Where you stand depends on where you sit

A recent email from one of our Savvy Director™ readers got me thinking about how diversity of experience actually influences the opinions and viewpoints that we bring to board discussions, as well as the decisions that we end up making.

It’s taken for granted these days that diversity at the board table is a good thing and that it contributes to more robust discussions and better decisions. But how does this actually occur? Especially in the light of board discussions with management about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on business.

I’ve paraphrased our reader’s comments below:

I’m curious about the experience of boards in the current environment where directors coming at the impacts of COVID-19 on the organization vary greatly based on the industry or sector they come from.

For example, there are those who may be from a sector that is experiencing significant layoffs and is not considered to be an essential service. And others who are focused on bridging to recovery and preserving their employee base to protect the organization’s long-term viability. How directors view the challenge ahead very much depends on their perspective, or the lens through which they weigh all the factors to be considered. How are Board Chairs and CEOs coping with the divide? What questions should be asked when balancing all of these views? Diversity of experience is very valuable but presents itself differently in a pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis.

The Board Chair has an important role in trying to bring these diverse perspectives together. But as individual directors, we each have a part to play as well.


The Value of Diverse Perspectives

There’s an old saying ─ Where you stand depends on where you sit. It’s called Miles Law and is attributed to Rufus Miles of Princeton University back in the 70’s. The point is that one’s perspective is always shaped by their environment. That environment is formed by their cultural background, their life experiences, and their careers.

Let’s use DirectorPrep.com™ as an example. Taken together, the three co-founders (myself, Alice and Dave) have a rich, diverse set of professional and life experiences that we bring to the board table.

  • Our careers span various industry sectors, from insurance to broadcasting, from information technology to arts and culture, from management consulting to government.
  • We’ve gained expertise in any number of functional areas ─ sales and marketing, human resources, software development, programming, quality management, policy development, training and facilitation, consulting, and so on.
  • Oh, and we’ve also been entrepreneurs and small business owners.

So now that each of us is serving on boards of directors, that knowledge and those experiences are available to help the organizations we serve. Hopefully, we can add value to the board by drawing on those experiences and the lessons we learned from them. But there are others in the room who are just as passionate, and just as right, as we are. Their perspective is every bit as valuable.

The value of diverse perspectives only materializes if everyone is ready to listen and if the board is able to weave the various viewpoints together to arrive at something resembling consensus, where board members may not all fully agree, but at least they feel heard. Respecting and honoring individuals’ diverse backgrounds helps. As does asking open, authentic questions. Questions like:

  • What in your experience leads you to believe that?
  • What are the assumptions behind that?
  • Help me understand where you’re coming from.
  • When have you seen something similar and what was the outcome?
  • What other perspectives should we think about before reaching a conclusion?


Different strokes for different boards

There’s another way to think about Miles Law. Let’s re-phrase it slightly to read ─ Where you stand depends on which board table you're sitting at.

Once again, let’s use DirectorPrep’s co-founders as an example. As a group, we have worked with or served on the boards of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, government departments and crown agencies, hospitals and human service organizations, publicly traded companies, family businesses, professional associations and charities.

One of us is currently serving on three boards: a mutual insurance company, a government-funded hospital, and a not-for-profit safety training organization. Imagine the different ways that COVID-19, along with the shutdown of non-essential services, has impacted these organizations.

Not to mention that various boards may be following different governance models: policy governance, traditional, strategic, advisory to name a few. (If you’re not familiar with these terms, click here to download a list of governance models from DirectorPrep.)

Each board calls for a director to explore their individual background and experience to discover the lessons that will be valuable in this situation.


What should the Savvy Director do?

As mentioned above, the Board Chair has an important role in trying to bring these diverse perspectives together. So, first of all, supporting the Chair in that role will help the board to leverage individual directors’ various perspectives to reach the optimal outcome.

Savvy directors practice Dr. Stephen R. Covey’s Habit 5 from his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. ®

The key behavior of collaborating with others needs to come to the fore. In this case, that requires self awareness, an open mind and flexibility.

  1. Self awareness. Savvy directors acknowledge that their perspective on any given issue is colored by their own experience. When contributing to the discussion, they make that clear.
  2. An open mind. For savvy directors, the value of diversity is more than just a slogan. They understand and respect the fact that their fellow directors are coming at the issue from different directions. They listen thoughtfully to understand how others’ experiences affect their perspectives.
  3. Flexibility. Savvy directors understands that the value they bring to the table varies according to the organization, the board, and the governance model. They respond to what this particular organization needs from its board? (Click here to read our recent blog “What does the CEO need from the board right now?”)


Your takeaways:

  • Different cultural backgrounds and life experiences give rise to diverse perspectives.
  • Be aware how your own life and career experiences have shaped you and your opinions.
  • Diversity at the board table can add value if there is a willingness to listen, understand, and move towards consensus.
  • Practice Covey’s Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.®
  • Show compassion in discovering where others are coming from. Exercise your emotional intelligence.

Thank you.


Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.


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