“There is no quick fix to this – to do it properly is hard work.”
The words of a senior West Midlands business leader on the ever-present, yet sometimes thorny, issue of diversity in the boardroom.
Brian Hall, West Midlands chairman of the Institute of Directors (IoD), told BusinessLive he felt there were plenty of businesses in the region walking the walk but others who “would just like to tick the boxes and move on”.
“I think most businesses, on the surface, understand that a more diverse board makes better decisions but I’m not absolutely sure there is a wide understanding that you have to fix it two generations beforehand, in order to make it work,” he said.
“You can’t put somebody on a board because of a particular criteria – you need to put them on the board because they can contribute and hold others to account.
“But you need to teach a diverse range of people how to do that so that you can achieve a diverse board.”
The issue is never far from the agenda with the oft-heard refrain of “pale, male and stale” when it comes to describing senior teams at companies of all sizes, not just the large corporates.
And the topic came very much to the fore when it emerged in July that 19 of the 20 members sitting on the 2022 Commonwealth Games board were white.
But there is work being done in the city region such as the Diversity in Leadership programme launched in 2018 by the Asian Business Chamber of Commerce and the Leadership Enterprise & Diversity Lab, housed at the University of Birmingham.
Mr Hall, whose three-year tenure as chairman comes to an end in June, said one of the hot topics which had come up during discussions prior to the coronavirus outbreak was whether or not boardrooms should skip a generation.
“Instead of going from the 60 somethings to the 50 somethings, it is whether boards should actively try to place people in their mid to late 20s or early 30s,” he said.
But isn’t putting someone on a board just because of their age as bad as doing it just because of someone’s ethnicity or gender?
“This is where the hard work comes in because you there’s no point in just putting a 28 year old on the board,” he added.
“You have to find the right 28 year old and invest in their training and their development at pace so, when they arrive into the boardroom, they have something to say and they have the confidence to say it.
“It’s a difficult task to do it right but, if you can get it right, you will then see individuals and businesses flourish.”
The IoD represents senior business leaders and directors across the UK with the West Midlands arm operating from four branches – Birmingham, Hereford and Worcester, Coventry and the Black Country.
Its regional director Calum Nisbet recently left the organisation to join the Black Country Chamber of Commerce with recruitment now under way for his replacement.
Nationally, it was in the headlines in August when it lost its second chair in two and half years when former banker Charlotte Valeur stepped down, less than two years into her three-year tenure.
Her predecessor Barbara Judge had resigned in spring 2018 amid allegations over her conduct while her deputy had branded the organisation “a laughing stock in the court of public opinion” over the way it handled an investigation into the matter.
But Mr Hall, whose day job is chief commercial officer with Birmingham-based health insurer BHSF, said organisations like the IoD were now more relevant than ever.
“There was a period where these things became glorified talking shops but I think there is a large role to be played by organisations like the chamber and ourselves in saying to local governments that we don’t just want things fixed, we want things fixed properly,” he said.
“We feed into Mayor Andy Street about what directors are thinking on issues such as the reaction to Brexit and covid and then feed that into government.
“Sometimes what we do works and sometimes it doesn’t but we do a lot on local policies such as in the early days of HS2, providing good reasons for the Government not to back out when it came under pressure because our director members were saying that, economically speaking, it is the thing to do.”
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Looking ahead, he said covid was “sucking the oxygen” out of so many other matters which needed to be addressed presently but this was the number one issue which needed to be fixed.
“At least then we’d have the time to go back and focus on all the other issues as this is an existential crisis for the whole of the planet,” he added.
“Being covid secure is an absolute must for the workplace.
“Having the right policies in place with people’s mental welfare as they’re making difficult decisions at work and difficult decisions at home is an absolute must.
“Despite covid, we still need to get our society a bit more joined up but covid is becoming the excuse not to do those things.”