters, May 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters#/