Even if with a margin for improvement, yet Boards are diversifying rapidly – in terms of gender, nationality, culture and outloook. The Egon Zehnder 2012 European Board Diversity Analysis signalled that the number of women Non Executive Directors had increased four times across Europe over the prior eight years. There are large countries (Italy is an example) where the number is growing even further. We believe this trend will also affect the US and gradually other countries globally.
In addition, we have observed that a significant increase in gender diversity typically translate into further diversity: diversity of backgrounds, diversity of geographies (with an increase in international board members), diversity of age (generally, younger board members sitting at the table will also increase the variety of perspectives).
As Boards become more diverse, differences create a huge opportunity for those very Chairs to leverage on them, learning additional competencies to draw in diverse Board members, build on their insights and ensure livelier debate and board leaderhip. In addition, new Non Executive Directors, joining Boards with ever broader diversity, carefully scrutinise how Chairs leverage their additional, diverse capabilities and competencies.
This change is rapidly making an impact on all key competencies of a good Chair, even more so than on all other Board members. Running the risk of oversimplifying, a Chair will need to adapt along the following dimensions:
- Inclusive leadership & team effectiveness: in the new, more diverse environment, in addition to key interpersonal skills (such as collaboration & influencing skills, but also their Board Leadership, as well as their Coaching & Developing skills), a Chair will need to work towards greater inclusive leadership and team effectiveness. Leaders with a diverse team will face viewpoints that have not been expressed before. New generation Chairs will need to facilitate an inclusive environment in order to appreciate and combine the knowledge and experience of individuals with different backgrounds and viewpoints;
- Listening & trust building in a more diverse environment: this is an additional and crucial component of a Chair’s ability to succeed when leading a diverse Board. Listening means the ability to suspend one’s agenda and judgement, making room for other people’s thoughts, ever more so in a more diverse environment. In the life of a diverse Board, listening implies being able to remain silent for long, in order to gather sufficient elements for making up one’s own opinion. Also, listening means being capable of asking proper, effective, most of the time open-ended questions, both during the Board sessions and, even more importantly, between them. A diverse set of perspectives requires the Chair to be more skilled at facilitating discussions and soliciting input from members of the team that come from less assertive cultures or personalities. Chairpersons will find that they will have to seek the opinion of more introverted colleagues and they will need to facilitate and navigate the more complex discussions into a conclusion that all members respect, if not agree with. In some instances, this will imply the seeking out of a point of view, its recognition, and then the ability to keep engaged even those colleagues whose point of view might not have prevailed. Discussions among diverse groups will require higher energy to lead them successfully, avoiding excessive confrontation;
- Dealing with unconscious biases: the Chair will need to influence the Board’s decision making process with the ability to establish effective communication channels with all board members, no exception. In order to do this, broader diversity of the Board will also require that the Chairs learn how to identify and deal with two crucial unconscious biases which can hamper effective, independent decision making at Board level. They will to tweak some consequences of two unconscious biases through a little nudge. Similarity bias happens when we select people that are more similar to us, as opposed to people who appear more different. Evolution has fostered this trait, as a key manner to survive ever since the difficult times when we would live in the savannah, trying to escape from animals and all sorts of dangers. A “similarity bias” results when individuals are more likely to imitate cultural models that are perceived as being similar to the individual, based on specific traits (such, for instance, age, gender, geographical location and so on…). Similarity bias is even enhanced by our other bias, which we call snap judgement, whereby we unconsciously make up our mind on someone during the first milliseconds after we meet. The combination of snap judgements and similarity biases is the one reason why gender diversity (but also age diversity, geographic diversity and possibly many other aspects of diversity) is so difficult to happen without a little nudge. Effective Chairs will learn to nudge themselves towards overcoming both unconscious biases.
All the above requires growing levels of self-awareness from Board members and Chairpersons. The journey towards the benefits of greater diversity and inclusion at Board level has started. I am convinced that it will continue to be a satisfying and rewarding experience.