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Supporting boardroom diversity

A conversation with former Deloitte Global CEO Punit Renjen

How do leading organizations harness the power of gender diversity in the boardroom and continue closing the parity gap? A candid conversation between former Deloitte Global CEO Punit Renjen and Maheran Ahmad, Deloitte’s Southeast Asia Diversity, Equity & Inclusion lead on where we stand today globally with boardroom diversity and how leading organizations can build and nurture a supportive environment for a more diverse boardroom.

Read our latest Women in the boardroom report for country-by-country breakdowns, along with insights and opinions from top experts and board leaders.

Maheran Ahmad: As you know, Deloitte Global recently released its seventh edition of Women in the Boardroom: A global perspectiveThe study shows that the percentage of women in the boardroom is increasing but at a very modest growth rate—a global average of 19.7% of board seats are held by women, an increase of 2.8% since 2018 compared with a 1.9% increase from 2016 to 2018. Would you interpret this as encouraging or discouraging, or a bit of both?

Punit Renjen: Thank you, Maheran. I’m encouraged by the evolution we’re seeing, but clearly, progress is lagging, particularly in some of the geographies within Asia and the Middle East. Advancement toward gender parity is not yet where it needs to be.

That said, the benefits of board diversity are well established, and I think more people are coming around to that. In my experience, boards that are more diverse and inclusive have a significant advantage in three key areas: talent, purpose, innovation.

First, a board that champions diversity can better advise management on the talent strategies needed to attract the best people. Second, a clearly articulated purpose signals an organization’s commitment to deliver value beyond profit for all its stakeholders. And having a board with diverse perspectives is critical to helping deliver on that commitment. When discussions are informed by diverse perspectives, they tend to broaden the board’s thinking overall and create dialogue that is more purposeful and deliberate. Additionally, a diverse board that is sensitive to cultural differences is usually one that has a stronger capacity to attract and retain talented board members—as well as be in touch with community needs.

Finally, I have seen many studies that correlate female board representation with greater innovation, thus enhancing financial performance in innovation-intensive industries. All of this together ultimately results in stronger financial performance.

Maheran: Thank you. To be candid, there has been some criticism that some organizations are seeking to increase board diversity for diversity’s sake. Do you think that’s valid, and how can organizations demonstrate that their commitment to diversity is truly a meaningful one?

Punit: There has been much debate in academia, and certainly the media, on whether implementing quotas on boards is the most effective way to achieve greater parity. That’s one way to potentially achieve some diversity. But to effect meaningful change, you must look at more than just the mix of members on the board. You have to examine the organization’s culture and processes to determine whether they truly support the building of a diverse and inclusive board, in both executive and nonexecutive roles.

At Deloitte, we have been lucky. We have many talented female leaders who are both qualified and willing to serve on the boards of our global businesses and member firms. In fact, several of our member firms have exceeded a 50% ratio in terms of board gender parity—which is great. But what makes those numbers meaningful is that we are doing the work behind the scenes to transform our culture.

Maheran: As a male, what advice would you give to women aspiring to serve on boards? Particularly, to up and coming leaders for whom this may be a long-term career aspiration?

Punit: I would say, go for it! It’s a great experience that will pay dividends in terms of leadership development. But serving on a board is a significant time commitment and requires a good deal of preparation. So, first and foremost, my advice would be to think carefully about how you will balance board participation with your other career goals and commitments. Then, be intentional. Start your planning early and find a really good mentor who can support you through this journey and advocate for you when you are not in the room. Think carefully about the kind of expertise you can bring to the table and what career decisions you can make now to help you better articulate your value later.

Also, never underestimate the power of networking. The Deloitte US firm cofounded an organization, OnBoarding Women, to help connect women with peer mentors who can provide advice and guidance on these types of opportunities. Take advantage of it. And don’t shy away from opportunities to start small. Whether it’s a startup, a local community-based nonprofit board, or a curated community, network with purpose and insert yourself strategically into situations where your talent and experience will get noticed.

Maheran: What do you personally value the most as a leader and member of several boards throughout your career?

Punit: I would say integrity, first and foremost.Leaders who demonstrate integrity earn the trust of their colleagues and clients authentically. They aren’t afraid of the truth, and they stand up for what they believe in. I think this creates a foundation for the kind of long-lasting relationships that inspire loyalty and are productive and profitable.

Secondly, I think the ability to take the long view is crucial. You have to be able to see the big picture of where your organization or team is headed and what it will take to get there. Board leaders should be visionaries who can anticipate and take action to get ahead of future trends that will impact the organization’s clients, people, and communities.

Maheran: Was there a positive or negative defining—or memorable—moment for you? A particular challenge or an uncomfortable situation?

Punit: For me, the most memorable moment was when I was first appointed Deloitte Global CEO and was empowered—with the support of many, including the board—to clearly articulate our organization’s purpose and aspiration for all our people. It is exhilarating to communicate your vision and have it be met with excitement. But executing and holding yourself and your colleagues accountable for realizing the vision is where the real reward lies.

For example, when I realized that Deloitte was not meeting our aspirational goals around diversity—particularly gender diversity—I knew we had to act. This was the impetus behind launching our ALL IN diversity and inclusion strategy. ALL IN is focused not only on trying to ensure that all Deloitte people live the organization’s values, but that they understand the value of building an inclusive culture. That they embrace their responsibility as leaders to prioritize inclusion. And that they hold themselves accountable for implementing specific interventions designed to help achieve Deloitte’s diversity goals.

Maheran: I have one last question: Boards are more actively involved in issues of employee protection, climate and sustainability, racial and socioeconomic quality, and more. How does all of this challenge the traditional mindset of the board to provide oversight and not get too involved in the running of the business?

Punit: We are living in a time of significant disruption and change—socially, economically, and technologically. Board members have an important role to play in guiding transformation, challenging the basic assumptions of organizations, and helping to foster a positive and dynamic culture of exploration and experimentation.

In the past, the board functioned to institute checks and balances. Now, board service is about considering the broader aspects of ethics, values, and corporate culture. Yes, there are still the formal duties demanded by shareholders with regard to corporate governance and fiduciary responsibility. But these days, boards are—and should be—expected to think boldly, champion creativity, and support management by asking challenging questions that drive leadership through intention. We need women’s contributions on boards—from developing strategy, to improving corporate social responsibility, to monitoring management. It’s long past time that boards embraced their responsibility to advance gender parity.

As the world and the workplace become more diverse, everyone has a role to play in building organizational cultures that facilitate high performance and trust. But it has to start at the top.

For more insights, please visit our Global Women in Boardroom report.

About the Deloitte Global Boardroom Program

The Deloitte Global Boardroom Program brings together the knowledge and experience of Deloitte firms around the world to address critical topics of universal interest to company boards and the C-suite. Supplementing geography programs, its mission is to promote dialogue among Deloitte practitioners, corporations and their boards and management, investors, the accounting profession, academia, and government. In addition to the publication of thought-pieces on critical topics, the Deloitte Global Boardroom Program hosts a series of must-see webinar discussions with eminent speakers to enable boards and management of global companies to challenge perceived wisdom. For more information about the program contact globalboardroomprogram@deloitte.com.

The authors would like to thank Dan Konisburg, Kevin Tracey, Julia Rutherford, and Claire Hassett for their contributions to this article.

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