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Changing the tone from the top – tips on diversity in the boardroom

28 Jan 2020 | Advance HE In her keynote session at the Advance HE Governance Conference in 2019, Charlotte Valeur, Chair of the Institute of Directors, advocated for change in the culture, diversity and quality of governance in higher education and advised on how to make those changes.


“Look for more transparency, it makes life easier.”

Despite public sector organisations being subject to a ‘public service obligation’, many private sector organisations are ahead of the public sector when it comes to making progress on diversity. Charlotte suggested that to go forward, higher education institutions (HEIs) need to change their mindset and set “hard” performance targets for improving diversity.

According to research by McKinsey & Co in 2018 a business is more likely to perform better financially if its workforce is more diverse. Delivering Through Diversity examined more than 1,000 companies across 12 countries concluding that firms in the top quartile for gender diversity are 21% more likely to enjoy above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity, are 33% more likely to see higher-than-average profits than companies in the lowest quartile.


“Words are not enough. People are tired of words, they want action!”

Too much agreement in the boardroom is not right. Agreement is not leadership today. Compromise is an effective decision to make. Charlotte said that the military strategy of ‘red teaming’, the practice of rigorously challenging plans, policies, systems and assumptions by adopting an adversarial approach can be successfully used in the boardroom to encourage an outsider perspective.


“Embrace it first if you want students to.”

Visibility on diversity should start at the top with governing bodies setting the example. Charlotte says this might include appointing individuals as “trail blazers” - individuals who were the first from a particular group to join a governing body, and who ease the passage for subsequent members from the same group.


“My motto is get someone who doesn’t fit in.”

Charlotte highlighted that head hunters and recruitment agencies can be unhelpful when seeking to widen board or governor recruitment. She urged HEIs to be more demanding, and not simply accept the list of names they are presented with if it didn't meet their expectations for diversity. Prior board experience should not be a requirement, but institutions should provide appropriate coaching/mentoring in such circumstances.


Top tips on how to get diversity into the boardroom

  1. Embrace and encourage challenge
  2. Own it in your head and your heart if you want to see and feel the difference
  3. Be bold. Have a vertical slice of the population on your board
  4. Get someone who doesn’t fit in
  5. You need people who are neurodiverse – those who think outside the box
  6. Accept difference
  7. Keep hearts and minds open
  8. Be visible
  9. Be authentic
  10. Lead from the top and be those role models for good.


Charlotte Valeur was appointed Chair of the Institute of Directors in September 2018. She is a corporate governance expert and a keen advocate for diversity in the boardroom, underpinning this advocacy with action by founding Board Apprentice. This not-for-profit organisation provides individuals hands-on experience at the very top of business, and has been cited in the Government’s recent reviews on ethnic and gender diversity in UK boardrooms as a resource for bringing about real change.

Advance HE runs a variety of development programmes, networking events and conferences for governance professionals in higher education.

Advance HE’s Annual Transforming Governance for a new normal: Governance Conference 2020 will take place virtually on 20 November. Find out more and book your place.

More information about our work to support effective governance in higher education, including our Governance Development Programme, can be found here.


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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