Thinking differently about Board composition

Guest Blog by David Levenson

I have a lot of boardroom experience and years of observing governance practice to draw upon in considering the composition of boards. I first entered a boardroom almost thirty years ago, aged 34, and since then, I have spent thousands of hours sitting in board meetings, as an executive director, NED, advisor and trainer.  I have worked on and with corporate, public sector and not-for-profit boards and I sit on two boards today.

Boardroom Bias
I have seen some of the best – and occasionally the worst – examples of corporate governance practice in boardrooms across England.  The worst examples I have witnessed include casual (and even overt) sexism and racism which is invariably excused as “banter”, and the unconscious or perhaps unthinking acts of bias which always seem to result in the same people speaking while others are ignored.

As an executive officer I saw these things, but I didn’t call them out either at the time or afterwards.  How could I do that and not put my job at risk?  How would that have helped anyone?  This is how I justified my own lack of response, my own behaviour.  But it made me uncomfortable then and it still does now.

With all my boardroom experience, I don’t stand by anymore. I don’t need to.  I speak up and out when I see behaviour that doesn’t sit well with me.  But it shouldn’t need all those years of experience.  Everyone, whether they have just joined a board or have been there for years, needs to feel they can speak up.  We are ambassadors and representatives for the businesses and organisations we serve – to our staff, our customers and suppliers and many other stakeholders.  We have a duty to uphold the values that, on paper at least, our organisations espouse.
Barriers of Entry

Since becoming a professional coach in 2016, much of my time has been devoted to preparing future leaders for the boardroom. The tallest barrier of entry to the boardroom is not gender, race, disability or any other such group. It is age.  Specifically, it is age discrimination against younger people who are perceived to lack the necessary experience to join a board.  This reverse ageism is not only manifestly wrong, it also makes no sense, either commercially or in terms of meeting an organisation’s purpose.

The Benefits of Younger Board Members
Let’s take a business that sells health or beauty care products online to young people, or a charity that helps school leavers who, for some reason haven’t attained basic educational qualifications get access to apprenticeships.  How can the boards possibly know if they are fulfilling their purpose, if the voices of the people they are aiming to serve are never heard in the boardroom?

Similarly, in an age when technological change is perpetual (leaving aside the need to migrate whole workforces to remote working in a matter of days, as happened last year), there is a real benefit in having board members who are up to date with technology. So as a board member, if the CTO presents a new tech strategy reliant on the latest apps and digital gizmos, I would feel much more comfortable knowing that my colleague seated next to me is a tech-savvy millennial or Gen-Z’er who can quiz the CTO more intelligently than I can.

Positive Steps
Unlike law or accountancy, there is no mandatory qualification for board members; it follows that there should be no barriers to entry, whether overt or hidden.  Some businesses and organisations have taken positive steps and now have imaginative board apprenticeship schemes or youth shadow boards.

And if diversity and inclusion is a driver for the board, consciously seeking out younger recruits will almost certainly guarantee more diversity of presence, thoughts and views in the boardroom.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy reading Let’s Hear It For Authentic Leadership!