Fewer CEOs are serving on outside boards. That’s good (and bad)

It used to be a heavily traveled two-way street in corporate America: CEOs joined other companies’ boards to broaden their experiences, expand their influence, or simply because it felt good. Boards sought out CEOs because of the knowledge they bring and their unique ability to interact with the company CEO as an equal.

But the number of sitting CEOs on outside boards keeps shrinking. As the CEO role has become more difficult and demanding, greater numbers of chief executives are shying away from external board roles and many boards now limit their own CEOs’ board assignments as well.

The pandemic accelerated the trend, according to a report by management consulting firm Korn Ferry, citing “evidence that the unprecedented demands posed by the pandemic led many CEO directors to resign from outside boards to focus on their own organizations.” Fewer than half of CEOs now serve on an outside board, the report said.

One good thing about the drop in CEO board assignments is more opportunity for non-CEOs and other traditionally underrepresented groups to join corporate boards.

At the same time, many corporations are feeling pressure to bring more gender and racial diversity to their boards and are making membership available to a broader array of candidates than in the past.

Is the decrease in CEO board participation a positive or negative? Interestingly, it’s both.

Here are four benefits of CEOs serving on boards:

Advising another company can make for a better CEO. CEOs who opt out of corporate board directorships out of fear of overextending themselves — and boards who restrict their own CEOs’ board assignments for the same reason — miss a key point: Time on a board usually makes them a better leader.

I’m on two outside boards. An inside view of another company’s challenges and opportunities, its peaks and valleys, what strategies worked and didn’t, has revealed insights I’ve ended up applying at my own company. Being on the other side of the table has even helped me better understand how to communicate with my company’s board.

Serving on a board can prevent myopia. Because of digital disruption, businesses must move at an unprecedented pace to stay competitive. Job No. 1 for all CEOs is to act on this reality every day inside their companies. But drawing exclusively from their own company’s experience can blind a leader to broader perspectives in the outside world. A board stint is a great way to ensure they’re getting those.

Board memberships can make CEOs more empathetic. There’s a lot of talk these days about the need for heightened empathy in the C-suite, and with good reason: The global health crisis, racial injustice and other extraordinary stressors demand that senior executives possess what McKinsey described as four qualities “to manage in crisis and shepherd their organization into a post-crisis next normal” — awareness, vulnerability, empathy and compassion.

In these times, it’s critically important for a CEO to cultivate as wide a frame of reference as possible, and involvement with another company through a board directorship accomplishes that.

Helping another company does broader good. If a CEO has the wherewithal beyond their own company responsibilities to bring value to another firm’s board, that’s a positive for the world at large. A rising tide lifts all boats, after all.

For example, I’m a board member at a company that once was strictly a manufacturer of home standby generators. It’s now digital savvy, with Wi-Fi-equipped generators providing a number of services on users’ smartphones. This means they also needs a strong cybersecurity strategy, my area of expertise. I take satisfaction in believing my guidance is benefiting the company, its shareholders and its customers.

So what’s good about the drop in CEO board assignments? That’s easy: more opportunity for non-CEOs and other traditionally underrepresented groups, including women and people of color, to join corporate boards.

“In a little-noticed but remarkable shift, many firms are skipping the corner suite and looking elsewhere for directors,” Korn Ferry reported. “Recent data shows that nearly two-thirds of the more than 400 director seats filled last year were taken by someone other than a CEO. Experts say since both the pandemic and the racial-equality protests of last year, companies are determined to create boards with more diverse faces and more specific skill sets.”

Equilar’s most recent Gender Diversity Index found that at the end of Q1 2021, 24.3% of all board seats in the Russell 3000 were occupied by women, up from 15% at the end of 2016. “The path toward equal representation of men and women in public company boardrooms seemed to go nowhere for decades, but there has been a significant clearing in recent years,” the report said. (Nevertheless, Equilar cautions that boards won’t hit gender parity until 2032.)

And many of these non-CEO board members are doing an excellent job. According to a survey by Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, 79% of board members feel that, in practice, active CEOs are no better than non-CEO board members. A CEO may bring cachet to the board, but many non-CEOs contribute real work as a director, the study said.

Increased diversity on boards isn’t just an excellent development by itself; board experience positions members well for future leadership roles and thus can act as a proxy to get more women and people of color into corner offices.

Making board membership accessible to a wider range of candidates beyond typically white male CEOs — they still account for almost 90% of Fortune 500 CEOs — offers hope that diversity in the business leader ranks will keep rising.

All things considered, I think this potential outweighs the negatives of more CEOs staying out of outside companies’ board rooms.