The importance of boardroom diversity

Boards are the mind and will of a company, and they perform better when they include the best people coming from a range of backgrounds and perspectives. The boardroom is where all strategic decisions are made, risk overseen and governance applied. Therefore, it’s vital that an effective and balanced board consists of a diverse blend of high-quality individuals bringing a mix of experience, skills and backgrounds to the table.

Women bring specific benefits to companies, yet women still remain woefully under-represented in the boardrooms of most UK companies and organisations. At our current rate of change, it’s going to take over 70 years to achieve gender balanced boards in the UK! This despite the fact that various studies have shown companies with more women on their boards perform better operationally and provide a better return on investment.

I remember the first board role I had about 20 years ago. I turned up, shaking with trepidation, surrounded by some well-known, influential captains of industry, squeaking out answers every time I was asked to comment. After a few meetings the Chairman took me aside and told me, quite directly but very tactfully, that I wasn’t contributing as much as he thought I would. I replied that I felt quite intimidated by the depth of knowledge and experience of others around the table and I just couldn’t match that. “Mmm” he said “but you’re not here to be the same as them, or say the same as them. I brought you on board to be different, because you are different.”

And that was my first lesson in the importance and benefits of board diversity -  a balanced board has diversity of thoughts, experience, skills, knowledge, and gender – and that is good for business. I overcame my fear, found my voice, brushed up on my governance knowledge, and never looked back. And didn’t squeak anymore either!

Fast forward to today and I have served on over 30 boards, every one different and each a rewarding learning experience. I continually update my knowledge and board skills to stay ahead of the game and be open to all opportunities that come my way. And I want to see the boards that I sit on become gender balanced.

To this aim, I have worked closely with Edinburgh Napier University to develop their innovative Leadership in Board Governance Programme. Armed with up to date knowledge and skills, and applying a healthy dose of common sense, no matter what their background, age or experience, there is a board opportunity out there for every woman (and of course men too…). It is time for women to step up, push any fear aside and contribute in a meaningful way for their own personal benefit and that of our country and society.

Believe me, a board role is truly a career and life-enhancing experience, and it’s never too early to start your board career – my latest appointment to a board I chair is an 18 year-old schoolgirl!

So, please join us on the Leadership in Board Governance course this autumn. I wonder what your first board role will be?

Lynne Cadenhead, Campaign Advisory Board member, Edinburgh Napier University; Chairman of UNICEF Scotland Advisory Board; and Chairman of Women’s Enterprise Scotland