There’s a lot of talk at the moment about diversity, particularly on Boards and often focussed on recruiting more women to Board roles. There is an extent to which doing this has intrinsic value – where women are excluded from key roles, the skills, talents, knowledge and experience of around half the population is lost to the business world.
But what’s the real outcome we want from having a more diverse Board? It’s not just about being a woman. There are lots of other aspects of diversity that Boards need. If as Board members our life experience, background and social context largely overlap, we may not pick up on some of the opportunities and threats that we need to be alive to, so we introduce significant risk into our activities and decisions.
Having people with different life experiences, from different backgrounds – with a different worldview – can have a significant and positive impact on Board performance and decision-making. But when we do pay attention to diversity, we tend just to focus on getting ‘diverse’ people onto the Board. We don’t consider how best to fully engage that different worldview from our diverse Board members. And Boards often have cultures that engender conformance. This can mean that the very diversity we have sought to encourage is acculturated out of people as they seek to find their place and adapt to the norms and behaviours acceptable to their peers.
That’s why it’s really important for all Board members, but Chairs in particular, to include all Board members in debate and decision-making. This means being constantly mindful of the needs of Board members who bring a different perspective, giving them space and time to express views that may be different and giving them our full attention. We need actively to seek to develop a mutual understanding of the value of their views to the work of the Board, so we all understand the richness they bring.
Otherwise we are in danger of losing out on the very opportunity that we are so enthusiastic about when we set about to create a diverse Board. It’s also important to make sure that we avoid tokenism – if you are the lone ‘different’ voice, unless you’re really resilient you will eventually choose to silence yourself, to the detriment of the Board. There really is, in the context of diversity, a level of safety in numbers!