The Importance & Advantages of a Diverse Board

Marisa Fong
The Importance & Advantages of a Diverse Board

I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of discussion around ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ at the moment. I’ve been invited to speak on this topic a few times and I know of others who are doing the same. Why is this so topical now? Because change is needed.

As a second generation Chinese woman, and having founded and successfully sold a business, I often say (tongue in cheek) that I tick quite a few of the boxes on diversity; a woman? – tick!, Asian? – tick!, and an entrepreneur? – tick!

Marisa Fong

Marisa Fong believes change is needed around diversity in the boardroom

I believe my difference comes from “being the other”, a great phrase I heard for the first time a few months ago. Being of a different culture and raised in an environment where English was not the first language, I didn’t have the typical Kiwi childhood and that does mean I wear a different set of lenses. We all have a set of lenses through which we view the world and those lenses are developed by our life experiences and upbringing.

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As in science where hypotheses are tested under many different conditions, doesn’t it make sense that the best decisions are made after issues have been viewed through many different lenses, rather than similar ones?

After the GFC, there was plenty of global navel gazing; searching for the reasons why the financial system failed - and somehow that brought with it a kneejerk reaction of “we need more women on boards!” This was seen as a way to bring more transparency and integrity into the corporate boardroom. However, no woman wants to be appointed to any board simply as a token gesture and although the positive impact of women on boards is well documented, the statistics of participation show very little real improvement.

I believe this is the case for a few reasons: women don’t see boardrooms as a “safe” environment, they are concerned they’re not “good enough”, they don’t have the visibility, and they don’t like to “self promote”. It’s even more difficult to source suitable candidates from other groups such as ethnicity so the motivation by boards to increase diversity needs to be strong or it will go into the “too hard” basket. Too many too easily fall back on “we looked, but couldn’t find anyone to make the fit”. But if you’re looking for someone to fit in you’re still looking to maintain the status quo, right?

And if you do succeed then it’s no good bringing in those different lenses and then treating them differently to the rest of the board. “Your view is useful on this, because you’re a woman” isn’t how you’ll develop the confidence of that board member to be heard. We bring members on because of their diversity but we can’t then pigeonhole them because of their difference. “This is an issue we all need to consider from different viewpoints, please give me yours”, is a much better approach.

It works both ways. Those who accept a seat at the boardroom table will also need to step up and speak up! Confidence to contribute is key. Your view matters and we mustn’t be afraid to look “dumb”. After all, it’s better to ask the “dumb question” than to sit there looking like the dummy! Take heart in the knowledge that your position on a diverse and inclusive board will give strength to others, and let them know that the company cares about what people like them think.

Marisa Fong
Marisa describes herself as a serial entrepreneur, investor, director and speaker. She co-founded The Madison Group in 1998, successfully growing it to become the largest privately owned recruitment company. After it was acquired in 2013 by a public company, Marisa has actively invested in a portfolio of angel investments, and supports causes close to her heart. She is Chair for Professionelle Foundation, Chair for D’arcy Polychrome, Advisory Board member for NZ Work Research Institute (AUT) and Learning Chair for Entrepreneurs Organisation Auckland.

A member of ArcAngels, NZ Asian Leaders, Institute of Directors, she also mentors a scholar of First Foundation and is in the throes of another startup within the health & beauty sector.

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