Updated: Apr 29, 2018

Diversity. I expect that pretty soon the UK Corporate Governance Code will be exhorting public companies to redouble their efforts to achieve it.

There's nothing wrong in that. And if the Code isn't too many people's favourite bedside reading, perhaps it should be. But what - exactly - is Diversity? How can we achieve something when we don't really know what it is? We can't. OK, I know - some people will say "Diversity is achieving 50% of women on boards". Well, even though my first boss was a woman, her boss was a woman, and her boss was a woman - and in the Civil Service forty years ago nobody even commented upon that - we sometimes seem to have gone backwards in terms of attitudes. What happened to Women's Lib? Subsumed, like the 1967 Summer of Love, into some anaesthetised mainstream world? Of course we need more opportunities for women - and we need to provide more opportunities for all kinds of people worldwide.

Some will say that introducing ethnicity also equates to increased diversity. Well, prejudice because of someone's ethnicity is abhorrent. I really thought we had dealt with all that 50 years ago, back in the Sixties. Prejudice of all types, the toleration of bullying, the failure to show people respect - all those things need to be addressed. But does it really link directly with improving business performance, rather than with achieving social justice? To some extent.

But I suggest that real Diversity is actually something else. To my mind it has a lot to do with Ideas. With Concepts, Attitudes, Values, Approaches, Philosophies and Beliefs. Imagine this scenario, for a moment: Sir Henry Bloggins, the founder and Chairman of Bloggins Retail, has worked very hard to achieve a truly diverse board. Half of them are women, there is a good ethnic mix, one or two of the directors are openly gay, the directors vary in age from late-30s to mid-70s. It really is about as diverse as it can get. Sir Henry, aided by his executive search consultants, have done a great job. He is even in the running for a prestigious Diversity Award.

But there is a problem. Bloggins Retail is struggling. The board is baffled. What on earth is going on? Is it just chance, with Dame Fortune taking an unexpected shot at the company? Well, even though the directors all appear to be very different, in reality they are just different versions of Sir Henry. They think like him, they assess projects as he does, they view the future like him. The boardroom is very harmonious. It is all very pleasant. There appears to be exceptional diversity. But it simply isn't delivering.

A board is a team. But that does not mean that its members should be like the Borg, from "Star Trek". Everyone thinking the same - and then some competitor comes along with a radically different attitude toward the customers. And at the end of the day, that's what it's all about - customers. Meeting their current needs. Anticipating their potential needs. Pleasing them, or maybe even delighting them. Saying to them "Hey, we've got a great new product! Take a look. Give it a spin!"

The Borg Room

Maybe I was spoiled during my early management career. My directors would actively bring some of us far more junior people into discussions, to see what we thought about things. We expressed our views. And even if those views were perhaps not too mature, or we could not take the broader picture into account, those views were respected. It was great! Looking back, I now think that was Diversity in action, even though nobody used the expression. And there were certainly disagreements among directors. I later saw that first-hand because of the nature of my job.

So my position is this. We need to eliminate prejudice, we need to help and encourage people - particularly women, who frequently have serious family responsibilities which do need to be actively accommodated - to be the best they can. The world of work needs to be fair, and positive, and - dare I say it? - enjoyable. But we also need to address Diversity, almost as philosophers might. What exactly is it? How are we going to achieve and encourage really different solutions? How are we going to create and develop radical new ideas? How are we going to achieve real, effective, challenging discussions at work without people being afraid to speak up?

There are strong messages in film and literature, as well as in science, from which we might perhaps learn. The classic film "Metropolis", from which the dramatic image at the top of this article is taken, describes a society which has lost its way. The same theme exists in "The Time Machine" by the great H.G. Wells.

And is it perhaps time to ask if poets and other artists can help businesses to achieve diversity? Maybe that isn't quite as bizarre, or quite as extraordinary, as it sounds - but don't expect the UK Corporate Governance Code to recommend Independent Non-Executive Poets on the boards of public companies!

At least, not yet.

Robert Waterhouse is an Advisor to the international Executive Search and Coaching firm Oxana Bristowe.

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