Diversity, inclusion, and your Board

Cast a wider net to strengthen your organizational leadership

By Linda Wood Edwards

Tell me you want to do more about diversity and inclusion in your company and I’ll head down a rabbit hole, right after I congratulate you and ask about your motives. I’ll want to know about your organization’s culture, and I can’t do that without wanting to know about the values your board uses to guide decision-making. Culture, values, and diversity are braided together, and we untangle them at our peril. Companies that struggle to introduce diversity and inclusion don’t understand that these three elements should be connected in the first place.

Culture is “the way things are done around here.” According to the Chartered Governance Institute, “…the wider company culture either arises from the behaviours and beliefs of the people working in the company or is driven or set by the board culture…most organization culture incorporates both…”

“Values are the core components of a person’s deepest beliefs, the concepts that they hold most dear and that drive decision making, or at least should.” If you’re in leadership, what you do, not what you say, demonstrates most what you care about. In “The Will to Govern Well” Glenn Tecker says, “When leadership establishes a set of core values, it creates energy, motivation, and commitment to creating a trusting environment…Values are the critical principles upon which behaviour, decision-making, and trust are built.” 

In “Making the Mix Work: Diversity and Inclusion” Aurora Geotina-Garcia notes, “Diversity is about representation or the make-up of an entity…(it) allows the exploration of individual differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment…Inclusion is about how well the contributions, presence, and perspectives of different groups of people are elicited and integrated into an environment…Inclusion is a culture that gives everyone a seat at the table.” 

Why does diversity and inclusion matter? Setting aside a moral imperative and reported financial improvement for a moment, businesses are facing labour shortages, and there are largely untapped segments in our population. In 2018, CME reported, in “Untapped Potential,” that 28 per cent of Canadian manufacturing jobs were held by women. Two-thirds of them aspired to management or leadership positions, but 37 per cent saw a promotion bias favouring men. A further 20 per cent did not believe the company supported their efforts, and 61 per cent believed women were under-represented in management positions.

The CME report stated that 1) Women need to see other women succeed (i.e., visible female role models); and 2) Businesses need to create a more inclusive workspace culture (i.e., by listening to concerns and remedying them). This is as true of women in manufacturing as it is on most boards. And of course, it does not only apply to gender. 

Consider age. In her 2020 research, Lisbeth McNabb found “More than two-thirds of job seekers cited diversity as an important factor when deciding where to work, yet half of millennials said their companies are not following through on diversity commitments.” I have experienced the benefit of younger people on boards and in workplaces, and it doesn’t match the typical narrative about this demographic.

Why is adopting diversity and inclusion practices so difficult? Partly because we must unlearn ingrained racial biases and rethink social and economic justice issues to create a more equitable community. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can go more quickly if we look for new people in different places.

Simone Weithers of WOC GIVE, a BIPOC-focused nonprofit, said that they began “empowering those closest to the pain, changing structural power dynamics, and adding to the diversity of voices in the sector.” She points out that if you don’t see yourself reflected in a role or an organization, then you won’t picture yourself there. 

If an organization in your community encourages involvement of diverse people, it will help the entire community reimagine board leadership, careers, and even philanthropy. We have had too narrow an idea of what board service should entail and who can do it. Diversity and inclusion need to be embedded into every facet of your organization and, yes, it’s a lot of work, not just a “checkbox” or “one course, and we’re good.”

A complete overhaul of the board table isn’t required because there is room for all. What makes boards work is an ability to respect and value different perspectives. Ten points of view does not make a board dysfunctional! Provided all directors are mission-focused and discussions are respectful, ideas will be sharpened and improved. That’s a win for everyone.

More benefits can be found. There have long been claims that better financial performance is tied to diverse leadership and that diversity and inclusion efforts improve a corporation’s reputation.

In “Slowly but Surely Boards are Diversifying” of the 395 new independent board directors appointed to S&P 500 boards in 2022, 74 per cent came from outside executive ranks. Of these, 72 per cent came from historically underrepresented groups, including women, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and members of LGBTQ+ communities. Nearly one-fifth are age 50 or younger.” Because boardroom turnover is low, the transformation is slow with new directors only accounting for 7 per cent overall. 

A recent article in Forbes reminded us that corporate boards are approximately 30 per cent women, but not because women aren’t qualified! It’s because board recruitment typically comes from executive ranks (and we know what those look like), meaning the mindset must change about where we find quality people. “To change your mindset, you need to establish a different vision and challenge the beliefs that prevent you from realizing the vision.” Of course, this means new guidelines and protocols, and tweaking “until the new mindset becomes the norm.” 

If you typically get directors from the C-Suite, cast a wider net that includes not-for-profits, academia, government, professional associations, leadership programs as well as ethnic, religious, and political communities. 

Be prepared for arguments, such as “We prefer to make board appointments by merit.” Having diversity guidelines (or regulations) does not mean that merit and quality are not present! Or this one, “Effective steerage and guidance…requires the board to operate as a collective and cohesive unit, not a diverse assembly of individuals.” The implication is ludicrous that diversity undermines good governance, and that (new) individuals are incapable of understanding their fiduciary duty. Or maybe someone wants to see the business case for diversity. Well, show me the business case justifying the status quo. 

If you are holding on to the status quo, ask yourself whether traditional board qualifications are still relevant. I’d say no, not if we base board appointments on what title you have instead of what skills you bring to the table. I’d rather see your vision and passion that will help us reach our goals than what it says on your business card.

Another word of advice? Don’t wait for a regulator to force the adoption of diversity and inclusion practices. Promote diversity because it is the right thing to do AND better for your organization, not because of a government mandate.

Diversity and inclusion training can help leaders become more culturally competent, empathetic, and self-aware. Boards need to have open discussions about implicit bias to help them understand the context in which they work (including systemic inequities). “Knowing this can provide opportunities to deepen the organization’s impact, relevance, and advancement.” 

What if your organization can’t go all in right now, or what if you’re just one person trying to make a difference? Start by being an ally.

Poornima Luthra says, “When it comes to DEI, there is plenty of fear. Those who are well-represented in any context are fearful of the change and loss of power that real inclusion will bring, fearful of getting uncomfortable, and fearful of saying and doing the wrong thing. I’ve…heard white male CEOs say that they want to support DEI efforts but are afraid of being cancelled. On the other hand, people from…underrepresented groups are also fearful: fearful of being the lone voice and being perceived as the token, fearful of addressing biases and discrimination, and fearful of the impact on their careers.”

Luthra tells us, “Allyship is a lifelong process of building and nurturing supportive relationships with underrepresented…individuals or groups with the aim of advancing inclusion. It is through this process that we overcome our fears of engaging with DEI. Allyship is about progress, not perfection. Allyship is active, not passive. It requires frequent and consistent behaviors. Allyship is not performative. It’s about lifting others and creating platforms for them so that their voices are heard. Allyship is not about fixing others.”

I see many places a person can begin to adopt diversity and inclusion practices in all types of organizations and at all levels. I hope you see some as well. Do it because it’s right, do it because your organization will be better, and do it because your community will be better too. Learn something now, improve on it later. Take a step in the right direction.

Linda Wood Edwards, owner of LUE-42 Enterprises, is a Certified Association Executive and a Fellow of the Chartered Governance Institute of Canada (CGIC). She holds a Bachelor of Administration degree, a certificate in human resources management, and the Accredited Director designation. Linda consults on board governance to organizations across Canada, serving as Corporate Secretary to several. She is CGIC’s Chief Examiner for Corporate Governance and a facilitator in the Directors Education and Accreditation Program.