Don’t Just Represent…Be Aspirationally Representative

Almost any scandal in the business world involves poor oversight from a Board of Directors. For profits should take a page from the non-profit playbook to avoid them.

This week saw the other shoe drop for Silicon Valley darling Uber. Ever since former Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s explosive blog post that pulled back the curtain on the toxic and misogynistic culture at the company, those of us with an interest in technology and/or the fair and decent treatment of women in the workplace have been waiting for the results of multiple investigations launched by the company to determine root cause of the problems and next steps to address the issues. This week the results of both investigations were released and, as expected, they were pretty damning.

On June 6th, as the results of the first investigation were released, Uber fired 20 employees for participating in harassment, inappropriate behavior or discriminatory practices. Six days later, as what is known as the Holder Report dropped, Senior Vice President Emil Michael left the company under a cloud not only for his failure to address the issues faced by Fowler, but also for other nauseating behaviors like suggesting that the company perform opposition research on journalists who were critical of the company as a way to discredit them and their reporting. He later apologized for those comments, but the damage was done. Finally, Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick announced that he would be taking a leave of absence of the company to grieve for his mother, who was tragically killed in a boating accident. However, the Holder Report released the same day didn’t mince words around its recommendations as they relate to Kalanick and his leadership at Uber: The report recommended reevaluating Kalankick’s responsibilities, enhancing board oversight at the company and increasing the board’s independence. Ouch.

Lest you think that’s the end of it all, think again. The very next day after Kalanick announced his leave, audio of an Uber board meeting leaked that confirmed that culture issues weren’t just a problem for company leadership. During discussions around whether adding more women to the board should be considered in light of the issues at the company, Board Member David Bonderman made a joke that adding more women to the board a the company would only lead to more talking. This sexist joke cost him is position on the board and immediately raised questions about whether the Board at Uber was capable of the reforms it desperately needs to make to save the company.

Looking at all of this from my vantage point, once I work past my nausea and rage at the boorish behavior and the its-no-big-deal attitude that allowed these disgusting acts to continue for so long, I am struck by the overlap in emphasis on Board Development with my previous world: Non-profit Organizations.

The world of Non-profit Organizations is not one to be taken on by the faint of heart. The work is intrinsically rewarding, as the missions of many nonprofits revolve around addressing some of the world’s most complex problems: solving hunger, saving the environment, protecting those who need protection, advancing social justice and the like. It’s good, rewarding work for those of us who strongly want to change the paradigm of the world we live in for the better and ensure progress is made. But it’s also phenomenally hard work. The perennial lack of resources means that even a 60-hour work week feels like a vacation to many non-profit employees and leaders. Burnout rates are tremendously high among nonprofits as well; a 2016 survey found a 19% employee turnover rate. And as for extrinsic motivations like compensation….well, let’s just say that if PayScale is any indication, it’s easy to see why many younger nonprofit employees who may carry the average of $30,000 in student loan debt are forced into the for-profit world. Intrinsic motivation is strong, but not stronger than the need for food and shelter.

Because of all of these challenges, the relationship between the Board and Nonprofit leaders and employees is crucial. But non-profit leaders are faced with all of the same challenges that lead to an Uber-level meltdown in the for profit world: Boards recruited without thought for strategic development at the organization. Board Members who are disinterested in the role, other than as a hobby. Board Members who want to take a more active role but are over-extended from being on too many other boards. Board Members who operate as if a wall separates them from the employees of the organization. Board Members who aren’t aspirationally representational, or even representational of the communities they serve.

Aspirationally Representational – A group of people or an organization composed of people who reflect the diversity of the community and mission the organization wishes to reflect and serve, not just the diversity of community around them. Requires forward-looking and goal driven recruitment of members.

The saddest part is that the fixes for these problems are widely known in the non-profit world. Hours of discussions around the importance of strategic Board Development were included in almost every class I took for my Non-Profit Management certification. Even the accidental Non-Profit Executives, of which I knew many, knew about these issues and different sites like BoardSource you could go to for resources to help you strategically develop and work with your Board. Non-profit leaders know that we have to educate our Boards on what it takes to be a good board member and how they can best support the organization and its leaders. We know we have to recruit Board Members who have strategic experience in areas where our organization may struggle. We know we have to bring in members who aren’t afraid to challenge the rest of the board and even the organizational leaders ourselves. We know that we have to bring in board members who will take an active interest in the organization, not people who need another hobby or another title to impress their friends. We know that we need to create boards that are aspirationally representative, not just diverse for diversity’s sake or a baseline reflection of the community. It is a challenge for many non-profits to do this, and often times just another item to put on our already over-flowing plate and over-burdened staff.

Sadly, it seems that Silicon Valley and other places in the for-profit world have a lot that they could learn from those of us who have honed our skills in the world of non-profits…if only they recognized that non-profit organizations are not sub-standard businesses who have nothing to teach them.







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