Diversity in boardrooms has become a buzzword in corporate conversations, and for good reason. Countless studies and reports globally have underscored the undeniable advantages that diverse boards bring to the table.
It’s a narrative many of us are familiar with—the idea that diversity fosters improved effectiveness, enhanced performance, and better decision-making. Yet, beneath the surface of this well-established narrative lies a trove of insights that often remain unexplored.
The conventional wisdom on diverse boards points to their heightened diligence, thoughtful consideration, focused approach, reduced presumption, lateral thinking, and rigorous analysis of critical issues. These attributes contribute to a more dynamic and resilient decision-making process, creating an inclusive and strategically robust business environment.
However, what about the lesser-known dimensions of diverse boards? Let’s shed some light on the intricacies beyond the surface-level understanding of their advantages. Let’s uncover the things you don’t know about diverse boards and challenge the assumptions that may limit our comprehension of their true potential.
Building bridges beyond differences: The intricacies of board diversity
When we speak about being part of a diverse group, it transcends the superficial markers of diversity that often dominate the conversation. Diversity, in its essence, encompasses a multidimensional spectrum that extends far beyond the visible facets of gender, ethnicity, race, and age. On an intrapsychic level, it involves attributes that may not be immediately apparent but play a crucial role in shaping the dynamics of a board. These attributes delve into personalities, attitudes, beliefs, and values—the subtle nuances contributing to a diverse collective’s richness.
It is essential to recognise that diversity goes beyond inherent traits; it encompasses functional indicators such as profession, occupation, vocation, expertise, and status. These functional dimensions often take a backseat in discussions, overshadowed by the spotlight on gender as a primary social categorisation. However, neglecting these functional dimensions can hinder a board’s high performance, leading to imbalances and tokenistic representations.
Being part of a diverse group implies navigating a landscape of varied social identities, each contributing a unique perspective to the collective. However, building a truly diverse and high-functioning board requires more than the coexistence of different identities—cultivating trusting and cohesive group relations.
The journey toward cohesive diversity necessitates a willingness to embrace differences, a commitment to learning, and an appreciation for each individual’s uniqueness. Whether it’s disparities in character, attitude, belief, values, knowledge, experience, or motivations, the willingness to understand and appreciate these distinctions is crucial for fostering an environment of collaboration and innovation.
Yet, embracing diversity is not without its challenges. The discomfort from confronting differences can easily give way to unconscious biases that impact a board’s composition and group functioning. It demands the courage to dismantle barriers, allowing oneself to be vulnerable and exposed to aspects of others that may seem unfamiliar.
Directors find themselves on boards with individuals they wouldn’t typically associate with
The sentiment of “you’re not like us” can permeate, creating a divide that hinders the development of deeper relationships, trust, and rapport. Simply extending the duration of board meetings is not a panacea for building these connections; it requires a concerted effort to break down barriers and foster genuine understanding.
Directors, often leading busy lives, may inadvertently contribute to this challenge by rushing into and out of meetings, leaving little room for meaningful interactions. This behaviour may be symptomatic of deeper issues, such as intolerable group dynamics or collective resistance to embracing differences.
Conscious acknowledgment of one’s differences is crucial, as directors who feel they are in the minority may sense an ‘outgroup’ status. Simultaneously, the majority may naturally form an ‘ingroup,’ creating an environment that alienates those perceived as ‘not like us.’ This dynamic can manifest along various lines, including gender, leading to homogenous subgroups reinforcing divisions within the board.
It’s not uncommon for directors to gravitate toward the familiar
Seeking connections with those with similar backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives is a natural tendency that can inadvertently create a divide, leaving those perceived as ‘most different’ on the periphery, feeling disconnected, objectified, minimised, or even dismissed by the group.
Getting to know ‘others’ in a diverse setting requires a deliberate and sustained effort. It goes beyond the confines of formal board meetings and necessitates investing time and energy to build deep relationships, trust, and rapport. Failure to make this effort can undermine the potential benefits of diversity, giving rise to a subtle dysfunctionality that permeates beneath the surface of board dynamics.
Exclusion of those perceived as different can breed a sense of isolation and disenchantment, hindering the seamless collaboration necessary for a high-functioning board. To address this, boards must recognise the importance of informal interactions. Board dinners, for instance, offer a valuable opportunity for directors to forge connections beyond the boardroom. These social gatherings provide a platform for directors to truly understand each other, fostering rapport and a sense of unity that is indispensable for a board to operate at its highest potential.
While additional informal time is needed, not all board leaders proactively ensure its occurrence. The responsibility often falls on the shoulders of the Chair or CEO to champion and organise these bonding activities. Board dinners, though beneficial, won’t organise themselves, and it is the leadership’s role to foster an environment where such initiatives are prioritised.
Beyond dinners, alternative avenues such as site visits or hotel group stays present unique opportunities for directors to deepen their connections. However, these opportunities are often overlooked, with directors opting for separate accommodations and missing out on the chance to engage on a personal level. Leadership, once again, plays a pivotal role in maximising these occasions and ensuring that the potential for camaraderie is fully realised.
A ‘buddying up’ system can facilitate a proactive approach to relationship-building. Pairing directors who are most different from each other allows for dedicated time to delve into backgrounds, upbringings, and motivations. This intentional pairing fosters understanding and appreciation for each director’s unique perspectives, breaking down barriers and fostering a collaborative spirit.
Cultivating a culture of inclusivity
In the pursuit of reaping the full benefits of diversity, boards must go beyond a mere acknowledgment of differences. The genuine effort from all directors, especially following the induction of new members, is the linchpin that can transform a diverse board into a high-functioning, cohesive unit.
Welcoming new directors and getting to know each other is not passive; it requires concerted and intentional effort from all board members. This commitment is crucial during onboarding, where the foundations for a collaborative and inclusive board culture are laid. It involves going out of one’s way to create an environment where every director feels valued, understood and an integral part of the team.
This proactive approach to building relationships is not a one-time initiative but an ongoing commitment. It necessitates a shift in mindset where investing time and effort to connect with fellow directors becomes ingrained in the board’s culture. The mantra becomes, “This is just the way we do things around here.”
Embracing diversity is not just a moral imperative; it’s a strategic advantage. Boards that foster diversity and inclusion are better equipped to navigate challenges, build resilience, and engage in robust discussions. The strength of such boards lies in their ability to tap into a greater variety of perspectives, fostering creativity and innovation in decision-making processes.
High-performing boards serve as a testament to the transformative power of diversity. These boards amplify their effectiveness by collectively embracing differences, enhancing crisis management capabilities, and ultimately elevating decision-making to new heights. The key lies not only in the diverse composition of the board but also in the active cultivation of an inclusive culture that permeates every aspect of board interactions.