It is time to be more radical in recruiting diverse boards

Written by Garry Coutts on 7 February 2019 in Comment

Diverse boards need to look more like our communities at large rather than reunions of the alumni of our better schools

Image credit: Pxhere

The proven benefits of having a diverse group of people around a board table is overwhelming. Academic studies as well as casual observation show that diversity leads to better and more creative decision making as well as more effective scrutiny of performance.

In Scotland we have been recruiting more women to our public boards for many years and we have seen huge improvements in gender equality. But gender is only one aspect of diversity. It could be argued that replacing white, university educated, professional men with white, university educated, professional women will do little to ensure different ways of thinking or wider understanding of the priorities of the whole community. Diverse boards need to look more like our communities at large rather than reunions of the alumni of our better schools.

Boards however, have important work to do. They need to have the knowledge, confidence and skills to hold the executive of our public bodies to account, ensure the organisation has realistic but ambitious strategic plans in place and can provide assurance to ministers, parliament and the public that the institution they govern is in good order. The importance of the role of a director on any of our public bodies should not be understated. They are a vital part of our public life and we need capable, skilled people to discharge these important duties. So surely that means we need experienced and well qualified people on our boards? People who are most likely to be; well, how can I say it, white, university educated, middle class professionals?

That certainly appears to be the predominant mindset in traditional board recruitment. We rely heavily on a method of selecting directors that I would argue has done much to perpetuate the continuation of boards that lack meaningful diversity. We tend to look for people who can demonstrate not only that they have the skills and knowledge to discharge their responsibility but that they have experience in doing it. In short, one of the key attributes looked for in an aspiring board member is that they already are a board member or operate professionally at board level – otherwise how can they show they have the attributes deemed necessary for the job.

But I think this is the wrong way to look at it. If you have two candidates and one has really great experience in analysing balance sheets and performance data and one has experience being a single parent on a low income, who will be best placed to join a board? Probably both of them, but if you can only choose one, I would pick the single parent every time – as long as they have demonstrated they have the capability of learning how to provide governance to a board, and could do so, within their first year or so of joining they will be of immense added value. Their lived experience will bring a different way of looking at things and, in my experience change the nature of the discussion about the board’s work.

At Children’s Hearings Scotland (the body responsible for recruiting, training and supporting members of the public who serve on children’s panels) we have taken this approach in recent recruitment rounds. For two of our five board members we specifically looked for people who had lived experience of the care system. We asked they tell us about how they would bring that knowledge to the board table and use it to help influence they way we work in planning our activity, developing our key performance criteria and engaging with our wider stakeholders.

As a condition of their appointment they have been given the opportunity to develop the necessary skills to scrutinise our accounts, understand the relationship between the board and government, interrogate management reports and engage, as part of the team, in directing the organisation.

Our experience to date has been incredibly positive. We have recruited dynamic, knowledgeable and committed people who are more than capable of playing a full role in the work of the board. Their very presence as board members is exceptionally powerful in ensuring the focus of our executive, the board and the organisation as a whole is trained on the issues most important to the success of the organisation from the perspective of our most important stake holders.

Is there something unique about Children’s Hearings Scotland that makes this kind of approach more appropriate and more likely to succeed than in other boards? I don’t think so. I have previously sat on other organisations including a health board and a workforce regulator and I believe that greater diversity would have enhanced the work of those organisations. Imagine having someone with lived experience of mental ill health, addictions, homelessness, the criminal justice system or such like on the board of every public body in Scotland. Not as a “consultee” or taking part in “engagement” but there as a full board member because their experience has value in shaping the future direction of our key institutions that to a large extent are established to best serve others with similar experiences.

There is nothing in legislation or regulation of our board recruitment processes that stand in the way of achieving this. Ministers have repeatedly advocated that boards should be seeking to become more diverse. It is simply a matter of those of us with influence on the recruitment and selection process having the will, and making the positive choices, to do it.

Garry Coutts is the Chair of Children’s Hearings Scotland. He wrote this piece in a personal capacity

Share this page