Barry Lawson Williams is the retired Managing General Partner of the investment and consulting company that he founded in San Francisco in 1987. Williams Pacific Ventures (WPV) focuses on startups, acquisitions and real estate. Mr. Williams recently retired from the board of Jacobs Inc., the last of his 14 major public company boards.
Mr. Williams was born on July 21, 1944, in New York City. He attended Harvard University, where he received an A.B. degree in government with honors in 1966 and M.B.A. and J.D. degrees in 1971. Mr. Williams is a member of the California Bar.
From 1971 to 1978 he was a management consultant at McKinsey and Company in the United States and several Latin American countries. From 1979 to 1987 he worked for the Bechtel Group. He served as corporate secretary, then executive assistant to the president, and finally managing principal of Bechtel Investments, Inc. At Bechtel, he helped start the direct investment function that included oil and gas, real estate and diversified investments in venture capital, alternative energy, retirement centers and financial services. He assisted in the acquisition of Dillon Read & Company and served on its board of directors.
Since founding WPV in 1987, Mr. Williams has served as Managing General Partner. During late 2000–2001, he was the interim President and CEO of the American Management Association Inc. He has also taught an entrepreneurship course at the Haas Graduate School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley for six years; been a senior environmental mediator with JAMS for six years and an environmental site trustee for two years. Within WPV, he has been the owner-operator of five businesses.
In civic affairs, Mr. Williams has been the past Chairman of California Pacific Hospitals, the African American Experience Fund and Management Leadership for Tomorrow. He currently serves on the board of Sutter Health.
The overall landscape of the nation has been drastically altered over the last few months, particularly from a societal perspective. The tragic death of George Floyd has sparked a national conversation around racial inequality, and movements such as Black Lives Matter have gained tremendous traction. Members across all communities are searching for ways to not only drive awareness on the issue, but also push for change—including within corporate boardrooms.
C-Suite recently sat down with Barry Williams, a retired board director, who has served on 14 corporate boards during his illustrious career. Williams recently published the “Black Corporate Directors Time Capsule Project” to capture insight from 50 seasoned African American directors on their experiences serving on corporate boards. Williams discussed findings from the study and provided insight into why diversity matters in the boardroom, particularly in today’s world.
Barry Williams: I see more and more of a connection between what is happening in the streets and what I think should happen in the boardroom. Across the nation, people are screaming, crying out for social equality and to get rid of social injustice, inequality. My feeling is that business has a role to play and that it’s very important for business to act now. If business does not show leadership now, people will look for leadership elsewhere. Leadership by business starts by ensuring more diversity in the boardroom.
Better employment opportunities, access to housing and healthcare, and overall wealth accumulation within minority communities are significantly supported by diversity in the boardroom. This will be a good signal that we’re serious and that we’re looking to do something sustainable. That is why I see a connection between what’s going on in the street and in the boardroom. If you start out with diversity in the boardroom, that will send a signal throughout the whole company and markets served that you’re serious. We need to not only focus on diversity of people, but also about diversity of procurement, diversity of philanthropy and all the instruments that a corporation utilizes.
I’m a big believer in diversity because I have experienced that the best decision-making comes with a group of people who have diversity of thought and experience. One of the best ways to do that is to get racial and gender diversity in the boardroom. Studies have shown that boards and companies that are diverse are in fact better performers.
If you want better business performance, you must have diverse board members and management throughout the company. If you really want to better understand the markets you serve and your shareholders' interest, you must have diversity, people who understand those markets and people who represent those markets.
Finally, I have three sons, and I spend a lot of time talking to them about recent events. With today’s war on talent, you better have diversity. I don’t care if you’re Black, brown or white, young professionals don’t want to work at an organization that’s not diverse, not economically or environmentally friendly. They have a whole list of attributes of the companies they want to work at. Therefore, I think you have to have a diverse company, which starts with a diverse board to attract the talent you need. This goes for attracting both minority and non-minority talent.
Williams: Corporations have a great impact not only with their products, but also who they hire, their procurement and their philanthropy. I’m not saying that all you have to do is get one or two diverse members on a board. To significantly effect change, you must get them on the board and work together to improve hiring, training, promotion and retention. Then you need to diversify procurement to better attract and support minority vendors and services, and finally use philanthropy to support the infrastructure building in minority communities.
I think a board can play a great role. A board ultimately approves strategy, as well as controls compensation and succession planning. It has many tools to make sure things happen. Significant changes are more likely to happen if you have a diverse board to start with.
“If you really want to better understand the markets you serve and your shareholders’ interest, you must have diversity, people who understand those markets and people who represent those markets.”
Williams: The real impetus behind the study was that I have served on 14 public company boards in my career. I just retired from my last board. Over the last several years, I’ve seen more and more of my friends reaching retirement also. So, I wanted to capture their experiences and perspectives for the benefit of the next generation of minority directors and aspiring candidates.
I initially thought I’d interview a handful of my friends, but as I got into it, I really liked the diversity of stories I was hearing and everyone’s experiences. To get a decent sample size, I wound up interviewing 50 seasoned black directors covering 274 board experiences. So, I had a good mix of men and women. I had a good mix of geographic diversity and industry diversity.
There were five major findings in this study. I think the most surprising was the mixed reviews that seasoned black directors had about our prospects in the future in terms of black representation on boards. I’d say almost 80% were grouped around a narrow band, saying, “It’s going to only slightly improve, stay the same or slightly decrease.”
About 10% said it’s going to be less. It was shocking to me that we would lose ground. We have some really significant challenges in that if you look at the Fortune 500, 37% of companies still don’t have a black director. I wanted to understand why. What really struck me is when they looked at the top 20 public companies that didn’t have a black director; nine were in Silicon Valley, right in our backyard.
Finally, Spencer Stuart just came out with a study that revealed that the total percentage of black directors has slightly declined over the last year. We have a challenge because when one of us multi-boarded black directors retires, you have to replace us on three to four boards.
Williams: Most black directors surveyed were initially afraid of being pigeonholed, being labeled and limited to being the black director, there only for diversity. They wanted to show all of their capabilities and perform across the board. So they were reluctant to just state the diversity message. Later in these directors' careers, they did speak up more about diversity. However, I think they did wish they had spoken up earlier, louder and more often.
Initially, I focused on diversity of people. I did not think in terms of the overall picture. It’s equally important to talk about diversity in procurement and philanthropy. We call them the three Ps. You must talk across the board.
Another factor initially limiting promoting diversity was learning that nothing happens on a board without collaboration with other board members and gaining the trust of the CEO. When you initially get on the board, you must accomplish that. I don’t care what the issue is. It’s not just diversity. You can’t push diversity without collaboration and working closely with the CEO and senior managers. Secondly, you must be in a position of power on a board. You must collaborate with the chair of a committee, you have to be on the right committees and eventually you must become a chair. In my case, I was a finance guy. So I always got on finance, audit or strategy and eventually became a chair. I later learned that some of the more powerful committees when it comes to diversity are public policy or nom-governance.
As people understood more what board culture was and how a board operates, then they begin to see how you better advocate diversity. What is the best way to get movement on a diversity agenda? It’s just those things. Get on the right committees, get to the chair of those committees, and collaborate with other board members and especially the CEO.
Another driver of diversity is to get diversity built-in as a metric in executive compensation. Have diversity measured and have people held accountable for performing around diversity. The final thing I would say as a board member is, you have the right to get things on the agenda of committees and the board meetings. You must make sure there is a full comprehensive discussion periodically about diversity.
I always liked to remind people, “Look at the composition of people who have given presentations to the board. How diverse is that?” If we’re serious about diversity, let’s give some diverse candidates an opportunity to appear before the board.
“When I talk about diversity, I’m not only talking about diversity of the Fortune 100. I want to see it across the Fortune 500 and I want to see it at private companies.”
Williams: I’ve got some worries. I am happy that corporations have made these wonderful pronouncements, and they’ve made some financial commitments. That’s all great. But, we in business have to convince people that we are not just going through an era of checking the boxes and that this moment will be superseded by some other moment six or 12 months down the road. It may be coronavirus part two. We in business must convince people that concern for diversity and social and racial equality will continue to be top of mind for people like it is today.
I, too, think that unless we in business do something concrete and sustainable, people will just think this is the topic of the day. I’m trying to figure out what are the next steps, what’s the action plan from my own study. We’ve got a moment in time, a spotlight, let’s get something done.
Personally, I’m trying to take my study to larger organizations. I want to stop being the guy who did this in his office on his computer during the pandemic. Let some of the larger organizations with structure and funding partners and take this on. I want to work with the Business Roundtable. I want to work with the Business Council. I want to work with the Conference Board. I want to work with the Stanford Rock Center and others.
Williams: There are really a few questions here. As for seeking a board seat, I’m hearing lately that a lot of people want to be on a board. My first question is to think through why you want to be on board. What is it you want to accomplish on that board? How will you operate on that board? What skills would you bring? Why would you be attracted to that board. Most important, it’s not just getting on a board, it’s doing something on a board. So focus on what you want to accomplish.
On the diversity agenda, I think the best way to advance it is to do a strong collaboration with other board members and the CEO. Five years ago, when I was still on five public company boards, I sat down and said, “Would I be replaced by a Black director when I retired?” On those five, I said two, maybe three of my replacements would be Black. It turned out to be two. On a third one I was not replaced by a Black director, but I couldn’t complain because I was replaced by a woman candidate whom I recommended. In the two cases where I was replaced by a Black director, there was very strong commitment by the CEO to replace me specifically with a Black director. I also had a strong collaboration with other board members who advocated that.
We have to understand the challenges that racial diversity is facing in the boardroom. I talked already about the challenge of losing all these multi-boarded seasoned directors that are retiring. Corporations had it a little easier during my generation because there was a crop of Blacks already on boards to whom they could just say, “Hey, why don’t you just serve on another board?” Now they must do more identification and recruiting of Black candidates, much more than in the past.
I also believe racial diversity is in competition with other valid forms of diversity in the boardroom. Corporations are expanding in the geographic markets and, as I said, it’s very important that those markets be represented. Also, there are other minorities that should be represented. Additionally, if you look at boards, we’re all changing our strategies and our models. What comes out of that are new skill set needs. There is a need for new skill sets, such as digital, data analysis and IT security. There are only so many seats on board and those skill sets are going to be in competition with efforts for diversity.
So there are real challenges. I think that boards have to get larger. I have served on boards as small as five and as large as 16, and I have seen each of those types of boards be successful. They were successful because of a good working relationship with the CEO, strong lead director, good board governance and good risk management. The number does not matter, so I think we should increase the size of some boards to better provide for diversity.
I also believe there should be some consideration of term limits so that you get turnover. I say that because I served on one board for 26 years and another board for 29 years. Honestly, in each of those boards towards the end, I really felt I knew what I was doing and that I was still providing real value. At the same time, when you serve on a board for 20-plus years, you’re limiting the opportunity to bring in new voices, fresh faces, and you’re limiting the opportunity to do some of the things we just talked about in terms of diversity.
Williams: Another aspect of the study that I found interesting is when I asked the Black directors if there were any boards they really wanted to serve on. I got some surprising answers. They wanted to serve more in technology. They didn’t think they were getting a real chance in technology and even in some areas of consumer products. They went on to say that they also wanted to serve more in private equity and venture capital-backed companies. When I talk about diversity, I’m not only talking about diversity of the Fortune 100. I want to see it across the Fortune 500 and I want to see it at private companies. I want to see it in venture-backed private equity companies. I certainly want to see more diversity on technology boards.
I think it’s no longer the case that we cannot find good candidates in technology. We’ve got good young candidates. I was 38 years old when I get on my first board. I was definitely not a CEO, but I had shown leadership by being the chair of a hospital.
A friend of mine, who I had worked with, threw my name in the hat. He was an investment banker for a public company, and he said, “I think this guy has the skills, and you ought to take a chance on an up-and-comer.” I think more and more companies ought to try that because I became, over time, a very active and strong member of that board. I rewarded them for taking a risk on a non-CEO and younger candidate. One of the things I’m doing is trying to encourage companies not only to consider experienced board members, but to try this new group of up-and-coming candidates. I think we have a tremendous crop. In summary, there are many boards other than those across the Fortune 100 that we should be ensuring are diverse. I know we can find highly qualified Black candidates to serve.