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The Challenges of Achieving and Retaining a Diverse Board

Marsha Ramroop – Founder, Unheard Voice Consultancy – shares her thoughts on the challenge of ‘Achieving & Retaining a Diverse Board’ following Clore Leadership’s event of the same name.

On 28th February 2019 I attended the Clore Leadership’s Achieving and Retaining a Diverse Board event – a day where the notable challenge and opportunity came in recognizing both the size of the task and the steps that can be taken to address it.

Since then I’ve been asked to reflect on the themes of the day and share some examples in practice.

In my view, achieving and retaining a diverse board is wholly attainable.

What Derby QUAD did

At the event I talked about Adam Buss, the CEO of Derby Quad, who across a couple of years identified the need for change on the Board and worked with the Chair to make it happen. These are the steps Quad took:

Assess the current make-up of their board and audit carried out of skills and demographics, including socio- economic diversity, via a board audit.

The review outcome was then used to reflect back to the board the current make-up, and have a discussion on how they could fill the identified gaps. (Some Board members chose to leave as a result.)

The recruitment was done on a variety of platforms, by advertising for the skills QUAD was looking for and making it clear that they wanted to attract a diversity of candidates.

They also approached things proactively and reached out to candidates within their own community rather than simply waiting for them to respond to adverts.

In the first instance candidates were asked for a letter of interest and a CV.

Then, there was a welcome event for all that had expressed an interest. Adam met with some in person and sometimes with the board Chair to further assess their suitability.

From this, recommendations, endorsed by the Chair, were made to the full board and, once approved, the new board members were appointed.

This has led to the following: A 55/45 female/male gender split on the board including a female chair, three ethnic minority board members, an average age of 47 down from over 50, and two board members who live with a limiting disability.

Adam says:

‘The journey isn’t over… the key things are understanding in detail where we are as an organisation and being proactive in finding relevant candidates. It is not enough to simply say ‘people didn’t apply’.’

I am one of the people Adam recruited. I would never have considered being on a Board, were the advert in the local paper, or on some ‘people-who-want-to-be-on-boards’ website, rather than on Facebook; the opportunity had been shared by Derby Book Festival. And, I follow them because my neighbour, the founder of Derby Book Festival, reached out to me one day and said ‘I’d like you to be involved’. If Adam hadn’t reached out immediately when I asked, ‘what’s this all about then?’, I’d not be a board member. If after accepting me, they hadn’t welcomed the difference and input I bring and allowed me to contribute to Board in different ways, I wouldn’t still be a Board member. I’ve been invited along to enough things as ‘a token’ to know when that’s happening to me. Quad always ensure a culture of inclusion.

I had to acknowledge however, as Deloitte statistics state, 74% of senior executives want to be better at Diversity and Inclusion, but only 24% know the definition of Diversity. Adam had no problem with that. But to clear it up:

Diversity is the mix of visible and invisible differences such as gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, different abilities, sexual orientation, religion, communication styles, education, people who wear glasses. So, you don’t look for “diverse candidates”, you look for candidates representing diversity.

The question for organisations is are you reflecting/ hiring/serving the mix of ALL visible and invisible difference?

So, what’s inclusion? Inclusion is the culture where people feel their different perspectives, styles and needs are respected, valued and taken into account.

The two words are not interchangeable. They are separate, but interlinked concepts.

So, if Diversity is the mix and Inclusion is the culture, a key word… culture – what is that?

As people who work in cultural organisations, I’d like you to park the idea of arts and culture for a moment, and focus on, for example, organisational culture…

The problem is of course, what’s Acceptable and Familiar to you, may not be Acceptable and Familiar to me. We have the old adage, treat others as you wish to be treated, do unto others as you wish to have them do unto you… but we need to revisit that – that’s about treating others by looking at them through your own cultural lens.

We need to start treating other people as THEY wish to be treated – and that’s how you build an inclusive culture.

But doing that is hard. It’s very difficult and frustrating and challenging.

So what steps can you take to address this?

If you can attend an event or training day like the one run by Clore Leadership, consider those facilitating that training to be like your personal trainers: we’re here to help you get Inclusion Fit; but you have to do the exercise.

And I recommend the Cultural Intelligence approach (CQ), which I outlined in my workshop on the day:

  • You have to start with your motivation (CQ Drive); why do you want to get fitter…
  • You have to gather the information you need (CQ Knowledge); what do you need to know…
  • You have to strategise and plan (CQ Strategy); make time in your day for the exercise…
  • And then you Action it (CQ Action); you actually do the exercise.
  • And just like you can’t see us today and run a marathon tomorrow, you start with small stretches, a warm up – a practice within your comfort zone, and maybe a run around the block.
  • And it might hurt, and you might get it wrong… and tomorrow despite your exercise, you see no change…

You have to keep going, day-after-day, to develop stronger muscles, and slowly, slowly you build up, and over time, you get fitter and stronger, until you can run longer and further.

But it takes repeated efforts, and upkeep. And, like all fitness regimes, as soon as you stop, you’re likely to start to slip back into old ways.

The panel discussion at the event, with Sue Hollick, David Hevey, Matthew Xia and Sarah Weir, also added to this. Sarah Weir shared three questions she had been asked by a new trustee, which help with basic inclusion and understanding for new Board members to focus their support:

  • What are you excited about?
  • What’s troubling you?
  • What can the Board help you with?

Joanna Moriarty of Green Park provided some useful statistics around especially Black and ethnic minority board member numbers and their attempts to assist those who were looking to improve those figures. However, again the point was made, getting a diversity of people on a Board only works if there’s an inclusive culture to support them.

We further made this point showing the powerful Accenture video “#InclusionStartsWithI”:

Achieving an retaining a Diverse Board is a challenge when personal biases have to be overcome and structures have to be reordered, so don’t have immediate unrealistic expectations of yourselves. It’s slow, deliberate, repeated hard work, but the outcome is well worth it.

This article was originally published on the Cultural Governance Alliance website.

Marsha Ramroop is Founder of Unheard Voice consultancy and Trustee at Derby QUAD. |

Themes Governance Inclusive Leadership Practice