Is a lack of diverse thinking the real battle in the Boardroom?

Is a lack of diverse thinking the real battle in the Boardroom? Author: Kathryn Gallan Published: 3 August 2018

In recent months I’ve attended events with industry figures on innovation within the energy sector. Listening to the attitudes and approaches from a range of leaders in this field, I can’t help wondering if a company’s ability to move with the times is directly related to the amount of experience the executive team has within the sector.

Two scenarios that I’d like to compare are an industry round table event with CEO’s and Chairs of a number of utility companies, and a talk given at Utility Week by the directors of three major retail suppliers. Innovation and disruption were two topics under discussion and what astonished me was the first group’s inability to be open to change. Legislation and regulation was repeatedly positioned as an obstacle that could not be navigated around and rather than using it to think differently, apathy had set in.

The latter group was fired up by the same challenges. They had a test and learn mentality and were using data points to understand problems in the delivery of supply. By understanding the problems they could create solutions that offered a tangible benefit to the customer.  Not only that, but they realised they couldn’t deliver this entirely by themselves and were collaborating with companies out of sector to provide the expertise they didn’t have. Could this group’s experience from other sectors be the reason why they were so unbridled by what could be achieved?

This led me to thinking about how well companies embrace diversity of thought and what they do to seek out experiences and knowledge in very different places.

Recently I attended a meeting with a colleague to address a number of group HR Directors for a large listed engineering company. The company admitted it was suffering from ‘group think’ as a result of consistently hiring senior leaders from their closest two competitors. These appointments often brought team members with them and the company recognised that it wasn’t attracting any new thinking and the business was starting to complain about the lack of originality. Our remit was to find them leaders from very different sectors, so we suggested corporate companies which fast tracked highly competent employees into management positions. This would give them the breadth of experience required to run a business unit and an opportunity for candidates to apply what they knew to a different sector. It was refreshing to see this business recognising that a different approach was needed to remain relevant.

Diversity of thinking can come in many different forms. In the case of this engineering company it was enough to hire from outside of sector. For other businesses it’s about seeking the opinions and ideas from a wider ranging audience and for some it’s about specifically working with individuals who bring a completely different way of thinking because of conditions like ADD or autism.

Auto Trader is a great example of a firm that has embraced diversity of thought. It has successfully gravitated from being a media owner to repositioning itself as a tech company. Operating a practice called “two in a box” it sees senior positions in the company held by two individuals. It could be positioned as the left brain/right brain view and Auto Trader encourages individuals with different belief systems and skills to either work independently or together on solving problems. This dual approach to problem solving embraces differing viewpoints and creates additional ideas that the business can potentially use.

SAP’s ground breaking Autism at Work programme was built from a need to hire people into Tech roles. Recognising that individuals with autism brought incredible talents, SAP adapted the hiring process to make it less daunting and to encourage this pool of untapped talent to consider a career with the company. They now estimate that by 2020, 1% of the workforce will be on the spectrum.

There continues to be a shortage of digital skills in the UK and whilst many companies are doing more to embrace diversity, there’s still a long way to go. By ripping up the blueprint for what ‘talent’ looks like (certain universities, companies and networks) and adapting the interview process to allow individuals to shine, your workplace will be more vibrant and diverse as a result. 

Kathryn Gallan specialises in digital leadership appointments across all sectors

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