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Is Superficial Diversity Hurting Your Board?

It’s not enough to invite everyone to the table; your job as director is to ensure they are heard, too. We had the honor of interviewing Deb Elam, GE’s trailblazing Black female corporate officer, chief diversity officer, and an influential figure in corporate leadership. She shared her best practices for fostering an inclusive culture within the boardroom and how we can all learn to improve.

Leveraging Diversity

For individual directors or board chairs considering best practices in leading with inclusivity, we first need to understand the terms’ diversity’ and ‘inclusion clearly.’ These concepts are intertwined in the boardroom and at every level of the organization. Inclusion is about fostering a welcoming and equitable environment where everyone feels valued.

Both terms are often used synonymously, and while they do have a strong correlation, they are not identical. Diversity is about a wide range of differences, the most common being gender, race, and religion. On the other hand, inclusivity is about how well these differences are accepted and embraced—with an open mind—among the group.

Elam said a great way to understand leveraging diversity to the fullest in operations can come from considering a scenario where a company’s directors all hail from the same region. Maybe they attended similar schools or went to schools with similar/ common attributes. Even though these directors might have different personalities, backgrounds, and talents, their educational background is identical. 

These directors may have been shaped by the same educational philosophies, teaching methods, and academic cultures, which will influence their thinking patterns, decision-making styles, and perspectives on business operations. If all those attitudes are the same, it will stifle the board, and operations could suffer losses from succumbing to groupthink. When everyone thinks the same, it inhibits any vision of long-term solutions that will make for real change.

Groupthink is a byproduct of homogeneous diversity. To have true diversity and inclusivity, directors should have various experiences, beliefs, thoughts, and backgrounds.

Variety Does Not Mean Inclusive

Homogenous diversity is superficial. On the surface, it looks like the group is diverse, but in reality, it is very similar (homogenous). A company that boasts about having employees from all 50 states in the US might think they have a diverse workforce. But do they? 

If all of those employees are from similar socio-economic backgrounds, the same age group, and/or share the same race or gender, then their experiences and perspectives might be more homogeneous than diverse. That creates a superficially diverse environment, 

So, when someone says, “It’s diverse but not inclusive,” they’re pointing out that while there might be some level of difference, it’s not all-encompassing. True inclusivity means having a range of different people and giving equal opportunities and respect to all, regardless of their background, race, gender, age, etc.

It’s possible to believe you have a diverse group (like our example with the employees from all 50 states) without actuallybeing inclusive and valuing the unique perspectives and experiences that come with a deeper level of diversity. As Elam calls it, this “assortment of demographics” in the boardroom is not enough to make for an effective board. 

Directing Effective Boards

When your board members hold diverse views, they are better equipped to assess the wide-ranging implications of their decisions. They’re also more adept at navigating the increasingly complex business landscape, especially regarding digital evolution. 

This fulfills a crucial board responsibility: Considering the interests of all stakeholders, including shareholders, customers, employees, and investors. A board must ensure their representation in every process.

You also gain the advantage of seeing around corners metaphorically. Board members begin to align strategically with all parties, including your customers, employees, and trading partners. When executed effectively, this cultivates an innovative culture in the company and serves as an effective risk management approach. Moreover, it encourages forward-thinking within the collective.

To continue on the path towards inclusivity, Elam gives board directors these three things to think about:

  1. Do you engage and follow up with new board members? 

After a new member’s initial board meeting, allow some time for them to settle in. About a month later, Elam recommends personally contacting them and having a direct conversation. Think of it like meeting a new guest at a party. You want them to feel a part of the event, not be relegated to the sidelines. Gather their feedback on how the first meeting went, if they felt comfortable, had access to necessary information, and if there were any lingering questions. 

They must know that their presence was acknowledged, even if they didn’t have a chance to speak up. Allowing them to share their thoughts with you directly will make them feel more at ease to share. You, the director, can address concerns and make necessary improvements before the next meeting.

  1. Are your board discussions among members well-balanced?

As a director, it’s your job to make an effort to encourage participation and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute. This includes giving both the talkative, confident personality and the quieter, introverted personality room to shine. In these meetings, it’s also essential to maintain focus and stick to the agenda. While it’s great to have members share in-depth information, it may not always be appropriate. Encourage discussions to take place at the appropriate times.

  1. Does your directing style leave room for others to share their opinion?

While it’s essential to honor authenticity, as leaders, we must also recognize when our particular style may hinder effective communication. For example, if we dominate the discussion, we may need to dial back to create space for others who require more time to respond or prefer a more interactive exchange. In such cases, a one-on-one conversation aside might help you address an important issue with sensitivity and without overshadowing your board.

Embracing inclusivity in the boardroom brings about positive change within a company and sets an example for others to follow. Directors must prioritize inclusivity to create a more equitable and prosperous working environment. Let us continue striving towards inclusivity in the boardroom and beyond.