Corporate diversity severely lacking in bored-rooms

Boardrooms have traditionally been the province of blokes over 50 with several letters after their name. Is it time to welcome a more diverse set of achievers at the table?

And how can organisations unearth people with directorship potential whose background, age and skill-set don't fit the traditional mould?

Companies need to look at the background and experience of those already 'on board' and resolve to recruit outside the usual suspects, says Greg Robinson, managing partner of executive search and advisory firm Blenheim Partners.

Bored-rooms

Recent research by the firm on the composition ASX100 boards revealed some conspicuous gaps. Directors from science, technology and academic backgrounds, for example, were rare, each accounting for just two per cent of the cohort. Former senior public servants are another minority group at three per cent.

Women comprised 24 per cent of the total group, and the Australian Institute of Company Directors is keen to see the latter figure rise to 30 per cent – both at the top end of town and in smaller organisations.

The onus for increasing diversity rests with the board's chair, whose job is to bring together a group with a wide spread of expertise, Robinson explains.

"The last 48 months there's been increasing scrutiny with regards to the composition of the board," he says. "Diversity started initially on gender but it's broadening to include diversity of thought.

"Greater consideration is warranted especially when [companies] bear in mind that diversity of thinking creates an atmosphere of growth, as opposed to the more traditional, conservative, risk averse approach."

Mind the gap

An independent assessment of the board can help an organisation identify the skills and experience already present and pinpoint any gaps that could be filled by a high achiever from another arena.

Think leaders such as career public servant and former treasury chief Ken Henry, who now chairs the board at NAB, and new media whizz-kid Todd Sampson, who is a non executive director of Qantas and Fairfax (publisher of this site).

"It's a balancing act," Robinson says. "We're not saying you don't have accountants or lawyers because there's always a need for them but what we're saying is you don't need to have an over-significant contribution."

Organisations that want to mix it up at the top might look at candidates who have scientific and public sector backgrounds, are digitally savvy or have spent stretches living and working in other countries, Robinson adds.

C'mon get savvy

Kathryn Foster has had a lashing of the latter – two decades as a senior lieutenant for Microsoft in the US, where her achievements included tripling global subscription and gaming revenues for the XBox, a stretch at Amazon and 18 months at the helm of her own start-up. She's been headhunted for board positions at a string of companies, both high tech and traditional, since she relocated to Australia last year.

She currently sits on the boards of ASX-listed Class Ltd and iWebGate and has received approaches from other companies in the technology, entertainment and retail sectors.

"I've been lucky enough that quite a few companies have reached out to me to see if there's something I could do to help them," Foster says.

As a woman in her 40s with heavyweight high tech credentials, she ticks multiple boxes for businesses looking to up their boardroom diversity quotient.

"My skillset and probably my diverse background from the international and strong business experience [perspective] but also because I am a female, makes me very attractive, at least, to have an initial conversation with," Foster says.

Get on board

For her part, Foster says she's only interested in getting on board with companies which genuinely want a broad base of expertise at the top.

"Any board that I would be interested in aligning myself with is one that does appreciate the skills that they have in the executive team and the skills that they need on the board," she says.

"So it is about diversity and it is also about the skillset – where does the company want to go and what are the conversations that you need to have to get there?"

Tapping more under-50s talent can also pay dividends for companies looking to be in closer step with the Gen Xs and Ys who comprise an increasing proportion of the workforce and consumer market, XY on Boards CEO Paul Smith says.

His organisation runs training and networking events for executives with their eye on a spot at the top table.

"Increasingly in the world we live in … boards need more imagination and that comes from diversity, but all kinds of diversity, not just gender," Smith says.

"It's about new ideas, new perspective – that's why we're trying to empower the next generation of directors, to be able to have that change now. Not to have to have this long distinguished career as a CEO, accountant, lawyer [before] you can join a board."