Tips for Leveraging Boardroom Diversity


Jean Francois Manzoni (Chaired Professor of Leadership and Organizational Development at INSEAD), Paul Strebel (Sardoz Family Foundation Professor of Governance, Strategy and Change at IMD in Switzerland) and Jean-Louis Barsoux (senior research fellow at IMD) offer advice on taking advantage of board diversity and how to avoid any traps that inhibit the performance of boards when diversity is increased.

Their full case study on leveraging boardroom diversity originally appeared in Rotman Magazine, and a summary was published in Business Insight, a special Wall Street Journal section co-managed by Sloan Management Review.

Below is an outline of some key points from their study to help you gain some valuable tips on how to increase board diversity, while avoiding any pitfalls that can hamper performance in groups with a high degree of variation in frames of reference and experiences:

Avoid the pitfalls of labels.
Board directors must be aware of how and why labels develop, and they must also learn to challenge them as they come up. The chair must be especially in tune with how labels occur in order to spot warning signs from fellow directors.

Make careful selections.
Boards require members with a sophisticated understanding of human dynamics. Members must be able to express deviating opinions constructively. Experience with differing contexts will be helpful. Understanding prevailing norms before challenging them is essential.

Help new directors.
New directors will need an opportunity to make a favorable impression by meeting their fellow members in a benign setting before their first board meeting. The chair may choose to identify another member for them to connect with to help the onboarding process.

Team metaphors can create low performance.
To be effective, boards must maintain their critical edge, and thus do not need to be as aligned as top management teams. Be careful not to allow references to the "team" metaphor to evolve into group think.

Encourage dissenting points of view.
A new director who envisons themselves as being alone in a particular viewpoint, may be hesitant to share a dissenting perspective. The chair must draw individual directors out of their comfort zones by expressing the value of and encouraging candid viewpoints.

Share the role of devil's advocate.
To prevent a single director from being typecast as a cynic because of his or her willingness to play devil's advocate, instead institutionalize the devil's advocate role by appointing a new member each time to make a case against a particular issue at hand.

Revisit the chair's role.
As diversity on a board increases, the chair will often need to move away from a chief strategist role to more of a facilitator--someone who can bridge gaps and keep discussions on target when they are approached from varying perpectives, with different frames of reference.

For a complete copy of the case study, visit HBR.com.

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This article was written by Joe Chappell, Managing Director, Global Marketing at the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC).

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