Magazine article New Zealand Management

The Director: The Path Less Travelled ... the Diversity 'Way Forward'

Magazine article New Zealand Management

The Director: The Path Less Travelled ... the Diversity 'Way Forward'

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Kerridge and Claire Denison

New Zealand is a wonderful country. We are fair minded and embrace a multicultural society, doing pretty well at it for the most part. We've led the way on gay marriage, you might conclude equality is in our DNA. Yet the boardrooms of our nation remain, for the most part, very 'unequal', dominated by a narrow slice of a population: European males mostly 50 plus.

And we do talk a lot about diversity. But are we all talk? Are we paying lip-service to the diversity debate by undertaking a few token gesture initiatives without really committing to anything of real substance? Where are our women board members? And more than that, what about non-Europeans? And people with disabilities? And the younger directors?

Diversity is more than just gender. But that is certainly a good start. What is crucial in the boardroom is the quality of the conversation. A diverse set of thinking styles and perspectives enrich that conversation -- and this leads to better outcomes. To anyone who has experienced the difference, the contrast between good and bad is stark.

So if the intellectual debate has been won then why do we struggle? Let us explore some of the 'assumptions' that perpetuate our current malaise.

1. We can't find diverse hires for our board.

2. In order to succeed on our board, you must already be proven on another significant board.

3. Diverse hires on our board might disturb our collegial board culture.

4. We are different: our situation is so unique it justifies a homogenous board.

5. Women need mentoring.

6. The diversity debate will just go away.

Let's unpick these one by one.

1. If you can't find diverse directors for your board, you simply aren't looking hard enough. Clearly you can create a set of criteria that all but excludes diverse hires, but if you do the job properly and extrapolate from the strategy of the organisation, through to the range of competencies, thinking styles and perspectives that might be required on the board, then you may just arrive at a different answer. There is a large, diverse talent pool out there just waiting to be tapped, but it won't be found by relying on the standard functionally biased specification and the 'old boys' network' method of recruiting directors.

2. We disagree. Boards are, essentially, teams of people who analyse situations, articulate independent views and make decisions. It is absolutely possible for someone with no board experience at all to add value. There are plenty of people who might never have considered a board role who would undoubtedly add huge value to many of our boards ... right now!

3. Yes boards might usefully be collegial; however, most shareholders would far rather they had a healthy level of creative conflict and robust debate. It is the quality of the conversation that adds value, and the diversity of input that improves the quality of output. And you are simply not going to get that on a homogenous board.

4. Every board can benefit from an improved governance conversation, and whilst it might be harder for some, it is not impossible!

5. We are big supporters of mentoring programmes -- but let us be clear -- it is not just the women who need mentoring! Many male board members need help understanding how to work with diverse board members. Having the word 'mentor' in the same sentence as 'female board member' perpetuates the notion that the female in the boardroom is a subspecies of the real thing. To make the point again, there are lots of great women out there already, who don't 'need' mentoring to add value to a board.

6. Absolutely not. In fact it is likely to deepen further with the threat of quotas. Gender diversity is just the start. Where are people with disabilities on our boards? And despite the daily headlines on the 'Asian opportunity', how many of our businesses are tapping into the Asian 'potential director' talent pool? …

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