The importance of having a diverse board

12 January 2021

Golden Key is a partnership and our work is overseen by a board which comprises of representatives from our partner organisations.

We believe that we will only achieve our objectives if we are able to provide services that meet the diverse needs of our client group. We strive to have a diverse partnership board, and our members have committed to a statement of action which puts Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at the heart of our programme.

In this piece, John Simpson, Independent Chair of the partnership board, and Saida Bello, chair of our EDI steering group, share their reflections on the importance of diversifying a board and the benefits and challenges of doing so.

The benefits of multiple perspectives

The ability to look at matters from multiple perspectives could result in better informed decision-making and policy development. Overall, it can lead to services that are more appropriate to the user, that gain the confidence of communities, and services that are more effective. Which in turn could improve client satisfaction with public services. This is supported by evidence from research undertaken by McKinsey, diverse executive teams perform better financially. (McKinsey & Co – Diversity matters, 2015) (McKinsey & Co - Delivering through Diversity, 2018).

Beyond this, the law supports diversification. The public sector equality duty (PSED) is part of the Equality Act 2010, and places an obligation on public authorities to positively promote equality, not just merely avoid discrimination. The PSED covers the nine protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. Many also add a consideration of social class and, in our case at Golden Key, we add people with lived experience.

Encouraging a diverse board membership

It is important for a board to accept responsibility for EDI, make it a priority and take positive actions to diversify its membership.

As a first step, the chair should undertake a board audit to request diversity data from its members. The purpose is to establish the diversity of the entire board. Equipped with this data, one can assess how representative the group is to its local community or its client group. This will help determine any diversity gaps that can then be plugged.

To help diversify a board, there are many networks across all protected communities which can be accessed, and the majority of people and organisations within these networks are pleased to assist. Links should also be established with specialist organisations such as BeOnBoard Bristol and other initiatives operating in the EDI field.

Diversifying a partnership board brings its own challenge, as delegates often perform specific senior roles within an organisation and it is important for that role holder to attend. This will often result in little diversity. A board must then consider how it can expand to achieve its diversity objectives.

The role of the chair

While diversification should be every board member’s responsibility, the chair should ensure that the commitment to promoting diversity is widely discussed with the board.

It is also the chair’s role to ensure that all members have a strong voice in board meetings. Every member should actively be invited to contribute and the conduct of a meeting should be evaluated routinely to enable board effectiveness. Practically speaking, it is really good to go around the table to ask members for their views and to ask if there is “any other business” at the end.

To enable the board to work more effectively, it is helpful when the chair makes 1-2-1 connections with board members in between meetings. Board members make better decisions when they work together as a team. The chair, therefore, needs to enable the board members to form the relationships that would help them work better as a team. Skills that chairs could employ to achieve this include active listening, delegating responsibility and generally making an effort to build rapport with board members.

Board effectiveness can also be achieved through thorough induction for new board members, by buddying new members with experienced members, team away days for members, and identifying specific ways in which individuals can become involved in the board’s work.

The benefits and challenges of diversity

A diverse board increases the chances of board members raising different issues that a homogenous board would not normally be able to consider. The Parker review (2017) explains that some of the commercial benefits include diversity of thought and the avoidance of “group think” in organisations. The implications of group think include “collective blindness” by homogenous groups as described by Mathew Syed in his book “Rebel Ideas: the Power of Diverse Thinking”.

However, there is no guarantee that a diverse board would automatically engage with EDI issues. For example, board members who come from similar backgrounds (educational backgrounds or similar professions) could also behave as a homogenous group with similar thinking, even if they are from different ethnic backgrounds. It is a good idea to provide board members with regular training on EDI and unconscious bias to ensure they stay alert to EDI issues.

It’s hard to see how organisations can effectively or convincingly address EDI issues if the board is not committed to doing so. However ultimately, it will be the organisation’s employees who must take responsibility for engagement and the clients, or potential clients, who will judge impact.

It is therefore important for staff recruitment to also reflect the commitment to diversity and, as with board membership, for recruitment to engage and encourage applicants from all communities.

The embedding of management tools like equality impact assessments to evaluate and improve service provision is important, as is specific staff training in EDI issues. It is worth noting however that it is easier to implement these approaches in an organisation, compared to across a partnership like Golden key which involves many organisations and potentially tens of thousands of staff.

On occasion, chairs might be faced with resistance when trying to diversify the board. This is because people often find change challenging. The best way to overcome this is to show unwavering commitment to the EDI agenda and the need for change, and clearly and publicly show how diverse contributions lead to better decision making. The benefits of diversity of thought, according to McKinsey & Co, include innovation, creativity and value for money (in the public sector) or generating more profits (in the private sector).


This blog is the topic of a webinar we are holding on Thursday 11th February 2021 at 8.30am. To find out more and book a place, please go to Eventbrite