‘Spotlight’ on board diversity: McKinsey and Goldman Sachs move the needle

Alice L. Jolla, chief accounting officer and corporate vice president at Microsoft, was deep into the interview process for an important step in her career: serving on a corporate board. The board representative told Jolla of an inclusive environment, but also shared a culture where board members stayed close to their areas of expertise and weren’t expected to offer other insights or opinions.

“I thought, ‘this isn’t the right place for me,’” says Jolla. “I need to bring my full self and set of experiences.”

Spotlight gave me the tools to succeed on a board, from picking the right one to hitting the ground running, it helped me understand what was possible

Alice L. Jolla, chief accounting officer, Microsoft

Jolla felt confident in her decision. Knowing what was at stake, she had gone in to be interviewed—and to interview—to assess the fit. Today, she serves on the board of Rockwell Automation, a company that combines her experience in technology, manufacturing, and finance—and is a cultural fit.

She credits this match to her participation in Spotlight, a joint program of McKinsey and Goldman Sachs that prepares candidates to serve on their first corporate board, particularly relevant to candidates from groups historically underrepresented on corporate boards.

“Spotlight gave me the tools to succeed on a board, from selecting the right one to hitting the ground running. It helped me understand what was possible,” Jolla says.

The six-month program has had four cohorts, each with 20-25 participants. The program’s high placement rate—over 70 percent for the first two cohorts—is a clear driver of the overall uptick in diverse first-time board members. In 2021, 159 individuals were first-time corporate directors in S&P 500 companies, with 86 percent from historically underrepresented groups.

Turning words into action, together

Celia Huber headshot
Celia Huber, senior partner, McKinsey
Celia Huber headshot

In 2020, Goldman Sachs announced that it would not take a company public in the US or Western Europe unless it had one diverse board member, expanding the requirement in 2021 to two, including one woman.

“It's one thing to put out a policy and point to a problem, it's another to be part of the solution,” says Ilana Wolfe, head of corporate board engagement at Goldman Sachs. “We decided to help our clients get there by suggesting exceptionally talented diverse candidates.”

Wolfe approached McKinsey’s Celia Huber, a senior partner who leads the firm’s North American board services sector, about creating a program to incubate first-time board members.

“There shouldn’t be a lack of candidates, and yet companies were telling us they were having trouble finding them,” says Huber. “Spotlight was an obvious next step to change this.”

Board 101 and beyond

Ilana Wolfe
Ilana Wolfe, head of corporate board engagement, Goldman Sachs
Ilana Wolfe

Spotlight is unique because it is not a training program or a bootcamp. Wolfe says you “cannot teach someone the necessary strategic mindset.” The program helps to prepare and empower those already primed for success.

The program’s Board 101 series is where candidates engage with board members with years of experience, executives new to board service, and former members of the program who are now on boards.

This range of expertise resonated with Monica Turner, president, North America, Procter & Gamble, who now serves on the board of Allstate.

“I can’t underscore enough the wealth of years and experience I was exposed to, seeing board service from different perspectives and vantage points,” says Turner.

Something particularly valuable to her was learning not to rush in.

“Spotlight enabled me to be more effective in the search stage and in the first year on a public board,” she says. “Experienced leaders guided us on how to carefully choose a company that will be natural fit, and how to make an immediate impact as a board member.”

Beyond the speaker series, Spotlight offers individual coaching assistance in the placement process, refining one’s personal narrative, and a network that lasts far beyond the program.

“This program has a holistic approach. It set me up for the success and personal growth I was looking for,” Turner says.

Leaning into diversity

Rick Gomez, executive vice president and chief food and beverage officer at Target, who is Latino and gay, had several aspirations on his list for a board—including not being the only diverse member.

“Boards are under a lot of pressure now to diversify,” says Gomez. “But are they just checking a box, or do they believe in the power of diversity?”

He now serves on the board of Wendy’s, where he says there is a “diverse network within the board.”

“It’s key to find a board that truly values your diverse perspective as well as your qualifications,” he says. “Spotlight offered really good advice from other diverse board members on how they've navigated this.”

Boards are gradually becoming more diverse, but it can be a frustratingly slow process. Seats tend to open only when someone retires, and the requirements for filling them can be very specific.

Are boards just checking a box, or do they believe in the power of diversity?

Rick Gomez, executive vice president and chief food and beverage officer, Target

“If you look at boards as a whole, the change is slow, but if you look at filling open seats, the momentum for change is there,” says Huber.

Part of what needs to change is the perception that there aren’t enough diverse candidates who can fill any given open seat.

At Goldman, Wolfe has a robust list of diverse candidates with a broad range of qualifications to help with matchmaking.

“We say, ‘here’s an incredible person outside your usual network that’s perfect for your needs, who happens to have a diverse profile,’ and companies often jump to add them to their list,” she says.

It’s an opportunity that for now, is still needed.

“Being a minority woman trying to break into what’s still very much a closed club, Spotlight opened the door,” Jolla says. “Other Black women reach out to me, asking questions assuming they can’t serve on a board. Now I can share my experience, and it’s a multiplier effect.”

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