Get on board: Three traits of an effective board of directors

By Kevin Warren

Serving on a board of directors is a box many people aspire to check as they plan their career trajectory. It’s an important, challenging endeavor that diversifies experience, builds business acumen, and expands your professional network. But it’s also a substantial commitment, so how do you choose a board with distinguishing performance?

Kevin Warren
“[Diversity on boards] often leads to more robust debates, but it also allows us to get to better outcomes for the business.” – Kevin Warren, president of the Commercial Business Group for Xerox.
Here’s what I’ve gleaned in more than 30 years with Xerox and 10-plus years on corporate and nonprofit boards.

Diverse Composition

It may seem obvious that board composition should represent different genders, ethnicities, walks of life, and functional and business experience – yet you’d be surprised to find most are not that well rounded. I’ve found that having a richness of corporate, global and personal experience helps avoid group think – which is a big risk in today’s dynamic business environment. We come at problems, opportunities and strategies from different perspectives. This often leads to more robust debates, but it also allows us to get to better outcomes for the business.

Passion for People

Boards are rooted in the requirement to provide thoughtful oversight and strategic direction so the company performs for shareholders, but I assert that the most distinguished boards actually have the people at the forefront of decision making. When making employees and clients proud is the ultimate driver of your actions, you find that the resulting decisions are more equitable, more carefully debated, and more considerate of short and long-term impact. This passionate responsibility for making the right things happen is the best predictor of governance and talent succession – and eventually performance.

Role Model Culture

I’m a firm believer in Peter Drucker’s claim that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and I’d add that it feasts on talent management too. Board governance has to be an extension of the cultural values of the company to inspire a high performance environment and to establish an effective succession planning process. For example, at Xerox, we didn’t just wake up one day with the first African American female CEO to lead a Fortune 500 company. Diversity is paramount when it comes to our culture and our legacy – and it is reflected by the minority representation that makes up more than half our board. The result is an environment that is more creative, more collaborative, more dynamic, and more open to new ideas.

Kevin Warren was recently named to the Power 300: The Most Influential Black Corporate Directors by “Savoy Magazine.” He serves on the board of directors for Illinois Tool Works (ITW) and is a respected member of the Executive Committee and Board of Directors for Georgetown University, where he also chairs the audit committee. At Xerox, Kevin is a corporate officer and president of the Commercial Business Group.

Xerox CEO Ursula Burns was also named to Savoy’s Power 300.

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One Comment

  1. Gasby Brown August 22, 2016 - Reply

    Excellent perspective, Kevin. Your experience and thinking are a valuable resource for board members who are seeking to be innovative and effective. You might want to check out my 11-minute audio book etitled
    7 Fatal Flaws of Non-Profit Boards and How To Fix Them. We need your depth in the non-profit sector. Thanks for your service to Georgetown and other organizations blessed to have your volunteer leadership.

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