How to achieve diversity in your boardroom

Published · 4 min read

In today’s society having a diverse boardroom is a huge asset to your business growth and brand reputation. If properly led, the more diversity around you, the more blind spots will be covered, the more biases will be challenged, and the more decisions will be interrogated and improved. That’s a good thing – diverse boardrooms lead to better outcomes.

Think ‘team’ rather than ‘individual.’ If your boardroom only consists of individual rock stars they may be individually brilliant but lousy team players.  Similarly, you may inadvertently recruit lots of ‘brilliant’ but similar people.  We know that mixed ability diverse teams can outperform brilliant homogenous teams.

Brilliant people instinctively try to ‘fix’ problems.  To address the under-representation of senior female executives in boardrooms, organizations often focus on simply ‘getting’ more women.  This fix of representation over culture is rapidly becoming part of the problem.

The fix is often designed by men, or by women operating in male-dominated environments and often concerns training women to succeed within that male-dominated environment.  So, their idea of leadership is often male.  This does not do much for diversity.  The fix involves implementing courses, programs, initiatives, events, panel discussions, coaching, mentoring.

These can all be helpful and have a place. However, the real problem is not so much the women (if they are allowed to be themselves), it is the male-dominated system. Brilliant people are currently busy prioritizing the wrong thing.  The rabbit hole of women’s programs and schemes is distracting us from the real cultural problem in boardrooms.

Inclusion first, then diversity.

There is a catalytic effect of male-dominated cultures attracting more men because they have to adapt less and can fit in more easily.  They unconsciously benefit from network effects.

One of the reasons women are less likely to go for boardroom roles is because they are less self-promoting.  This is not a deficiency.  We know from studies that while men are likely to put themselves forward for a promotion when they can do 50% of the job description, women typically wait until they can do 90% before putting their hand up. he main reason they are more likely to leave is culture.

In other words, it is inclusion that drives diversity, not the other way around.  It’s culture that determines the diversity numbers.  You can’t fix culture, you must build it.  The ‘fix’ then follows.

Focus on demand, then supply

Most companies make the mistake of over-reliance on the talent supply side.  Yes, the supply of talent is critical for a business and, yes, there are female shortages in STEM subjects. However, it is the demand side that can make or break how the supply of talent is included.

At London 2012, one breakthrough moment came by changing the interview location from the Canary Wharf office to Mile End Community Centre.  By changing the system, not the candidate, we had a far better effect on the demand side and the behavior and self-awareness of our recruiters. We achieved a step change in diverse recruitment.

Companies can say they want women, but the real test is in whether this is a fix or a strategic cultural priority. Do they walk the talk? If they say they do, but all the female promotions are extroverted characters that better fit in with the men, do they really?  If they say they do, but their business model is still resistant to flexible working, then do they really?

Make unconscious behavior more conscious

At Investec, Astra Zeneca and BAE Systems, all male-dominated organizations, we have recently conducted inclusive leadership programs with mostly male-dominated teams.  The purpose of this is to hold up the mirror (to the men) and re-frame diversity as a leadership issue.  By taking them on a journey over a period of weeks, we can avoid the usual failing of ‘diversity training’ and instead focus on repeated behaviors that sink in over the course of the program.  People internalize diversity as a good thing in their own self-interest and are far more receptive to seeking it out as a result.

Nudge the remaining unconscious behavior

But training alone doesn’t work.  Up to 97% of our behavior is unconscious – to tackle the majority of our actual behavior, we need nudges.

We deploy nudges throughout HR processes and systems.  We analyze a system (let’s say recruitment) and we identify the gaps and biases in it.  Then we prioritize which ones to intervene in, and de-bias them by implementing process changes (nudges).

Recent examples include presenting anonymized CVs side by side, implementing mixed panels, and recruiting and assessing groups of individuals at the same time, not individuals one by one.

At KPMG UK, in 2014, all regional chairmen were male and the talent pipeline was (unconsciously) largely male.  We led a series of sessions involving all Regional Chairmen to map the 3-year talent pipeline for the business.

They placed their initial candidates’ names on a large whiteboard in red ink by groups of how many years each person was away from a promotion.  Then they re-wrote female names in green.  This showed that women had been de-prioritized in the process to date.  Candidate-by-candidate they discussed the business case and the reasons for each candidate’s position and slowly and surely many women started to advance from 3 years out to 2 years out to ‘promotion ready.’

We were leading a process to point out the group’s collective blind spots.  None of them were maliciously sexist or consciously discriminatory.  But all of them had been susceptible to the blind spots of 1-1 promotions, without the big picture view of group aggregation.  They simply didn’t know the women, as well as the men and the women, hadn’t put themselves forward as obviously as the men.  This process resulted in more competition, more rigor in decision-making, and more diversity in promotions

So, if you really want to attract more female talent into your boardroom, continue your unconscious bias training, but focus a lot more on the real unconscious behavior going on below the surface.

As Bob Diamond said, “culture is what happens when no one thinks they are being watched.”  You can’t apply a technical fix to a cultural problem and expect to solve the problem.  If you really want to attract more women into the boardroom, focus on the men.

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