33% female board rooms: is the only way the agile way?

In a world defined by complexity, disruption and change, today’s most successful institutions value diverse perspectives and experiences, says Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of Cirrus and author of The Agile Leader

We have seen many diversity initiatives such as quotas to address the gender imbalance in our board rooms. However, if we want to create long-term, sustainable change, we need to look at the culture of our institutions. Developing more agile ways of working can help you to promote gender equality.

What is agility?

As technology fuels the pace of change in our increasingly uncertain and complex world, more and more organisations are recognising the importance of agile leadership and agile ways of working. Agility enables organisations to react swiftly and responsively to opportunities and challenges. By adopting agile ways of working that focus on facilitating mental agility, ruthlessly prioritising, devolving decision-making, and investing in customer research, leaders can drive innovation and learning.

At the heart of agile working is multi-skilled, diverse and collaborative teams. This is why developing a culture of agility can also help you to promote equality both in the board room and more widely across your organisation.

Why diversity matters

There is a great deal of evidence to demonstrate a strong correlation between gender diversity in leadership teams and above-average financial performance and customer satisfaction. McKinsey’s Delivering through Diversity research shows that board-level gender diversity has a positive impact on both profitability and value creation. At the other end of the scale, a lack of diversity correlates with below-average performance.

In our fast-moving world, we are faced with many different opportunities and challenges every day. The way teams interact has become a business-critical issue. To address this, we need diverse teams who can share a range of experience. This variety encourages deeper collaboration, which generally leads to more effective solutions.

Researching my next book, The Agile Leader, I spoke to many CEOs from a wide range of organisations. I was impressed by the importance that leaders from some of the most innovative organisations place on diversity. They see it as good practice in a world that is changing at a rapid pace.

Building diverse leadership teams

Many of the CEOs I spoke to ensure that their own leadership teams are diverse They take their responsibility as role models seriously. Ultimately, they are focused on delivering results, and they value the importance of diversity in achieving this. As one CEO commented, “If we tried to do what we’re doing with a single experience set, we would fail. Diverse teams can share varied perspectives. Together we look at things from different angles. It becomes a collective, which makes it easier to cope with uncertainty and to find better solutions.”

Diverse, multi-skilled, multi-experienced teams are typically more able to address difficult challenges in the pursuit of improvement. In short, they make smarter decisions. This helps to ensure that organisations prioritise what is most important. Greater collaboration also helps to create more connected organisations, able to adapt quickly and with confidence.

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Diversity and innovation

Diversity can also boost innovation, which is a top priority for today’s institutions. Through innovation, we create new value for our students, colleagues and partners through significantly adapting existing products and services or creating new ones that either revolutionise or disrupt existing markets.

A study from the US Center for Talent Innovation has also found strong links between diversity, innovation and market growth. The research identified a ‘diversity dividend’ that inclusive leadership reaps from a diverse workforce: increased market share and a competitive edge. Another interesting finding was that diverse leadership teams tend to encourage a ‘speak-up culture’ which leads to valuable insights that meet the needs of under-served demographics – yet another thing which is linked to overall performance improvements.

What is holding women leaders back?

A key element of agile working is a willingness to take calculated risks. An aversion to risk is a barrier to agility. Over the years, several studies have found that men are more inclined to take risks than women are. A recent KPMG Women’s Leadership study found that women are less bold in taking steps toward leadership roles, and six in 10 find it hard to see themselves as leaders. The results reveal a critical disconnect: women want to lead but caution often holds them back.

An aversion to risk can be compounded by a culture of caution in many institutions.  A fear of failure, and its consequences, is a leadership issue. It can be a particular issue for women. It inhibits experimentation and can slow down innovation and improvement. If we fear making mistakes, the only thing we will learn is how to avoid them.

The way forward

Many of the high-profile women leaders I have interviewed and worked with are role models for a more agile style of leadership: they have a very clear purpose and vision and they are adept at devolving responsibility to empowered, diverse, multi-talented teams. They encourage experimentation in a safe environment and are unafraid to drop an idea or project that isn’t working out and focus resource where it will have greatest impact. I hope that these women will become ever more powerful role models for a new generation of agile female leaders.

Dr Simon Hayward is CEO of Cirrus and author of new book, The Agile Leader, published by Kogan Page priced £14.99

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