How to Build an Inclusive Board Culture

Rick Hoel
There's been a heavy focus on diversity on boards, but we don't hear as much about the related topic of board inclusiveness. Conversations about inclusiveness tend to be more prevalent among HR employees than in the boardroom. Diversity and inclusion are connected to each other, but they aren't the same thing. Both characteristics are important and high-performing boards consider both equally.

Organizations that tend to be inclusive make it a practice to incorporate inclusiveness into their overall strategy. Boards often overlook inclusivity when working on succession planning, recruiting and board composition. It is important for boards to keep an eye on inclusion in their approach to governance and operations.

Understanding the Differences Between Diversity and Inclusion

While there is a connection between diversity and inclusion, there are many more differences than similarities between them and it's vital that board members and managers not confuse the two. Here's a quick look at the differences.

Diversity refers to individuals who belong to a group who have a wide range of characteristics. Each individual may have been born with a certain characteristic. They may have been raised with certain characteristics or they may have acquired certain characteristics through their life experiences. These characteristics may be outwardly visible, or they may be unseen and known only to the individual.

Diversity traits often fall into certain recognizable groups such as gender, race, ethnicity, military veteran, sexual orientation and disability status.

On the other hand, inclusion refers to making all members of an organization feel accepted and welcomed. Inclusivity is apparent when everyone in a group has a sense of belonging and all individuals have opportunities equal to those of everyone else in the group.

The difference is that diversity refers more to a state of being or a person's traits and these things cannot be governed. Inclusiveness is a set of behaviors that can be governed.

Building an Inclusive Board Culture

Boards and managers need to accept that an inclusive board culture takes time and they need to give it the time that's needed to allow it to grow.

The first step toward inclusivity is to collaborate with management to form a common vision for what inclusion means. With both parties on the same page with its meaning, the next step is to align it with the organization's mission and embed it into the corporate strategy. The tighter the definition is incorporated into the mission and strategy, the stronger the inclusion message will resonate with the rest of the management team and the broader employee workforce. These steps should elicit behavioral changes that will help to build an inclusive board culture.

When working together to embed the definition of inclusivity into the company's strategy, it's important for boards to consider how biases within the organization, and within the greater society, may interfere with the board's goal of strengthening inclusivity.

When working to tie the definition into the organization's vision and mission, it's often helpful to begin with the organization's mission statement.

When incorporating inclusivity into the strategy and mission, boards need to be mindful that to demonstrate inclusive thinking is to be aware that their actions and decisions may lead to positive or negative implications related to inclusion, and it's imperative to think things through.

Committee work is often a major part of board work, which means that boards should extend the culture of inclusivity to board committees. As a place to start, boards could consider whether the wording in their committee charters reflects an inclusive board culture. They may decide to take things a step further and detail the expectations for how the committee is to operate in an inclusive manner.

Inclusion in the Board and Management

As with any trait or message that boards want to build within their organization, it's important to set the tone at the top. The best way to do that is to promote the following six signature traits of inclusivity throughout the organization. They all begin with the letter 'c' and they are:

  1. commitment
  2. courage
  3. cognizance
  4. curiosity
  5. cultural intelligence
  6. collaboration

Boards must hold themselves accountable for exhibiting these six signature traits, and one easy way to do that is by using board self-evaluations. Another thing that boards can do is to look for inclusion traits whenever they recruit or appoint new board members.

The board should also hold management accountable for developing the organization's talent into inclusive leaders. In keeping with their individual roles, boards are responsible for monitoring diversity and inclusion metrics and managers collect and analyze data around inclusion. Managers are responsible for driving inclusive behaviors into practices. To take things a step further, managers could consider inclusivity when they enter into third-party alliances with other organizations, individuals or supply chain partners.

The overall key to fostering an inclusive culture within all employees is for managers to accept collective accountability for doing so. For some management teams, this means linking inclusion objectives to executive compensation benchmarks.

As overseers, board directors can help to build an inclusive board culture by ensuring that at every opportunity, people within the company are embedding the six signature traits into the organization's performance metrics, professional development and succession planning processes.

Boards can look for signs of inclusivity in the company's communications to shareholders, whitepapers, press releases and marketing materials. The culture of inclusiveness should also be evident formally in media pieces, interviews and conference presentations, and informally in networking and professional conversations.

Each company will have a slightly different approach to strengthening their culture of inclusivity. There's no right or wrong way to go about it. The important thing is simply to get started. The size and complexity of each organization will have a bearing on how quickly an organization can pursue a culture of inclusivity. Inclusivity isn't quite the hot-button topic that diversity is now in the governance arena, but it soon could be. To begin to build an inclusive board culture, boards will need to be proactive in this area and set a good example.
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Rick Hoel

Rick is an international business attorney and currently sits on the Board of Directors and provides general counsel, risk management and compliance services to foreign companies entering the U.S. market including Power Stow America's Inc., a subsidiary of Power Stow A/S in Denmark, the world leader in the supply of tracked conveyor systems to the airline industry. '

Rick has been a partner in a U.S. based litigation firm and has a long history of international in-house counsel experience working with some of the largest multinational companies in the world. His industry experience includes work in the automotive, global telecommunications and electronics, intermodal transport, airline and facility management industries.

Rick is an avid reader and writer with published articles and books on a wide range of topics, including intercultural communication, technology and the practice of law. Rick has lived overseas and works and travels extensively throughout the world.