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The boardroom is still an old boy’s club


Mentoring is a little like networking: We know we're supposed to do it to help our careers, but its tangible benefits can often feel a little fuzzy.

New research reveals disturbing evidence, however, that at the very top of corporations the benefits of mentoring are crystal clear. In the most recent issue of the Academy of Management Journal, James Westphal and Michael McDonald (researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas, San Antonio) take a look at first-time directors, and how much mentoring they receive from incumbent board members when they join corporate boards.

What they found is that the old boy's club is still very much alive. Not only did first-time racial minorities and women get significantly less mentoring than their white male peers, but that lack of guidance had a real impact. A shortage of advice reduced the chances that female or minority first-timers would be invited to join a second corporate board within the next two years by 57 percent.

At first glance, that might not seem to matter all that much--isn't it a good thing to have fewer cozy relationships between corporate boards? But it does. Research going back to the 1980s has shown that directors with multiple board appointments form a sort of "corporate elite." They exert more power over corporate policy than other directors, are more likely to receive appointments to influential groups like the Business Roundtable, and have a better shot at being named to prestigious nonprofit and government advisory boards.

In other words, the researchers write, the fact that fewer women and minorities have multiple board seats doesn't just make them less influential in the business world, but in the rest of society as well. Their data show that while women and minorities make up 28 percent and 22 percent, respectively, of directors who serve on a single board, they constitute only 8 percent and 5 percent of those who serve on more than one.

The most recent findings come from surveys that include 1,305 first-time directors along with 1,152 of their board colleagues at the 2,000 largest U.S. corporations. McDonald and Westphal asked directors several questions about the specific advice they received regarding various boardroom expectations and faux pas. For instance, governance etiquette holds that directors are there to provide advice and information to the CEO, rather than try to exercise control on strategy. It's also considered customary for directors to get the CEO's okay before raising questions about the strategic direction in formal meetings.

But minority and female first-timers got these two bits of advice far less often than their white male peers did. Racial minorities were 69 percent less likely to receive mentoring on the first boardroom norm and 72 percent less likely on the second; the figures for female first-timers were 49 percent and 54 percent, respectively. While the idea that such subtle discrimination exists in the boardroom may not be surprising, the degree to which it still occurs is.

"We were surprised at how strong the results were," Westphal told me in an interview. "By orders of magnitude, women and minorities got less of this kind of advice."

Less mentoring equals more faux pas, which leads to greater ostracism, shorter tenures and, ultimately, fewer appointments for women and minorities. And the great irony of this vicious cycle is that it's cutting out some of the most qualified directors of all. The researchers found that, on average, women and minorities in their study had significantly higher levels of management expertise, provided more advice and information to CEOs, and offered more highly rated knowledge and insights than did their white male peers.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read more:

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