The subject of diversity can be a provocative one. For the purposes of this article. I’m using the word diversity to describe any perceived minority in the workplace, i.e. gender, race, socioeconomic, age, disability…and any other you can think of. I had a conversation this week with some trustees of a local charity. A couple of them bemoaned the fact that they were being asked by their staff and, in their words, ‘this woke generation’ to prioritise diversity as they advertised for additional trustees and a chair for their organisation. The predominantly male and all-white board had recently seen an injection of younger female trustees, which had resulted in the charity focusing on new priorities. This decision was initially met with resistance—mainly because the board had only known one way of doing things. Still, the fact that these trustees were continuing to push forward with the proposed changes was a positive. The mindset of the longstanding trustees was definitely not something to shout about, however. The charity’s patron and owner of an honorary title was the most vocal in our discussion. They proffered the question, ‘Isn’t a drive for diversity just a box-ticking exercise? Shouldn’t we simply be choosing the best person for the position?’ I politely replied, ‘Why couldn’t this be the same person? Is it difficult to believe that anyone ‘ticking a box’ could also be the most qualified and valuable person to take on that role?’ I’ve heard this remark before in other high-level/management discussions (thankfully, not many). I want to address my learned peer’s train of thought…
The vast majority of people from a minority elected to be on a board or upper management team will be there on merit. They can often have lived experience of the cause being tackled, and/or have the right kind of knowledge and experience to make a positive impact and to make informed decisions as to the progression of the organisation.
Diversity is more of a public relations exercise
So why do some people still believe that exercising diversity in positions of influence is more of a PR exercise than an opportunity for an organisation to be richer in terms of its collective expertise? There could be a few reasons for this:
- Unconscious bias – Recruiters may harbour unconscious prejudices that associate competence with majority demographic groups (e.g. Caucasian men)
- Defining merit too narrowly – Merit can sometimes be defined by narrow traditional criteria that favour the experiences, styles and education of majority groups. In this scenario, diverse backgrounds and ‘non-traditional’ strengths are easily discounted or overlooked
- Insufficiently diverse networks – If diverse candidates aren’t systematically nurtured to advance through organisational pipelines, the pool of board-ready candidates will appear smaller. Without intentionally expanding networks, many highly competent candidates would remain unknown to board recruitment committees
- Privilege and familiarity – Recruiters may feel unwarranted confidence in candidates that ‘look and think like themselves’, whilst candidates that seem unfamiliar trigger doubts about their suitability. The desire to maintain existing dynamics can lead to an under-estimating of what less traditional candidates can contribute
- Concerns about the upset to the status quo – Truly valuing alternative perspectives requires a willingness to debate and possibly have long-held assumptions challenged constructively. Recruiters may consciously or unconsciously fear that ‘rocking the boat’ with diverse appointments may threaten existing norms and balances of power and influence
Transformative potential of diversity
Managers and leaders in organisations must recognise the transformative potential of diversity at the highest levels of governance. There are many benefits from inviting influence and thoughts from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. One of the primary advantages of a diverse board is the improvement in decision-making processes. When a board consists of individuals from various backgrounds, industries, and perspectives, it can generate a wider range of ideas and viewpoints. This diversity leads to more informed and innovative decisions, which can prove invaluable for organisations seeking to adapt and thrive in an ever-evolving business landscape. Diverse skill sets can complement one another, allowing boards to tackle complex challenges and opportunities more effectively. For example, a board with members from finance, technology, marketing and legal backgrounds can offer a holistic approach to addressing multifaceted issues.
Organisations that actively promote diversity on their boards tend to have a better reputation in the eyes of stakeholders—including customers, employees, and investors. Such organisations are seen as forward-thinking and socially responsible, which can lead to increased trust and support from the public.
Diversity fosters critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, and diverse board members are more likely to question assumptions, challenge the status quo, and identify potential blind spots in strategic plans. This can help organisations identify and address risks before they become major issues. A diverse board could generate fresh ideas, develop new products and services and identify untapped markets. Such innovation drives growth and competitiveness. For example, studies show that boards with at least 30% female membership deliver 10% higher returns on equity.
How can diversity at board level benefit leaders and managers in an organisation?
Leaders grow from working alongside professionals with vastly different personal and professional knowledge that complements their own. With constructive discussion and debate, leaders sharpen their strategies and ability to make complex decisions, preparing them for an increasingly globalised world. Overall, developing leadership agility through exposure to diversity gives companies a sustained competitive advantage. Signs that diversity is being treated as tokenism include:
- Candidates from underrepresented backgrounds being appointed without appropriate qualifications or relevant experience for the board role
- Diverse appointees having little influence in discussions and decision making, and facing exclusion when trying to voice perspectives that challenge current practices
- A lack of comprehensive inclusion initiatives within the organisation’s culture, e.g. programmes that nurture diverse leadership pipelines or ensure equal access to advancement opportunities are absent
- Board diversity is touted publicly through company communications and campaigns as evidence of commitment to DEI values, yet internal practices and policies show little change towards equitability and inclusivity
- Appointments are one-offs instead of starting points for building a sustainably diverse board through ongoing recruitment over the long-term.
Resisting diversity does not benefit anyone
Resistance to diversity initiatives can be a major hurdle for organisations. As mentioned above, existing board members may resist the inclusion of new members from diverse backgrounds, fearing disruption or a perceived threat to their authority. They may fear that diversity could lead to cultural and communication challenges within the boardroom and fear the possible differences in communication styles, norms and expectations; this could create misunderstandings and hinder effective collaboration. It’s natural for organisations to conduct inductions and any necessary training with new trustees; this should also include fostering an inclusive culture. To harness the benefits of diversity while mitigating any potential drawbacks, organisations should adopt the following strategies: Commitment from leadership Ensure that diversity is a priority for the organisation’s leadership, from the CEO to the board chair. Leaders must also set the tone for inclusivity and demonstrate their commitment through actions and policies. Transparent processes Be transparent about your organisation’s diversity goals and initiatives, making it clear that diversity is not about ticking boxes but about fostering a culture of inclusion and equity. Effective recruitment Expand your recruitment networks to access a broader pool of candidates. Consider partnering with organisations and networks focused on promoting diversity in leadership roles. Mentoring and support Implement mentorship and support programmes for new board members from diverse backgrounds to help them navigate their roles effectively. By committing to diversity as a genuine and strategic goal, organisations can transform their boards into dynamic and inclusive teams that drive success and sustainability. It’s not just about ticking boxes but about creating an environment where everyone’s voices are heard, valued, and leveraged to reach greater heights of achievement and impact. Diversity on boards isn’t just a social responsibility—it’s a strategic imperative for the growth and prosperity of companies and charities.