True diversity is more than skin deep

The danger in taking a superficial approach to diversity is that it may not bring about change

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Where better than Twitter to celebrate progress on increased ethnic diversity in the boardroom?

“Thrilled to be joining the @twitter board,” tweeted Debra Lee last week. “It’s transformed the media and the world like few other things in history (and continues to)!!”

Ms Lee, who is a 60-year-old black businesswoman, has been chief executive of BET, a Viacom subsidiary, for 10 years, and holds several other board positions. Her appointment looks like good news in a world where too few non-white people get to the top.

In the US, 399 new directors were appointed to top company boards last year, according to headhunters Heidrick & Struggles. Only 4 per cent of these appointments — 16 posts — went to people of Hispanic origin. Yet Hispanics make up 17 per cent of the US population. Under 10 per cent of board appointments went to African Americans.

Equally unimpressive figures reveal the state of play in the UK. A survey last year of 10,000 business leaders by search firm Green Park showed that the number of visible ethnic minority chief executives has been falling and the number of all-white boards is growing. However, 14 per cent of the UK population comes from a black or minority ethnic background. Only three FTSE 100 chief executives are non-white.

Improving diversity at board level is not just a numbers game. It is about attitudes as well. The danger in taking a superficial approach to diversity — one of simply ticking boxes — is that it may not bring about meaningful change.

Skin colour does not reveal psychological make-up or social and educational background. You may congratulate yourself for building a board that looks different, that is not made up only of white middle-aged men. But will there be intellectual diversity in that apparently mixed team? You have to dig deeper than a different-sounding name to find out if people are really different.

Consider Ms Lee, newly established on the Twitter board. She may have had an entirely down-to-earth start to life in South Carolina, but she went on to earn a masters degree at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a further degree at Harvard Law School, before practising law in Washington DC.

Ms Lee brings an element of difference to the Twitter boardroom, but she also has an elite CV which makes her not so very different from many other corporate leaders.

The big mental leap that so many boards have yet to make is this: to acknowledge and embrace the way the world is changing, and recognise that their board is ill-equipped to deal with it.

You need to bring the outside world in, not shut it out. You need to be comfortable operating with people who really are different from you. That is how competitive advantage will be achieved.

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