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Supporting inclusive Boards – what have we learned?

15 Mar 2024 | Kim Ansell Kim Ansell reflects on the learning and insights from two Supporting Inclusive Boards programmes led by Tesse Akpeki as part of the 2022 and 2023 Member Benefits programme.

The importance of inclusive Boards and Board diversity is well-evidenced and widely supported. Nevertheless, our 2022 report, Diversity of Boards, shows that progress towards more diverse Boards remains slow; and this is also mirrored outside HE where the picture is much the same.

Throughout the 2022-23 Supporting Inclusive Boards Member Benefits programme, we have been considering the link between healthy and well-performing Boards and how culture, structures and policies can enable – or sometimes hinder – inclusion to support better decision-making and to create an environment where everyone can contribute. We have explored the conditions needed for a diverse Board to thrive, the barriers to change, and the skills needed to challenge the status quo. In particular, we focussed on the confidence, capacity and capability of governance professionals to enable change.

“Our approach was grounded in the spirit of appreciative inquiry and this is where we saw improvement during the pilot. There was a change over time in the language people used to describe their challenges. And framing them in a different way not only opened people's minds to different solutions but enabled them to embrace failure and learning as part of that process. I strongly believe that putting attention on this when thinking about shifting culture and practice can enable progress.” Tessé Akepki

Very broadly, around 15% of our participants were open to the change necessary for achieving a more diverse governing body; but expressed the view that they did not have the right culture or the confidence to do so. Over half were open to change but needed more capability or training to do so; and around a third felt ready, capable, confident and engaged to enable the change needed to bring about more Board diversity. Attendees at our webinar agreed that collectively we should be aiming higher – and Tessé and I agree! 

We heard that Board members had much more confidence around the compliance aspects of inclusivity and diversity than the performance aspects. There remains a need for help to think about inclusivity and diversity, not as an end in itself, but as a means to a more important goal – that of better, more informed, decision-making through listening to and considering different voices in Board discussions. In our workshop, we explored how we develop a culture of inclusion; how our expected values and behaviours and values play out; and ensuring that governing body engagement with key stakeholders offers the insight to inform their understanding and thinking. Face-to-face is helpful – but not essential – and some universities are starting to use ‘warm data’ or information about stakeholder views, receiving videos or listening to accounts from other Board colleagues.

In thinking about the role of the Board, it’s perhaps worth reflecting on its dual responsibilities: most codes of governance, including the UK CUC Code of Governance, require that the governing body, “promotes a positive culture which supports ethical behaviour, equality, inclusivity and diversity across the institution, including in the governing body’s own operation and composition”. It needs information and evidence to assure itself that the institution's policies, practices and behaviours are diverse and inclusive. But it also needs to ensure that as a governing body its own house is in order and that it has inclusivity and diversity embedded into all that it does.

The Golden Thread from: ‘Recruit – Interview – Appoint’ to ‘Induction – Engagement – Belonging’

In the programme, we reflected on the range of levers that governance professionals have to help embed the EEDI (Equity, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) golden thread. These are some of the examples we came up with:

  • Recruitment criteria – what criteria and previous experience do you expect and is that ‘previous experience’ really essential, or are you able to mentor and support a more diverse cohort of governors onto your Board?
  • Culture and language – these are often barriers; so, seek independent views of how welcoming your language and culture really are
  • Recruitment practices – test your interview panels ‘ways of working’ to ensure good practice and to eliminate any unintended or unconscious bias
  • Scheduling of meetings – for example, thinking about times that are more convenient for those with caring or childcare responsibilities, or unavoidable work commitments 
  • Support, development and resources – make these tailored to better inform or enable different types of governors, or those with/without governance experience, or those with/without experience of HE.
  • Coaching/mentoring – there have been some successful trials across the sector with reverse mentoring, with governors and students both benefiting from learning and insights not previously available to them
  • Boards often need help to recognise the difference between inclusion and representation – this can be a ‘danger zone’ and requires a nuance beyond tick box exercises. 

Our most important learning is that most things we explored were that connected and a holistic approach is essential. Alex Bols from GuildHE worked with Tessé and me to explore some of those connections in the figure below:

Inclusive Boards - integrated thinking

Key opportunities to unlock

How we interact and make sense of everything going on in the Board room is important and thinking more deeply about our culture. Tessé reminds us that we should challenge ourselves to understand the different mindsets around us and to think about what is getting in the way of sound and diverse decision making. You can hear more about this in this recording

Critically, it is important to ask, “What are we trying to achieve and what outcomes do we want?” and reflecting on the motivations of all the views in the room to help unpack the motivations and mindsets present.

Creating a vision for diversity and inclusion was key in our discussions and workshops; thinking about identities in a broad and meaningful way, not limited to social identity. The data can only tell part of the story, particularly given the often small and changing numbers. So layering the data with other information is important in moving beyond current practice.

One key message emerged in our discussions about how we can help governing bodies makes sense of everything – ‘don’t assume!’ Don’t assume that Board members agreed just because they don’t speak up; and don’t assume that the terminology or language being used is understood in the same way. Don’t assume that there is clarity about roles and responsibilities between committees and the Board so that members are clear about where they can contribute.

Nurturing, flourishing, thriving, developing and retaining governors 

We learned that we need to understand and embrace failure in order to learn to build confidence for diverse members of the Board to be more comfortable in engaging; and that creating ‘psychological safety’ is essential to create the right Board culture. We also learned not to make assumptions about the knowledge, confidence, capability or engagement of staff or student governors.

Most importantly, we learned that having a more diverse board won't necessarily change the culture of inclusivity. So, what does help? Certainly, people who are unafraid to challenge and ask ‘the sticky questions’; as does transparency, and creating inclusive spaces for conversations across differences. People find governance rewarding and fulfilling. It’s a role that is meaningful and purposeful. So we should continuously ask ourselves and our governors, “how do we sustain this to enable governors to engage and add value?” 

The 'challenge' questions - encouraging curiosity

We challenged our participants to consider what approaches they are using to re-frame and shift inclusive cultures. It is important when reflecting on the induction process, for example, that we are not just inducting an increasingly diverse board into an existing culture but use the opportunity to reflect and evolve the culture to support new governors. We heard that universities do observe bias in their Boards and Committees, this ranged from unconscious bias to affinity bias and also assumptions and judgements. 

“I encourage curiosity: be curious about what ‘good looks like’ and working together to enable that. This involves identifying ‘noise’ that creates blocks in decision-making as well as biases. The role of Chair is critical here, but it is a collective responsibility to avoid confirmation bias and to avoid defensive responses. Curiosity is a much better response.” Tessé Akepki.

We developed a list of questions which governors and governance professionals - and those in the governance eco system - and suggest that governing bodies challenge themselves to be open and curious when they ask themselves these questions:

  • Do we see skills and diversity as binary choices – and are we evolving our skills matrix to a skills and diversity matrix?
  • Do we observe or hear things that create barriers to being inclusive/diverse and if so, do we have the right challenge?
  • Do we see a regulatory mindset around the Board table? Rather than a performance and outcomes mindset. 
  • Has the governing body – typically via the Governance and Nominations Committee – got a vision of what the ideal board looks like and how it feels? 
  • Is the governing body explicit about where in the Board and Committee structure these responsibilities lie?

We know that this is not a ‘tick box’ exercise; neither is it a linear process. It needs to be part of our institutional make-up. It’s important to consider the connectivity in all that we do, to understand more fully the consequences of doing something in one place affecting another policy, practice or behaviour institution-wide. 

Find out more about the Supporting Inclusive Boards Member Benefits programme and our other work to support Board recruitment and diversity

Tessé Akpeki works as a governor, as a Coach and mentor for governors and as an inspiration for governance professionals in many sectors, including HE. Tessé is a recent award-winner of ‘Governance Champion of the Year at the CGI awards’ (November 2023) 

Kim Ansell is a Senior Consultant, Leadership and Governance at Advance HE. Her work looks at the interface between senior leaders and the governing body and all aspects of institutional sustainability. 

Alex Bols is Deputy CEO of GuildHE which represents a diverse range of 60 universities and colleges across the UK. He is an experienced school and university governor having recently been appointed to the governing body of his fourth higher education provider. 


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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