In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Month, we highlight the diversity gap, particularly of Asian Americans, on boards and celebrate and share the experiences of two Asian American leaders on corporate boards
Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) unfortunately often find themselves stuck in the middle at companies. Because AAPIs are more prevalent in the professional workforce, many mistakenly assume that Asian Americans are well-represented at leadership and board levels, when in fact, many remain at mid-level in their career progression.
In 2020, for example, despite representing 12% of the US professional workforce, and often 30% or more of the US tech workforce, Asian Americans only comprised approximately 4.4% of directors of Fortune 1000 companies, according to Ascend, a national organization promoting Asian American corporate professionals.
To combat this drop in representation, Ascend set out a goal to increase board representation through its 10×25 initiative, which has a primary goal of having at least 10% of the Fortune 1000 company boards composed of Asian American/Pacific Islander professionals by 2025.
As an Asian American Chief Legal Officer (CLO) with a goal to amplify Ascend’s 10×25 initiative, I recently sat down with John Kuo, CLO at Visby Medical and former General Counsel of Varian Medical Systems, and a member of the board of directors at Mirion Technologies, a leading provider of radiation detection, measurement, analysis and monitoring solutions; and Marie Oh Huber, CLO at eBay and a member of the board of directors at Portland General Electric and Adevinta, a global online classifieds company, to learn about their board journeys and their advice for aspiring corporate directors from AAPI backgrounds.
Guidance for aspiring board candidates
Both Huber and Kuo highlight several important steps they took that were crucial in their success of landing a board of director position:
Determine and articulate your “why” for board aspirations — The first step in the journey to earn a seat as a company director is to figure out why it is an important goal for you. Early on, Huber asked herself, “What are my strengths, skills and what is the value I bring?” and “What does the company need?” Having this kind of clarity on the why will enable you to clearly state your individual value proposition for potential opportunities.
Analyze your network — Another step in increasing your exposure as a board candidate is to look at your network. “Look at your rolodex and your LinkedIn,” says Kuo. “If you are primarily connected with lawyers, you have got work to do.” Huber suggests that “word-of-mouth and your network” are the most likely ways for you to get connected with board opportunities. Both Huber and Kuo suggest trying to increase your connections among CEOs, CFOs, venture capitalists, bankers, private equity professionals, outside counsel, and chief strategy and marketing officers, among others. Also, some banks and large accounting firms now have initiatives for aspiring board members. These connections will allow you to expand your circles of influence and grow your exposure to those who may be in a position to make introductions to board contacts.
Sometimes, part of building your board network involves embracing serendipity. For example, Huber says she was approached about a board opportunity at a private company from a contact who knew her because they both spoke on a corporate governance panel. The initial contact for a public board seat was made by the organizer of a GC dinner that Huber co-moderated who also organized CEO dinners. One of the attendees was a CEO whose company was looking for someone with Huber’s tech and consumer-facing digital economy background.
For Kuo, he says he was approached by the company through a referral from an outside counsel who knew of his industry knowledge and that he had recently retired from Varian.
Other opportunities to gain exposure to board networks are through executive search firms and organizations that make it part of their mission to increase diversity on boards, such as Ascend, Boardlist, DirectWomen, Women Corporate Directors, Him for Her, the Fourth Floor, and Trewstar, among others.
Examine and highlight your relevant experience — To successfully position yourself for a board role, you need to have key experiences that are in high demand. For lawyers, these experiences may include leading efforts to expand growth internationally, taking a company public, leading enterprise risk management efforts, navigating a challenging regulatory environment, involvement in environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy, as well as M&A experience. Kuo, for example, demonstrated his value proposition for a potential board position by sharing his deep industry knowledge of the medical radiation sector, which was a target growth market, as well as his experience in expanding business and entering new markets internationally.
Keep in mind that most boards are not looking for a new director with lawyering skills, but rather one that possesses a specific skillset and demonstrates business acumen — as well as executive experience and leadership skills, wrapped together with the keen enterprise-wide insights forged from being a general counsel. All this can be a compelling board candidate package.
Succeeding in the boardroom
The journey in earning a company board seat is rigorous, but once on a board, the real work has only begun, say both Huber and Kuo. Once you successfully attain a board seat, you then need to then invest time to learn about the company and its industry, get to know your fellow board members and the leadership team and assess the type of director you want to be to best add value to the company. If company boards meet four or five times per year and you are just one of about 10 members of the board, there are only a few opportunities to make an impression, Kuo explains.
Therefore, you will need to strategically determine the type of director you want to be, Kuo adds, and in fact, you should become the kind of director that you admire. “Executives and General Counsels have been in boardrooms for a while — and you’ve watched high-performing directors and you’ve watched not-so-high-performing directors,” he says. “Channel that director you admire most in your new board role.”
Keep in mind that most boards are not looking for a new director with lawyering skills, but rather one that possesses a specific skillset and demonstrates business acumen, executive experience and leadership skills.
Another important element of preparation is knowing the needs of a company’s board committees, where much of the work is done. Huber notes that boards are often looking for people with financial literacy or expertise to serve on audit committees. If you can point out relevant skillsets that might be helpful on a particular committee, that could fill a need. Boards need people with particular skillsets to eventually chair a committee and serve on key committees, such as the audit, compensation, or nominating committees for future director selections. These chair roles can help you build influence and make a valuable impact. If you can chair the nominating committee, it is a tremendous opportunity to influence the make-up of the board, as well as its diversity.
As seasoned CLOs with deep experience in board operations, it was not surprising to both Huber and Kuo that being on the other side of the table in a board seat is completely different. As a director, Kuo says you are asking yourself, “How should I be thinking about this issue?” or “What should I be doing to help?” This requires a “different part of the mind than I’ve been used to when I was the general counsel and the corporate secretary,” he says.
As shown in Kuo and Huber’s journey, the road to the boardroom is not a straightforward one, nor does the job become easier once on the board. But their collective wisdom and director journey should encourage AAPI professionals and other minorities on their own journey to the boardroom, so we can move up from the middle and bring our skills and experiences to add value in the boardroom, while increasing diversity at the same time.