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5 Questions for Deborah Soon

May 26, 2005

Deborah Soon
Vice president of executive leadership initiatives at Catalyst

Last month Catalyst, which works with businesses to develop opportunities for women, teamed up with the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility and the Executive Leadership Council to launch the Alliance for Board Diversity. The goal of the organization is to help companies identify minority and female candidates for their boards. Only 16.7 percent of board seats at Fortune 100 companies are held by women, and only 14.9 percent of board seats are held by minorities. Soon talked to Workforce Management staff writer Jessica Marquez.

Workforce Management: Why are women and minorities so underrepresented on boards?

Deborah Soon: I think the issue has been with the process used to find candidates. It was a matter of who do you know in your personal network and who are you comfortable with. The people that the board members were comfortable with were those that had shared experiences, and those tended to be white men. But if you want to combat groupthinking, you have to go outside the group.

WM: Have you seen this issue in your own career?

Soon: When I was CEO of Larscom (a telecommunications company Verilink bought in 2004) I faced this as I was putting the board together. It’s difficult finding people because they aren’t always visible. You can’t necessarily find them in Securities and Exchange Commission filings because they only list the top five executives at the companies. These are men and women that are in multimillion-dollar business units and have a lot to offer, but are not always visible.

WM: What should companies do to find these candidates?

Soon: If they decide to work with a search firm, they have to be very clear about what skills and experience they want. The Alliance for Board Diversity is acting as a resource for search firms and for companies at no charge to help find candidates. CEOs also can nominate their own people, which helps overcome the anxiety that boards often have about taking people with no board experience. The issue with that, however, is that CEOs often don’t want to stretch their best people too far. Human resources executives can help by making this part of the succession planning process. They could help identify which executives are ready for the board.

WM: Do you think companies are putting in the effort to diversify their boards?

Soon: We certainly see it. Look at professional search firms. They used to do a very small piece of board searches; now it has boomed leaps and bounds. We are getting more requests than before.

WM: Are you seeing progress?

Soon: There are 10 companies on the Fortune 100 that have minorities in 50 percent or more of their board seats. That’s good news.

Workforce Management, June 2005, p. 18 -- Subscribe Now!