Creating Real Diversity

Erin Keating

January 14, 2022

We’ve discussed board governance, diversity, strategic planning, and much more in our 6 Degrees of Associations series.  This past week in our first episode of 2022, we got to throw it all together in one compelling and inspiring conversation with Lowell Aplebaum of Vista Cova.  When asked about how Lowell advises his clients on building their boards, strategy and diversity play an outsized role. Let’s break down why aligning to strategic competencies rather than CVs and outside perspectives rather than subject matter expertise are the way to really strengthen and diversify your board.

Strategic Competencies

While years of experience and level of seniority in a role or industry shouldn’t be discounted, they aren’t always the best way to evaluate the potential contribution of a board member.  Lowell explained that as an organization lays out its strategic initiatives, it should consider first what competencies align best with the strategic focus.  As an example, if you’ve laid out ambitious revenue goals and policy change in your industry, loading your board with experienced individuals that carry a substantial amount of expertise in operations or membership retention may not get you there.  Rather, you would want to focus on individuals that could have extensive relationships in government affairs and fundraising.

Outside Perspectives

Similarly, diversity of thought and perspectives is equally important.  We’ve talked a lot about finding analog examples of challenges in the association industry to things that occur in the private sector.  This is no different.  Sometimes when trying to solve for something particularly difficult, it helps to step outside for a perspective simply because the best next step can often be found from a place of curiosity not expertise.  In other words, if your organization is really struggling with membership retention, think of how someone in the brand loyalty role within a large subscription-based B-to-C service company might be able to share strategies and insights.  The industries and products might be miles apart but the ability to apply knowledge from the outside in may unlock potential.

Talk is Cheap

So how does an organization implement these strategies when looking to refresh a board?  Lowell made many keen observations; we’ll focus on three.

  • Listen: Most people want to know they’ve been heard.  It’s that simple.  Truly listening and acknowledging one’s ideas and input is a sign of respect and will take you a lot further in building real diversity of thought even if you don’t act on any of it.
  • Best idea wins: An open environment focused on what’s best for the company will break the win-lose mindset that stunts innovation.  This doesn’t mean that every decision is made by committee. It means that you’ve listened to the diverse perspectives of your board members, and you’ve created a culture where winning isn’t the end goal.
  • Celebrate failure: When an organization can look at failure as a learning opportunity it creates space for agile thinking, experimentation, and curiosity. This falls in line with what we learned from Mike Moss with SCUP, strategic planning is best done iteratively, and you can’t iterate without experimenting.

At the end of the day, building a truly diverse and strategic board requires really hard work, patience, and openness. The rubber meets the road when an organization opens itself to different perspectives, debate, experimentation, and yes, even failure.