"Prior experience as a CEO" = "only white men need apply"

by Julie Graber | on 22 Sep 2020

In an recent interview for CNBC, former Xerox-chief, Ursula Burns, called on companies to broaden their selection criteria for board members and to stop screening out anyone who hasn’t been a CEO. “It's a fallacy and a structural form of racism and exclusion, Burns said, “to say that the only people who can actually participate are people that have this very narrow set of skills” (or job title in this case).

Burns accurately pointed out that “you can probably count on two hands the number of candidates you’ll get that are diverse” using prior experience as a CEO (or board director) as a screening tool. And boards that do so, knowing how few Blacks (and women and people of color) will be able to meet this requirement, might as well just say only white men need apply.

I have a similar frustration when a board search crosses my desk. If I see it, it means the board has either sought (or agreed to review) the bios of women to fill the position. But frequently the qualifications included in the search are so over the top that they seem aimed at ensuring that no women (or men for that matter) will fit the bill. And since we rarely have enough information to track the search through to the actual board appointment (sometimes we don't even have the company name), we are left to wonder how closely the successful candidate came to matching the long list of must haves. 

My guess is not so much. General research on hiring suggests that final selections often come down to “fit” vs. specific skills and experience. We hire people like us - people who share our characteristics and interests. We, in fact, will overlook a candidate’s lack of specific qualifications if we feel some other sense of connection with the person during the screening process. Sometimes it's as basic as "would we go have a drink with this person?" 

It undoubtedly doesn’t help that we apply different standards to men and women when evaluating their suitability for a leadership position. Research shows that men are judged primarily on the potential they show - the ability to grow into a role or to develop specific skills while “on the job.” Women (and I suspect, people of color) are held to a different standard - one of past performance. Women are expected to already have the skills and experience they will need to be successful in a role before they are even considered. We want them to have a track record that proves they can do the job - thus the “prior experience as a CEO” conundrum. 

Like Burns, advocates for greater diversity are asking boards to expand the scope of their searches and be more innovative in their thinking about who will make a good board member. We want boards to be more creative in understanding how skills could transfer and more thoughtful in considering what different perspectives might bring to the table. We also want them to understand how old ways of thinking about who is suitable for a role only serves the status quo. 

And the status quo is no longer acceptable. 

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