Nov 01 2018| Leadership
by Phil Eyre Founder
We may be hearing more positive noise in the media about how businesses are embracing greater gender diversity but the latest analysis from Cranfield University shows us a very different story.
Analysing the Numbers
This year’s Female FTSE Index, which identifies the percentage of women in leadership positions across FTSE 100 boards, highlighted that only 9.7 per cent of women currently hold C-suite roles.
In mid-sized business, the picture is even worse, with just 30 women fulfilling full-time executive roles in the UK, that’s only 6.4% of the total.
Studies show that companies with the highest percentage of women on their boards outperform their peers and we certainly support greater gender diversity in leadership. However, our focus is less on gender diversity and more about diversity of thinking within a leadership team. Asking, for example, can this team think creatively and explore various considerations or is it stifled, suffocating and constrained in its thinking?
Adding Value Through Experience
We know that diversity of experience and perspective adds the greatest value to the decision making process. In today’s fast-changing world, returning to past sources or methods of success cannot guarantee a positive outcome. Indeed, in some cases, that tactic can actively undermine future performance.
Blockbuster’s popular example illustrates this well. Leadership teams that lack curiosity will fail to explore new ideas and alternative ways of achieving their business objectives and risk falling into a rut of almost-pointless meetings. The agendas are followed and the minutes look great, but they’re living on past success.
Challenging the ‘Tried and Tested’
We often observe and challenge, this lack of collective curiosity. The executive committee that has worked happily together for over 20 years is a good example. This team of six good friends get on very well, but have failed to prepare any future leaders.
They haven’t noticed that their once well-recognised brand had slipped off the market radar. A change at the top is long overdue.
In some instances, the CEO is the only actively curious member of the team, exerting an oppressive position on a largely passive executive board. One executive described this to me as “little more than nodding donkeys, saying ‘yes sir’ to anything the chief brings up”.
To reach optimum success, greater diversity of thinking and perspective is needed.
Tools for Achieving Greater Diversity
We use human data analytics to highlight the key factors that enable our clients to identify the potential for group thinking, motivation and focus. Examining the mindsets that team members are bringing to the decision-making process can be hugely instructive. A highly theoretical team might argue over every point, reaching no decision, whereas a subjectively-orientated team can be pulled in multiple directions.
We encourage boards to actively recruit for differences in thinking, people that will challenge “the way things are” and bring fresh perspectives throughout the whole term of their appointment and not just at the outset. There is a critical factor though; the core values of the business - what integrity, quality, service actually mean in practice - should be collectively owned, demonstrated and promoted into the business. It is the balance of diverse thinking and shared values that underpins highly effective teams.
We also invite leadership teams to engage stakeholders that are not board members in their decision-making processes. Inviting new joiners, managers, even customers to contribute can open doors to powerful new ideas. These fresh perspectives can catalyse a number of changes in systems, customer care and culture.
In some instances, we introduce a team to leadership experiences from outside of their field. For example, a chief risk officer in a finance business can learn from the head of compliance in a manufacturing setting. Seeking perspectives that are outside the normal frame of reference expands horizons.
Back to the Boardroom
So what place does experience have in our boardrooms? Should boards simply hand the keys over to a younger cohort and retire?
Life and business experience contribute significantly to our awareness skill and the ability to see problems arising in the future. The greater the awareness skill, the greater the sophistication with which a team member will be able to process new information and build a ‘radar’ to identify and avoid trouble.
Sometimes, the school of hard knocks is the most effective learning ground, but only where the individual is responsive enough to learn experience.
We have the advantage of being able to identify this via human data. Our metrics tell us whether an individual is responsive, aware and curious. Can they assimilate new information in a sophisticated way and make better decisions or not?
This insight is particularly valuable when making appointments to the board. Will this person bring fresh ideas and challenge our conventional thinking, or look to fit into our current patterns of thought and behaviour?
Nurturing Mutual Trust and Respect
There is a critical factor for a leadership team to benefit from diversity; mutual trust and respect. It is easier to recruit and work with people who think like us. Engaging, learning from and benefitting from different styles and perspectives requires that we respect other people, even if - and especially when - their differences challenge our thinking.
It’s essential to take time and understand where others in our teams are coming from. An open, rather than defensive stance, is required alongside a willingness to listen and learn.
Without a determination to foster such an ethos, any attempt at improving diversity will fall flat.
Where there is mutual trust and respect, diversity enables greater creativity.