It would be easy to look at Penn Mutual’s board, 42% of which is now held by women and minorities, and credit Eileen McDonnell, the first female CEO in the company’s 170-year history. But McDonnell is quick to point to her predecessor, Robert Chappell, who chose her as his successor.
“Bob always sought out the best talent to fill roles at headquarters, so our leadership today is over 40% female,” she says, noting that two of Penn Mutual’s subsidiaries are run by women and that when Chappell left in 2011, women already accounted for four of 11 board seats. “He had been, throughout his career, gender-neutral and color-blind. He’s just always sought to surround himself with the best talent for the time.”
“I view that I become better and stronger as an executive and as a board member by surrounding myself with very talented people, in some cases more talented than myself, and learning from them.”
McDonnell says that for each of Penn Mutual’s recent successes—the company just reported the best sales and earning numbers in its history—she can point to ways each member of her diverse board contributed, typically by agitating for some change or focus that otherwise might have been neglected. “There is a direct link to our directors who, because of their discipline and experience and thought process, come at each opportunity and challenge differently,” she says.
As a private company, Penn Mutual isn’t under the same scrutiny and pressure to diversify the board as it might be if it were public. But in McDonnell’s view, it shouldn’t be done out of a sense of obligation or to appease critics, but rather because having divergent views around the boardroom table is the best path to success.
“I view that I become better and stronger as an executive and as a board member by surrounding myself with very talented people, in some cases more talented than myself, and learning from them,” she says, adding that CEOs who are reluctant to surround themselves with people who think differently, and who may challenge them, are at a competitive disadvantage. “Because the reality is we all have our blind spots and if we don’t have people like that around us, we may miss something.”
Read more: Does Diversity in the Boardroom Matter?