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Tackling the traits: why you need diversity of personality at board level

Tackling the traits: why you need diversity of personality at board level 1

By Chris Parke, CEO, Talking Talent

Despite reaching impressive milestones, the recent push towards greater diversity in the boardroom is all too often defined by ‘external’ pressures, either from consumers or business associates. The concern here is that many businesses still consider c-suite level diversity as a ‘tick-box’ responsibility, rather than an essential next step for growth. With this attitude, businesses are not only failing to achieve diversity at the top level, but they are also failing to explore what diversity can achieve for business competitiveness. Diversity truly is a strength for business, but in order to realise this, businesses will need to expand their understanding of what a ‘board-ready’ candidate really is, and instead embrace the potential of ‘diversity of personality’.

Tunnel vison around ‘board-readiness’

While outright discrimination still plays a part in producing and maintaining non-diverse boards, the pervasiveness of the all-white/all-male boardroom is also a result of our popular understanding of corporate leadership, and the stereotypes and preconceptions that come with it.

Regardless of sector, business ‘leaders’ – and those that are ‘board-ready’ – traditionally conform to a deceptively narrow set of characteristics usually that of a head-strong and competitive ‘alpha male’. The prevalence of this mode of expression in top positions stems from the historic dominance of white males in leadership roles, who in turn, tend to look for similar traits, backgrounds and perspectives in their peers and successors.

The push for greater diversity has already began to home in on the prevalence of these traits in business. Official committees, such as the Treasury Select Committee, specifically mention a need to cut down on ‘alpha-male’ culture in order to improve diversity on the board. Much like neurodiversity, however, personality forms an ‘invisible identity’, one that is often immeasurable and difficult to categorise effectively. This means we really can’t rely on external pressure to break sufficient ground here. Instead, businesses must feel the pressure to change themselves, and this can only be achieved when they are aware of how incredibly damaging the traditional ‘alpha’ view of leadership really is.

Why is this damaging for wider diversity issues?

While the undue credibility afforded to traditional ‘alpha-male’ masculinity predominantly benefits male candidates, it also has further ramifications on outside of this demographic. Namely, these expectations frequently exist independently of any diversity efforts relating to under-represented groups. This favours candidates who, while not always being white heterosexual males themselves, satisfy these expectations while performing well in alpha-male environments.

This is a worrying development. Not only does this represent slow progress, as diverse candidates are less likely to satisfy these expectations, it also compounds the pressure for candidates to ‘perform’ incongruously to their authentic themselves. In this respect, these expectations form a self-fulfilling prophecy. In order to secure top positions, female, LGBT and POC candidates will often look to mimic the behaviour of the board, and in turn, pressure others to do so as well – regardless of whether this is best for them, their performance, or the organisation they work for.

For many female candidates, this can present a uniquely tricky dilemma. In order to feel instrumental in climbing the ladder, female candidates may feel to need to adopt alpha-masculine traits themselves. In doing so, however, they may also feel they at a much bigger risk of behaving in a way which is traditionally (yet unjustly) discouraged as ‘unfeminine’ or ‘overbearing’. It is no wonder then, that when faced with a lose-lose situation, many feel put off the idea of seeking top positions altogether.

With all of this considered, we must ask ourselves whether this really is a strong reflection of true diversity?

Why is this damaging for businesses?

While the over-abundance of ‘alpha’ personalities certainly harms diversity initiatives, the effects on idea generation, adaptability, and growth, are equally corrosive.

Research by McKinsey found that, out of 366 public companies around the world, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were more likely to have better financial returns than their non-D&I counterparts. Although exciting news, it is certainly nothing new. Previous studies have found that firms with greater female representation in top management positions deliver 34% greater returns to shareholders.

There are a multitude of reasons for why this may be the case, but ultimately, the biggest value stems from enhanced idea generation, collaboration, and empathy. Differing backgrounds and identities shape different perspectives, and by pooling all of these perspectives together effectively, you make for one powerful leadership team; one that can pursue a multitude of new concepts and ideas.

Of course, there is no doubt that ‘alpha’ personalities indeed make for some successful businesspeople, especially when accounting for tenacity and ability to navigate pressure. But this is merely one part of what a c-suite (and a business) does. Companies are collaborative enterprises for a reason. By throttling this collaborative aspect, such as through the overabundance of a singular ‘domineering’ personality, you weigh down this collaborative capability immensely.

Why 2021 is calling for diversity of character

Now, more than ever, businesses are under increased pressure to reflect the values and perspectives of their consumer base. The modern consumer base is set to be more diverse, and more educated, than ever before, and this spells trouble for businesses that ooze a patently white ideal of alpha-male masculinity.

Businesses thrive by connecting with their consumer base and doing this in an authentic way. We are well beyond an era that is infatuated with alpha males, and way beyond a time where ‘alpha white males’ could expect to effectively appeal to other identities on their own.

While the pressure for diversity may feel purely external now, the true reasons for diversity lie internally. Embracing diversity means expanding one’s horizons and daring to be different – and in business, is there really any other way?

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