Bringing diversity into the boardroom: A five-point plan for business success

Cindy Gallop
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Not many black women in this boardroom (Source: Getty)

This week Forbes published its annual 30 Under 30 list: 600 of the best and brightest across a wide range of industry sectors.

Of the many responses to the list, one from Tyece Wilkins revelling in the fact that of those 600, 18 were black women, particularly resonated. ​Of course, 18 out of 600 is a very, very small number. But it’s far greater than the number of black women you’ll find in the boardrooms of Britain.

The Spencer Stuart 2015 UK Board Index revealed that racial diversity in UK boardrooms today is where female representation was 18 years ago – ie in a very bad place.

That’s a big problem, because it’s depriving British business of precisely what Forbes celebrates – creativity, innovation, insight, experience, all of which could be making British companies a whole lot more money.

Here’s how you bring business success into your boardroom.

1. Stop talking about it and just do it

The danger with talking about your commitment to diversity is that talking about it can feel the same as doing it – you feel good about it, but nothing actually changes as a result. Talking about it can in fact make things worse: recent studies indicate that diversity initiatives seem to do little to convince women and minorities that companies will treat them more fairly, while making white men believe that they themselves are being treated unfairly.

​So don’t talk about your commitment to making your board more diverse. Just go right ahead and do it. Communication through demonstration.

2. Change the optics

It’s 2015. Your board director list on your company website, your boardroom picture in your annual report, your media coverage cannot, should not, must not depict your board line-up as all white men. This is an issue everywhere, as I pointed out to the advertising industry at the 3PercentConference 2015, the solution is simple: change the optics. It’s fine if your motivation comes from realising that things look bad, because when you change the optics, you have to change the content. When you know you can’t release that all-white-male board photo to the press, you have to change the composition of your board.

3. Bulk-buy

Don’t appoint one female or minority director to your board – appoint several. Simultaneously. Tokenisation is useless, because the lone alien organism has no choice but to adapt to the culture around it. The optimum number of ‘different’ directors for a board is three or more, as this HBR study identified, because then there are enough of you to be seen and treated as the norm, and you feel supported and more able to contribute freely.

4. Appoint for potential as much as proof

Men are hired and promoted on potential; women are hired and promoted on proof. Men take other men more on trust – ‘I can see myself in him’, ‘I believe in his ability to do what we’re looking for’. Women are held to a whole different set of standards. ‘Has she done the job before? Has she done the job for long enough?’

For female and minority board director candidates, you need to look for potential as much as proof – because there aren’t enough existing board candidates. And no, we’re not talking about the most insulting response anyone can make to being challenged on diversity, but which we hear all too often: the immediate assumption that appointing diverse candidates means lowering standards. Far from lowering the bar, diversity raises it.

As Joyce Park says, “Diversity isn’t like choking down spoonfuls of oat bran because it’s supposedly good for you! It’s literally like eating out at a wonderful new restaurant every day.” ​

5. Embrace discomfort

It’s very comfortable, as a white male, appointing people like you; working with people like you; hanging out with people like you. Engaging with women and people of colour is uncomfortable – because we’re ‘other’. We have different mindsets, perspectives, worldviews.

But out of that discomfort comes greatness – because innovation, disruption and cutting-edge business thinking is the result of different perspectives coming together in constructive creative conflict, to get to a far better place none of us could have got to on our own.

So, appoint women and people of colour who make you uncomfortable. Actively embrace that discomfort, and know it’s resulting in better business. Because we’ve all seen what happens when boards are too comfortable with each other and the leadership they’re meant to be objectively scrutinising. Discomfort in the boardroom is a very good thing.

When you do all this, you help Tyece Wilkins and you help yourself. Because you inspire young women like Tyece to believe that one day they too could be sitting in a boardroom; and you do better business and make a lot more money.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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