What Nature Can Teach Us About Board Diversity
By Claudia St. John, President, Affinity HR Group, LLC

In the arid American Southwest, the harsh climate and scarcity of food makes for the most competitive of natural environments. There exists in this environment two species of animal — the American Badger and the American Coyote — that compete for the same scarce food — mostly rodents and birds. While both are relatively fierce creatures, the coyote and the badger are in fact competitive allies who work together in a profitable collaboration. And there is much that boards of directors can learn from them.

Catching a rodent can be very difficult. First, they are fast. Second, they are excellent at scampering into tight, hard-to-reach places. And third, they do most of their scampering late at night, when it’s difficult to see them. As for birds, flying gives them a distinct advantage. You have to be quick to catch one before it’s out of reach.

The badger and the coyote know all of this. Unlike humans, who tend to think that because we’re good in one domain we are likely to be good in all others, the badger and the coyote instinctively know their limitations. This is the root of their collaboration. The coyote knows it is not as good at burrowing as the badger and the badger knows it’s not as quick as the coyote or his prey. To make up for their inadequacies (alas, we all have them), these animals choose diversity in order to succeed. That is, the coyote is more likely to choose to hunt with a badger than to go it alone, or with another of his own species. And it is rewarded for this decision. When badgers collaborate with coyotes, both catch up to 30 percent more food than when they hunt alone or with their own species. Diversity has its rewards.

What board of directors wouldn’t like to be 30 percent more productive? Yet, unlike coyotes and badgers, people tend to seek collaboration with others like themselves rather than with those who are very different from us. They largely focus on their strengths and not their inadequacies or gaps. And the reason for this is quite clear: It is easier to get along with and enjoy the company of those who share our distinct behavioral preferences. People who are opposite us behaviorally are typically very difficult to communicate and collaborate with, even when the collaboration is intentional. Fortunately, we also have the capacity to learn, to be objective and to imagine a future that is different from our past.

Successful boards are those that recognize the potential gaps that exist among their members — not just in the form of experience and background but also in the form of behavioral style — and that take deliberate measures to fill those gaps with diverse behavioral styles. Differing perspectives, processing styles, communication skills and analytical abilities can enrich a board’s governing abilities quite simply because more factors are considered during deliberations.

For example, a board of directors that I work with has been very successful in fulfilling its gender- and race-diversity goals. After deliberate efforts to broaden its representation, today the board much more accurately represents the makeup of its membership. Now, however, the board has identified a new diversity goal — it finds that most of its members are drivers (decisive, dominant, competitive leaders) and recognizes that it lacks members with more steady, cautious, deliberate processing and listening skills. They administered a DISC behavioral assessment, that categorizes behavioral preferences into four main categories — drivers, influencers, supporters and controllers — and developed a strategy to broaden its behavioral composition.

Not addressing a diversity gap like this could leave a board dominant in one style, which can have detrimental effects. For example, a board consisting mostly of controllers (risk adverse, low trusting, analytical and always searching for facts and data to support decisions, according to the DISC profile) may be so cautious and analytical that it is unable to take necessary risks and does not recognize this as a limitation or problem. A board consisting mostly of influencers (defined as those who seek results through people, are trusting, emotional, talkative and change oriented) will be likely to make critical decisions without sufficient data or research. Drivers (those who are competitive, dominant, decisive and have a high sense of urgency) are much less likely to consider the opinions of others. And then there is the rarest of board members — the supporters (those who sit back, listen, methodically process work and thoughts and take time to make decisions). They are consistently listening for the perspectives of others and are making sure that all commitments are fulfilled. Despite their natural strengths, supporters are least likely to be on a board of directors simply because they tend to not seek status, are not competitive, are made uncomfortable by conflict and therefore do not run for office.

Boards that realize the need for diverse behavioral style often take deliberate efforts to assess their current members’ styles, evaluate the repercussions of those styles, identify any behavioral gaps that may exist and actively include testing for behavioral style into their new-member- recruitment process.

While the benefits to deliberately recruiting for diverse behavioral style are great, there are downsides. People with differing perspectives often don’t see eye-to-eye, and that can lead to conflict. The truth is that most people want to avoid conflict, particularly when serving on a voluntary board. But conflict that arises from sharing contrary opinions can be both healthy and necessary, provided that it is all in the context of a shared common goal or objective. The best way to manage such conflict is for board leaders to be deliberate about seeking differing, even conflicting opinions and to remind all members that their diversity is a strength that needs to be both tolerated and celebrated.

Perhaps the badger and the coyote see this most clearly. These animals don’t “like” each other. When the badger chases a rodent out of its hole and watches the coyote gobble up what should rightfully be his, the collaboration probably looks like a bad deal to him. But on those other occasions when the rodent sees the coyote and decides to remain in his burrow, the badger gets his meal and realizes how beneficial it is to have the coyote as a partner. They seek the same objective — more food. And because of their collaboration, they each get it.

In many ways, nature is the best tutor. As with the badger and the coyote, the more boards of directors can appreciate the value of differing behavioral styles and work actively toward building a diverse governing body, the more likely they are to accomplish their goals.

  Claudia St. John, SPHR, is president of Affinity HR Group, LLC. Affinity HR Group, a human resources consulting firm specializing in the unique management and personnel needs of trade associations and their small business members.
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