Dr Judith MacCormick
Chief Executive Officer and Board of Directors
leadership, diversity, ambidexterity, women on boards, networks
Here's an experiment for you: ask the nearest man in your workplace why there aren't more women on boards, and see what answer you get. Based on the findings of our latest Australia and New Zealand survey of directors, you should hear something like: "Well, there aren't enough women in senior executive roles, are there?"
But ask a woman the same question and they will respond: "The networks that men use to get to the top are closed to us - we don't get a look in."
For more on the topic of board diversity, including detail on the latest findings, download the Australia and New Zealand Board of Directors Survey 2012, sponsored by Heidrick & Struggles and carried out by Professor Boris Groysberg, of the Harvard Business School, and Researcher Deborah Bell.
In our work with boards, we have widened the definition of what's required for corporations to grow in today's highly competitive and fast-changing world. We, are actively tapping a deeper and broader pool of talent than has been available with "traditional," pools designed for industrial-age business structures. Access to information anywhere, anytime and by anybody means the traditional hierarchies are less relevant and breadth of skills and capacity to draw on a wider range of possibilities is critical if we are to innovate and compete in short, medium AND long term. For example, we have placed two women and a Chinese national on the board of Telstra, Australia's biggest telco, and are daily putting forward highly qualified women candidates across all sectors – business, not-for-profit, and government.
And of course it's not all about women. Diversity in the true meaning of the word means embracing the full range of perspectives, experiences and skills. My own post-doctoral research on the topic centres on what I've labeled "ambidexterity."
Ambidexterity - Leveraging the opposites
At its core, ambidexterity is a framework for thinking that draws on the wisdom that is all around us and that has been with us throughout time. Look at how your forefinger and thumb achieve little separately but create exponential advantage when put together. This is a metaphor for, “Ambidexterity”. Ambidexterity is not just flexibility. It is the ability to leverage diversity and work constructively with seeming contradictions. Firms that are ambidextrous have a competitive advantage and perform better on multiple criteria.
For boards, this means focusing on future performance as well as current compliance. It means delivering on multiple goals on behalf of multiple (and often competing) stakeholders. It means creative abrasion in the board room as ideas and assumptions are constructively challenged.
In the industrial age of the 19th and 20 centuries, organisations were hierarchical. Workers became apprentices and moved slowly up the ladder to the top, or "found their place" on one of the rungs. Knowledge was power, and knowledge was concentrated at the top. But in the 21st century, structures are becoming flat, and knowledge is pervasive. The horizontal network, not the vertical hierarchy, is king. To successfully compete in this new environment, organizations need to be innovative, not just in terms of services and products, but in the way they work. And what the board does, how it is constituted, how its members work together, will set the tone for the rest of the organization.
In an ambidextrous world, it’s not a question of choice. It’s not OR, but AND. Best practice boards today are overseeing organisations which are putting together the wise AND the young, the experienced AND the tech-savvy, the strategic AND the analytical thinkers. They need to, because innovation, flexibility and ambidexterity are the keys to sustainable growth.
It is the power of the AND.