There is no business rationale for having an undiversified board. Ensuring a varied board composition and taking advantage of the different attributes around the board table are critical to good governance and superior performance. Diversity means a composition that makes it possible for the board collectively to see with all eyes and hear all voices. It requires people who represent all the stakeholders. This way the boards will see more opportunities and risks, and become much more effective.
A pilot project
In 2014, a handful of progressive boards therefore agreed to take part in a pilot project. The idea was for the board to reserve a seat at the table for a diverse observer for a year. We called that observer a board apprentice. In so doing, the board would educate diverse potential members for the future.
Contact with a host board was often initiated through the board secretary. This individual ensures the board adheres to governance and deals with the recruitment of new board members. They therefore have great insight into the difficulties of finding suitable candidates for new open positions. In particular, they know that finding candidates who are different from the traditional cohort of candidates can be challenging.
The pilot project gave a group of diverse apprentices the opportunity to actually sit at the table and observe established board directors at work.
The boards found the experience valuable on many levels and reported the following after a year:
- It was easy to take an apprentice on board; it didn’t take much time or effort.
- They learnt about diversity and inclusion in a hands-on way.
- They felt good about taking an active part of solving the social issue of lack of diversity at board level.
- They felt that they were taking part in widening their own pool of tomorrow’s board members for succession planning – and so improving the quality of board directors and resulting performance by seeking difference and the best-of-the-best from the widest possible pool.
Overall the host boards felt the experience was wholly positive. All the host boards have taken on a second, different diversifying apprentice.
The individuals who participated as apprentices reported the following:
- They felt welcomed by their host boards and were given full access to all board papers and all meetings for the year of their apprenticeship.
- They had a board member to specifically go through any questions or comments with them before and after the board meetings.
- The board members seemed to enjoy mentoring the apprentice and having the apprentice taking part in board dinners and other activities.
- Their confidence in being a board member increased. In turn, this made it easier for them to apply for board roles with confidence.
- They gained valuable insight into the dynamics of a board.
- The experience made a significant difference to their understanding of what it takes to be a board member.
The overwhelmingly positive feedback led us to launch Board Apprentice. Today we are operating as a social franchise in eight countries, with some countries having several multiple groups actively participating. We have host boards from a wide range of companies and organisations including charities, higher education institutions, listed companies and SMEs.
We work with universities and other higher education institutions in different countries both as host boards, researchers and franchise holders. Higher education boards are excellent hosts, given they exist in large operational organisations with a variety of committees and complex challenges. Apprentices can learn a lot from observing such boards in action. We have also had academics become apprentices on commercial boards.
Some higher education institutions are now conducting research in connection with Board Apprentice. The research proves the concept is working, and reveals the areas in which it has impact.
Progressive boards are changing the landscape! If many boards in all countries globally take an active part in educating tomorrow’s board members and offer a seat at the table, we can solve the board diversity issue in a short space of time.
Charlotte Valeur has in excess of 30 years’ experience in the financial services industry as an investment banker. She is an experienced board member, having served on a number of listed and private companies, and is also a trustee of Westminster University.