Quotas are a terrible way to promote board diversity. Companies should do this instead

Updated 4:23 PM ET, Tue December 4, 2018

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Carly Fiorina is a former chairman and CEO of HP and Republican presidential candidate. She has served on eight corporate boards. Joel Peterson is the chairman of the board of directors of Jet Blue Airlines and the author of the forthcoming book, Running Stuff. He has served on 36 corporate boards. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.

Perspectives Carly Fiorina Joel Peterson

The just-concluded 2018 elections have been referred to as a new "year of the woman," as nearly 25% of all members of the next Congress will be female. That puts Congress one point ahead of S&P 500 boardrooms, where 24% of all corporate directors are women.
Neither number is impressive — and the pace of change remains glacially slow. The new Congress's number of female members will have grown by just about 5% and boardrooms have grown their proportion of women directors by an average of 1.2% per year over the past five years.
California's state legislature (female membership: also 24%) recently set quotas for female members on the boards of publicly traded companies headquartered in the state — hypocritically requiring the private sector to do better than the public sector has. That's not the answer.
Viewed through the prism of our own experience as corporate directors, we think it's high time for boards to become more diverse. Not because a law requires it, but because a variety of backgrounds, experiences and skill sets leads to stronger, more rigorous, and significantly more effective corporate governance. And more effective governance means better performance for all stakeholders.
In case you hadn't noticed, corporate boards don't really work all that well. What should be an assembly of the world's top talent, bursting with intellectual and emotional intelligence, relevant experience, wise judgment and an ability to communicate and work through even the toughest truths instead remains something of a sealed inert system.
Phenomenally successful and powerful companies like General Motors and General Electric have suffered long, obvious declines with no apparent shifts in strategy until dramatic action and enormous write-downs were required. Alleged fraud at companies like Theranos play out under the noses of blue-chip boards.
    And those are just the obvious failures. How many S&P 500 companies could do better if the go-along-to-get-along thinking that undergirds so many boardrooms is replaced by energetic skepticism and diverse viewpoints drawn from very different life and professional experiences? And how much more thorough and considered might a board's decisions be if important constituencies of the company were better represented in boardrooms?
    Change is like heaven — everybody wants to go there but no one wants to die. In like manner, boards talk about change and diversity but don't think they need to aggressively pursue it. In fact, half of directors in a recent survey believe diversity is solely about satisfying some misplaced desire for political correctness.
    And unfortunately, California's one-size-fits-all quota system only reinforces that assumption, and will inevitably lead to a box-checking approach that will further damage board credibility and performance. What we need is for boards to be more responsive to today's fast-changing social and economic landscape. Said differently, it's likely to be a whole lot harder for 11 white male Ivy League graduates to perceive a variety of threats and opportunities on a company's horizon than it is for a highly diverse board — by gender, ethnicity, experience and worldview — to do the same.
    For boards with the courage to push this agenda forward, here are some specific thoughts on how to get started toward a more diverse and higher-performing bo