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Welcome to the 2020’s, the Decade of Board Diversity

Benita Lipps, head of Interel Association Management, talked to board members of four associations – the Brussels Binder, the International Association of Convention Centres (AIPC), ELSA Alumni, and the European Network of Research Integrity Offices (ENRIO) – about the benefits and challenges of serving in a highly diverse board.

Ask any association leader whether they are satisfied with the diversity in their boards. The most likely answer is that they are not. Whether it’s gender balance, geographical spread or integrating the next generation into the leadership structure, most of us need to acknowledge that not much has moved over recent years.

This is not to say that associations are ignoring the issue. On the contrary, the awareness that diversity is an important component in effective leadership is continuously on the rise.

I was recently asked by a frustrated group of newly elected board members – all male, white, European and over 50 – whether it was actually legal to run a board with no women. This anecdotal evidence is backed by hard facts: the 2017 BoardSource report ‘Leading with Intent’ showed that 65% of participating CEOs knew that increasing diversity was important, but they had not yet taken any actions to improve diversity. Among the board members, 41% agreed that diversity was important, but probably not a key priority for their organisations.

So if our boards have learned to talk the talk, why are we not yet walking the walk? It’s because shaking up the dynamic of a boardroom is easier said than done.

Research shows that the most efficient boards are often composed of like- minded, long-standing directors. This is even more the case for international associations, where face-to-face inter- actions are rare and there’s less time to connect on a personal level. The familiarity and camaraderie between long-standing colleagues leads to a productive atmosphere where consensus can be reached quickly and decisions are easily made.

So, why rock the boat by insisting on diversity? In today’s continuously fast- paced, interconnected environment, the question ‘why rock the boat’ has become theoretical, if not heretical. The association boat is rocking on the waves of change whether we like it or not, so we need to find the right crew to stir it through these lively waters.

Here are three misconceptions to address first.

Misconception n. 1:

we don’t need to worry because we have a female vice-president

A popular misconception is that a certain person is diverse, due to their race, gender, nationality, age, or sexual orientation. They are not. They are a unique individual. However, including them in your board may bring diversity to it. Diversity is the presence of people who, as a group, have a wide range of characteristics, seen and unseen, which they were born with, or have acquired. So, when you aim to add diversity to your board, stop looking for a diverse candidate but find someone who can change the dynamic and makeup of the collective or group.

Also, diversity goes deeper than identity diversity and is often most beneficial when you also consider social and professional diversity, as well as cognitive diversity (skills, perspectives, thoughts, worldview).

“The first members of the Brussels Binder shared a vision,” says Corinna Horst, the President of Brussels Binder – an association promoting gender balance in policy debates. “Their different expertise and qualifications were crucial to cover all the basics and instrumental in getting the association off the ground.”

Misconception n. 2:

if our board ain’t broke, why fix it?

Encouraging more diversity in the board- room doesn’t suggest that your system is broken. It is a way of opening up new opportunities such as more innovation and better member engagement.

Juliana López Bermúdez, board member of AIPC – the industry association for professional convention and exhibition centre managers world wide – is very clear on why diversity matters. “In my opinion, a diversified representation on a board generates richer and broader discussions, it enhances the possibilities of success for an association when defining their strategies and action plans,” she says. “Any effort in this sense is advantageous and with certainty will generate great benefits to all its members.”

We mentioned the dark underbelly of easy consensus and homogeneous boards: groupthink and strategic rigidity.

2017 BoardSource report ‘Leading with Intent’ showed that 65% of participating CEOs knew that increasing diversity was important, but they had not yet taken any actions to improve diversity. Among the board members, 41% agreed that diversity was important, but probably not a key priority for their organisations.

So if our boards have learned to talk the talk, why are we not yet walking the walk? It’s because shaking up the dynamic of a boardroom is easier said than done.

Research shows that the most efficient boards are often composed of like- minded, long-standing directors. This is even more the case for international associations, where face-to-face inter- actions are rare and there’s less time to connect on a personal level. The familiarity and camaraderie between

By increasing the diversity of perspectives, experiences and expertise, association boards increase their chance to come up with new ideas, services and solutions. This perspective is shared by Robert Vierling, a board member of ELSA Alumni – the alumni association of the European Law Students’ Association: “In my opinion, the promotion of board diversity brings enormous value to the members of the association. Any decision-making process that takes into account a variety of viewpoints on the issue in question will lead to a better result that best serves the members of the association.”

The benefits of board diversity have a direct impact on the relationship with members and the association com- munity. “Having experts on the board from different organisation types, from different parts of Europe also provides a broader representation of the members,” explained Sanna-Kaisa Spoof, Maura Hiney and Hjördis Czesnick – board of the European Network of Research Integrity Offices (ENRIO) in a joint statement. And they added: “Choosing board members that are well linked to other research integrity initiatives in Europe helps to build the profile of ENRIO outwards, thus making ENRIO a legitimate and important voice at a European level.”

If the makeup of your board is drastically different from the makeup of the com- munity you serve, your association may fail to recognise and address their true needs. “Diversity within the members of the board of directors allows that the cultural and economic realities of each region, posed from a local perspective, may be taken into account during the analysis and discussions in the board- room,” states Bermúdez.

“ELSA Alumni is an association that lives from bringing together people of different ages with different professional and cultural backgrounds to learn from each other,” agrees Vierling. “Therefore, I think it is essential to reflect this diversity in the board of the association. Only in this way can the pool of opinions and needs of the members be adequately represented and the different interests be represented.”

Misconception n. 3:

newcomers fail because they don’t understand how we work

Let’s assume you made the effort and managed to get some of these ‘diverse outsiders’ onto the board – not just women, but also people from different parts of the world and even some youngsters that are just starting off in their career. Consequently, you expect to increase international membership and finally get your social media problems solved. And then? Not only are you still waiting to see results, your formerly productive board meetings are suddenly dominated by frustrating conversations about the ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ of your work. What happened to the benefits of diversity?

You may have a radically diverse board but, unless the members feel welcomed and valued, the association is unlikely to reap the benefits. Inclusion provides people with the chance to contribute to the organisation, while feeling comfortable and confident enough to do so. Robert Vierling agrees: “For me, diversity on the board means that you invite them to come together and listen to their views and ideas and ultimately allow their voice to be heard.”

Will this make for a more bumpy ride when it comes to board governance? Probably. “Working in a diverse board is certainly more difficult than working in a one-sided board, as it is always more difficult to take into account the full range of opinions and find a com- promise,” admits Vierling. Is it worth it? Absolutely! “The diversity and commitment of the board contributed to our fruitful, intense discussions on the direction of the Brussels Binder and its work,” confirms Horst.

With these misconceptions out of the way, what can be done to increase board diversity? What concrete steps can be taken to be more representative and inclusive?

Solution n. 1:

proactive board (re-)design

To avoid meaningless diversity quotes, strategies for diversification should be based on real needs. Take a look at your membership, your mission and your current challenges to see where your association could benefit most from fresh insights. Board self-evaluations assess (future) skill gaps and enable the board to redesign itself. Once you agree where those gaps are (or will be), you can create a concrete and evidence-based roadmap for change.

Solution n. 2:

professional board recruitment

There is a tendency in international associations to recruit board members from their pre-existing networks through word of mouth. To open up more opportunities for diversity, candidates should be encouraged from outside these net- works. This requires a fair and trans- parent recruitment process, as well as a recruitment campaign that explores new channels of communication.

Solution n. 3:

inclusive board governance

Making the most out of individual differences – in opinion, style, language – that go hand in hand with true diversity can be challenging. It is therefore important to create a governance platform that allows all board members can learn, enquire and actively participate, while assuring them that their contributions are welcome and valued. Establishing ‘emerging leader’ or expert positions within the board help to give everyone a clear mandate. Last but not least, barriers to board participation should be minimised by taking into con- sideration factors such as time zones, language barriers, family life and travel budgets when planning board meetings or retreats.

Solution n. 4:

a welcoming board culture

If senior leadership is too dominant, or too quick to snuff out opposing view- points, diversity is unlikely to flourish. A diverse and inclusive board therefore also needs to nurture an inclusive cul- ture. The Brussels Binder does so by emphasising everyone’s shared com- mitment to a common vision: “The diversity and commitment of the board enables the board to come up with decisions that are credible to the larger team of volunteers. There is also a very strong sense of collaborative leader- ship, so all board members are equal,” explains Horst.

Do you still need some arguments to convince your board that the 2020’s are the decade to invest in diversity? These three points will be hard to ignore.

Board diversity helps to meet the evolving needs of  the  association: “A new association needs a different kind of board than an association that has been around for a while,” says Horst. “Commitment, passion, time and hands-on engagement, not only providing strategic vision and direc- tion, was needed at the beginning. Now, with an organisational structure that includes a management committee that handles the day to day matters, the board is evolving.”

Board diversity is truly enriching for  all: “This experience has opened my eyes to the perspectives of our older Board members, but also to their views and understanding of my generation,” explains Vierling. “As a result, the work on the Board is an incredible learning experience for all of us. I am happy and proud to feel this diversity in our board work and I am convinced that every ELSA Alumni member will feel it too.”

Board diversity is no longer optional: “In the 2020´s the diversity of the board is a necessary part of professionality, reliability and democracy of an inter- national unpolitical association,” stress Spoof, Hiney and Czesnick.

Convinced? Let’s agree to make the 2020’s the decade of greater board diversity.

Originally published in February 2020, by HQ: The Association Magazine