Paul Myners: How to get diversity into the company board room

From a speech by the chairman of Marks & Spencer, to the Cass Business School, in London

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Our society - and business within it - has been conforming for the last 200 years. Mill complains about this in 1859, and De Tocqueville's
L'Ancien Regime et La Revolution (1856) contains a chapter called: "How France had become the country in which men were most like each other." So, what are the situations which allow people to be unlike each other?

Our society - and business within it - has been conforming for the last 200 years. Mill complains about this in 1859, and De Tocqueville's L'Ancien Regime et La Revolution (1856) contains a chapter called: "How France had become the country in which men were most like each other." So, what are the situations which allow people to be unlike each other?

The way company boards are made up is influenced by law, markets, custom and architecture. We cannot change the latter, but the first three we can change. Boards which reflect a commonness of view will inevitably be drawn towards discussions in which the prejudices of one director are reinforced by the prejudices of others.

They all have similar educations and career backgrounds; they read the same papers and listen to the same voices; they see the world through a common set of lenses. Some may be female; some may be from ethnic minority groups; but the lenses remain the same. Conventional wisdom looks to diversity of appearance rather than the pursuit of diversity of view and thought.

My experience tells me that frequently the most valuable contribution at any group meeting comes from the individual who has the courage or awareness to question the conventional wisdom and challenge the madness of the crowd.

Chairmen are naturally hesitant to introduce rogue or anarchic elements into the boardroom for fear that they will be disruptive, but frequently an element of disruption is a necessary precondition for effective challenge and innovation.

Dan Rather closed his very last CBS news broadcast with a single word. He captured what we need if we are to give full effect to true boardroom diversity - "Courage".

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