Diversity in the boardroom

Diversity in the boardroom

What is diversity in the modern boardroom? It depends who you ask of course – but the routine response will pivot towards gender, race, cultural background and age – all useful themes to explore when studying the diversity (or otherwise) of a workplace.

Diversity of experience is perhaps a more complicated challenge to be explored in modern organisations, because in simple terms, you can’t see it just by looking at someone.

This is not to belittle the obvious and compelling arguments for a more inclusive workplace based on gender, race, culture and age. In fact, it’s an argument that there is a different way of getting there.

When I look at the boards of mining and exploration companies I don’t just see middle aged white blokes. I also see geologists, engineers, finance people, a smattering of lawyers and well….that’s about it.

Whilst I can appreciate the desire to have what might be termed a focus on certain skills – and a desire to manage board numbers and therefore costs – I can’t help but wonder if companies with this cookie cutter approach to board composition might be missing a trick.

Research shows that what successful C-suite leaders and Directors have in common is outstanding leadership skills and a sound understanding of business fundamentals – more so than functional expertise.

Great leaders that can help drive our resources sector forward can be found practicing many disciplines, but they often get overlooked because they’re not from the old mining/money/law background.

In WA we have a small number of great leaders who break the geologist-engineer-finance mould. Think of Bronwyn Barnes, Managing Director at Scorpion Group and Non Executive Director at a number of other resource companies. Bronwyn came to senior leadership positions via a corporate affairs pathway, and her stakeholder engagement experience, combined with leadership and business acumen, as rightly seen as significant assets for those companies she serves.

Nationally, take Anne-Marie Corboy, former CEO of HESTA, one of Australia’s biggest super funds, and non-executive director of Bank Australia, Utilities of Australia and MTC Foundation Ltd. Anne-Marie has a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor of Arts and brings a wealth of non-financial and financial experience to the board table.

Looking internationally, Hank Paulson was the CEO of Goldman Sachs before he left to become Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush in 2006. Paulson was instrumental in captaining rough waters in the fall out in the days and weeks after the global financial crisis. You’d think that someone with a head for numbers might have studied economics, however Paulson was an English Major at Dartmouth College.

Closer to home, Stewart Butterfield’s Master of Philosophy has proven beneficial as he helms tech start-up Slack – a cloud-based set of proprietary team collaboration tools and services.

“Studying philosophy taught me two things,” Butterfield told Forbes. “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings.”

A quote that resonates with me is one from a 2016 KPMG paper on diversity: Good diversity is a process not an outcome.

The paper goes on to say:

The key to good diversity is getting the mix right to achieve a shared purpose – overcoming biases and assumptions – and then, how that mix is managed (which requires a chair who is adept at facilitating open and robust discussion). Boards don’t make a huge number of key decisions but the ones they do make need to consider the breadth of challenges and opportunities faced by the business. A well-facilitated decision-making process that respects individual perspectives, appreciates individuals for their unique contributions, allows for rich discussion and has a tolerance (and lack of fear) of new or ‘different’ ideas will then lead to sustainable and positive outcomes…

… a little like society in general.

Kirsty Danby – President, WA Mining Club