Many studies of well-reputed universities and consultancy firms have been written on the advantages of having a diverse Board. According to these studies, including people of different age, race, gender, culture and professional and socio-economic backgrounds in a workplace brings different perspectives and increases creativity, productivity and innovation, which overall allow any company or association to grow and be more successful.
The predicament of these studies is easy: one of the keys for an innovative Board is diversity. But what does it mean to have a diverse Board? Diversity is usually interpreted as being linked to factors mentioned above, but its deep meaning is to create Boards where people with very unique characteristics bring new opinions, ideas and perspectives to the table, which leads to a change in the dynamic of the Board.
If an increase in diversity at Board level contributes to creating a stimulating debate, this, however, makes the functioning of the Board less smooth and more “challenging”. Indeed, an even Board would make decisions in a very efficient manner since its members would easily agree with each other. In a Board composed of individuals who are very diverse, points that need to be discussed might stimulate a range of viewpoints that will have to be taken into account before any decision can be made.
Diversity & the association world
The fundamental purpose of an association is to represent the interests of its members, whether large multinationals active in a specific sector or individuals pursuing goals such as defending the environment, advancing consumers’ protection or helping people in need.
In this context, the role of the Board is to be the voice of the community it represents and therefore to bring forward whatever projects the association is working on, on behalf of its members.
The members of the Board are elected and chosen from among the membership base of the association. In trade associations, for example, it is extremely frequent that the Board members are the CEOs or individuals who sit on managerial positions in their own companies. They contribute their expertise and knowledge of the industry for a purpose other than solely promoting their own organization: they sit on the association’s Board as representative and in the interest of an industry.
What does this mean for diversity?
Often, this means that the Board of an association is a mirror of the status of the industry or sector it represents. And, in particular, it is a mirror of the diversity achieved by that industry or sector at a high managerial level.
We still remember the story of this association whose directors were the CEOs of large multinationals. They were all men, white and in their fifties and met once a year in a ranch in the US where they would hunt, played golf, eat and have lots of conversations about the future of their industry. When the first woman was appointed CEO of one of their members, the Board panicked. The presence of a woman at their yearly meetings meant that they had to rethink the format of their gatherings. And not only that: diversity made its way into their industry, and it was catching up with them!
How to bring diversity to the Board?
In the past years, we have witnessed an increased awareness in associations about the importance of bringing on board individuals who can contribute new perspectives on the sector they represent.
In a fast-changing world, where new technology, trends and sensitivities are constantly being developed and evolving, it has become apparent that, for an industry to be able to represent its interests at association level, it is necessary to bring on board people who can appreciate and foresee where the industry is going.
In the past years, we have witnessed a real need at Board level for people who can bring refreshed perspectives, ones that can insure that the association stays in tune with the constant developments and changes of the industry it is the voice of.
The Boards of several associations we work with have understood that they are the reflection of their industry and managed to be so forward-looking to realize that, if diversity is unable to arrive at Board level, it is because it is not sufficiently present in the industry they represent.
On the basis of this acknowledgement, several associations have put in place programs to promote diversity within the sectors they are active in. We have seen the creation and implementation of initiatives with various goals such as attracting young talents, promoting women in roles that are usually male dominated and making the relevant industry more attractive to minorities.
If it is true that diversity trickles down at Board level only after having made its way in the industry it represents, it is also true that Board members, who usually have large expertise in a specific field and sit on managerial roles in their own organizations, are generally recognizing the value of diversity and actively trying to promote it within their own industry.
It seems to us that diversity in associations is a two-way street: from the industry to the Board and vice-versa.