Diane Gilleland on the 'Dramatic Change' of a Diverse Board of Directors

Diane Gilleland on the 'Dramatic Change' of a Diverse Board of Directors
Navient Corp. board members (from left to right) William M. Diefenderfer III, Diane Suitt Gilleland, Ann Torre Bates, Jack Remondi and Mark Heleen at the New York Stock Exchange 2015 Governance, Risk and Compliance Leadership Awards. (Nikki A. Lavoie)

Since 1994, Diane Suitt Gilleland has been a member of the board of directors for publicly traded Navient Corp. of Wilmington, Delaware. Last month, Navient received the award for Best Board Diversity Initiative at the New York Stock Exchange's 2015 Governance, Risk and Compliance Leadership Awards. 

Navient now has more women independent directors than any company of its size, according to analysis of S&P 500 companies. Seven of the 13 directors are women, representing more than half of the board.

Earlier this year, Navient was also received the "W" award from 2020 Women on Boards, a national campaign to increase the percentage of women directors on U.S. company boards to 20 percent or greater by 2020. 

Gilleland lives in Little Rock and is also an adjunct professor at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. She also worked in state higher education, serving as CEO of the state Board of Higher Education from 1990-1997. She talked to Arkansas Business about Navient, her career and the importance of women on boards of directors.

Q. Can you tell us what Navient does?

A. Navient is a loan management servicing and asset recovery company. It is a spinoff from Sallie Mae, and I was on that board originally. I was originally appointed to that board by President Clinton in 1994, and in 1994 it was a government-sponsored entity like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. 

But we turned in our charter as a GSE and went to a totally private public company, not a government-sponsored entity, in 2004. And so what we do is we manage and service student loans and are in collections and recoveries. We also do that for other types of entities — not just student loans — but student loans is the majority of the Navient business at this particular point.

Q. What got you to this point in your career?

A. I think one of the key things has been that I had a mother and daddy who told me that I could do anything I set my mind to. But my daddy also said you have to be able to do something when you graduate. And back then, women could either be secretaries or nurses or teachers. And so he said you can major in whatever you want to, but you have to be able to teach whenever you come out, because I didn’t want to be a nurse and I didn’t want to be a secretary. 

So I did that. And I had some really good mentors along the way. All of my mentors and the people who were critical to my career were men because there weren’t any women. Title IX had just passed in 1974, and it opened the doors for women like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t want to disparage men, but it is nice to have women. This is the first time I have ever worked in an environment with a majority of women and I’m 69.

Q: Why is diversity important and how does it make a board better?

A: You have people with experience in all the areas that the company deals with. You have people who grow up and have different experiences if you are of one ethnicity or another, and you have different experiences if you are male or female. 

…[A] lot of people say that whenever they go on a board they want to sit back and listen for a year and not contribute, and I said don’t do that — contribute right away so it changes. It makes a difference. It makes a real difference when women are in the room in such numbers. I can feel such a huge difference. I wish I could articulate it better other than their diverse opinions. 

And women I think speak up maybe more so than men. At least that’s my experience. They throw out ideas without just going along with the group. Diversity has been great for us just since December. It’s huge. 

Q: How did you achieve diversity on the Navient board?

A: It was two women and four men who selected the new people to be on the board, so it was a unanimous decision to diversify the board, but first it was about getting the expertise that we knew our board needed. We needed things like people who had deep experience in customer service, cyber security, regulatory affairs, governmental affairs, mergers and acquisitions and finance, consumer finance industries — so that’s what we went looking for. And quite frankly we used some of the very well known search firms in the past and we always kept coming up with men. And [the firm] would say that … there wasn’t a diverse talent pool out there … 

… We were having a discussion after we had separated, and so one of the board members said, "… If we’re really serious about diversity, I know of search firm,” and it was Diversified Search. And so in short order — within six months — we had changed. Since 2004, there had only been two women on the board. [Now in] 2014 [there are] six men and seven women. 

So it’s a dramatic change, and it’s an amazing thing to see how it has changed the tenor of the board and to get … people with great experience who are diverse in age and gender and ethnicity. It wasn’t a problem at all if you looked in the right place. 

It was really amazing and really nice to get this award too. In fact, I felt like a high school student whose team had just won the state championship or something, because we had worked so hard trying to do it and it was easy once we got with the right firm. 

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