Yesterday evening saw the Annual General Meeting of Changing the Chemistry, which in its first year of operation as a Scottish-based charity committed to promoting diversity on boards has had extraordinary success. This unique peer-network has already grown to over 200 active members, and has contributed to filling 70 board positions. Yesterday, in the AGM and the Members’ Meeting which followed, was an opportunity to celebrate success, but also to delve deeper into what diversity means, and how we interpret this in practice in all of the organisations with which we are involved in some way.
The evidence is coming in thick and fast, globally – greater diversity makes for better organisations. As one of the Trustees explained in her speech last night, diversity means ‘more difference at the table, which means more challenge, less group think, better decisions’. Diversity does not just mean different backgrounds, ethnicities and genders – it is fundamentally about diversity of thought. How we think, and the differences between us in this respect, are rarely visible, and yet they are one of our greatest assets in any group decision-making role such as a board of an organisation, because they allow us all to bring different perspectives to issues, challenges and potential solutions. Diversity really matters – without diversity of thought, it is far, far less likely that we will be able to appreciate any issue facing us as fully and deeply as we could if we were to consider other views, perspectives and thought processes. The only explanation for people to fail to appreciate diversity is that they simply haven’t encountered it yet and understood its value – we usually don’t know, of course, what we don’t know, and our unconscious biases are precisely that – unconscious, and therefore invisible to us.
Diversity is not just about who people are; it is about how they interact with one another, and this was what emerged very clearly from the group discussions at last night’s meeting. When over 50 engaged, intelligent thinkers are brought together, you would expect some profound thinking to happen, and the conclusions are worth reflecting on. Diversity, it was noted, will thrive and bloom …
… when there is diversity of thought gathered together in the people present on a board. Difference is vital to diversity; diversity is killed stone-dead by a board who all look the same, feel comfortable with one another, and have similar life experiences. Sometimes – arguably, often – boards need to appoint people with whom they feel less comfortable, in the knowledge that these people will think and contribute something different.
… when there is a culture of listening – of real, active listening in order truly to hear what others are saying, not just (as the Buddhist saying we were introduced to last night remarks) pretending to listen while in fact preparing to speak.
… when challenge and opposing or even conflicting views are welcomed and encouraged, where people are emboldened to speak up, and where the chair is so skilled at facilitation that a safe yet effective space is created for valuable collaborative sharing of insights and carefully considered, well-rounded decision-making.
All organisations – small or large, public or private, new or longstanding – face challenges. The role of the boards of these organisations is to provide both insight and oversight, and in tackling their specific challenges, every single one of these organisations can benefit from greater diversity of thought, as boards across the country are beginning to discover. Greater productivity, more ideas, better processes … What is there not to like about the effects of greater diversity, properly nurtured?
The next step for boards, then, is to challenge themselves to embrace and encourage the conditions in which the seeds of diversity are not only planted but nurtured. When diversity flourishes, we all benefit.
Dr Helen Wright is a Trustee of Changing the Chemistry and Chair of the CtC Broadening the Membership Committee