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The pursuit of diversity in the boardroom

The pursuit of diversity in the boardroom

Every board I have been on or reported to over the past 10 years has had a challenge with trying to achieve its diversity goals. So, if your organisation is struggling with this same board diversity challenge, I would suggest that you are in good company!

Firstly, let’s start with why…

It has widely been researched that more diverse groups arrive at better decisions. Boards with greater female representation out-perform boards that are predominantly male. And in the not for profit sector, Boards without individuals representing the individuals you set out to serve are at risk of implementing programs and services that don’t meet the needs of customers.

Boardroom diversity takes different forms. Whilst I’m sure this list isn’t exhaustive, it is about diversity of skills and background, gender and sexuality, race, religion, age and disability. Every board member is different and brings their own unique perspectives.

On a recent project, I interviewed all nine board members of a not for profit ahead of a strategy meeting offsite. They had such good diversity of skills and professional background that new ideas continued to come out of the interviews right up to and including the ninth and final interview.

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Different genders bring a different focus to certain discussions and decisions in the board room.

In one discussion I recall around a board table some years back, we were talking about closing a particular program down as a matter of budget and risk management. One of the female directors raised a question about an individual who would be significantly affected by the decision but the more male dominated board moved on quickly. A more diverse board may have ensured that all opinions were given fair hearing.

One of the most interesting decision making bodies I have ever seen was in a community development program in Papua New Guinea. Working together in collaboration were the Australian and local PNG bodies from seven different faith denominations, along with partnerships with Australian and PNG governments. There were 16 different organisations working together to design and implement programs across several national and regional cultures and religious groupings. Yet they found a way to collaborate and cooperate in a way that respected and celebrated the richness of all the cultures and faith denominations present. It just took respect and a mindset of knowing that what united the group was greater than what divided it.

So it is as well, that even if – as a disability services organisation – you might have one of your board members being a person with disability, it is still difficult for that person to represent the entire spectrum of lived experiences of your customers living with different types or stages of disability. However, having one or a few members with this lived experience will absolutely add value in bringing those perspectives to the discussion and decision making.

From my experience, I think age diversity is one of the more under-rated parts of diversity on a board. Especially smaller organisations and those who target younger cohorts of customers or members should try and identify younger board members who can add value. As a small not for profit, you might not attract the partner from a big law or accounting firm to your cause, but you will get great value out of a 5+ year experienced lawyer or accountant who wants to bring their skills to a new or first board role.

As organisations strive to be more diverse and inclusive, there can be a risk of tokenism and of diverse voices being drowned out. It’s not just about getting people into the boardroom, it’s about ensuring that all can fully engage, contribute and be heard.

So how can you make your board membership more diverse?

I wish there were an easy answer but there just isn’t. It takes time, effort and investment.

One organisation I know put a board internship program together to give younger people an opportunity to contribute to their board over an 18 month period. They ended up with several longer term directors out of this. The Observership Program is another organisation that help young and aspiring new directors to have a one year placement and get exposure to a board.

There are other pathways to advertise director roles such as through AICD and Ethical Jobs. You can also look to advertise through your own marketing and communication channels to existing members. Marketing channels will reach a particular target, so if you want to access a particular community, think about the channel that is most effective.

In recruitment, it is more important to hire for soft skills and develop the technical skills rather than the other way around. So it might be in recruiting for diversity goals, that you take a less experienced manager or director who has the soft skills and diversity background you want and then you invest in their training and experience, perhaps with a mentor to guide and develop them to an effective board member.

If you are hiring a technical person on staff you might hire for the best skillset that match your culture, but on the board you are looking for the best team and not necessarily the best group of individuals. A champion team will beat a team of champions. Any day.

CBB also offer their free BoardMatch service for boards wanting to advertise vacancies. Further details can be found on the About Us page of our website.

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