Warren Partners Webinar Series: Building more ethnically diverse and inclusive boards

Warren Partners Webinar Series: Building more ethnically diverse and inclusive boards

The debate took place just a few days after Hampton Alexander announced that there were no longer all male boards in the FTSE 350. This is a great achievement indeed, which Warren Partners is proud to have supported. There is however, so much more to do when it comes to building more ethnically diverse and inclusive boards. So what practical steps can we take to move things forward?

Hearing the personal and ‘lived’ experience of Moni Mannings (non-executive director at easyJet, Hargreaves Lansdown and Breedon Group) and Ashok Gupta (Chair of Mercer UK and eValue) added to the poignancy of this issue. The discussion, chaired by Joëlle Warren, Executive Chair & Founding Partner of Warren Partners, revealed how much has changed but also how subtle acts of exclusion are still slowing us down.

Attitudes have changed

Explaining that this was the first time he had spoken publicly on this topic, Ashok recounted his family’s journey: “My father came to Northern Ireland from India. There was no Asian community and we did not feel part of society. He was focused on providing a decent living and education for his family and ‘never expected to be accepted’. By the time I grew up, mine was a constant battle to be accepted as an equal and now, if she is not treated with respect, my daughter, who is mixed race, will take the view that the problem is with the other person and not with her”.

The silent minority is no longer silent

Society has changed but slowly. Change is rarely linear; it stops and starts. Ashok commented on the strong reaction following George Floyd’s death. “Today the silent minority has gone, and younger generations especially are calling things out, which I find humbling. However, it is not enough to rely on the next generation to speak out. People like me need to do so too”.

From ‘trying hard not to be noticed to being proud to stand out’

Recalling her own childhood, arriving in the UK from Pakistan aged eight, Moni explained “First, I learned ‘how not to be noticed’. It was not safe to be different. By the time I went to university, to study law, I was the only British person of colour in a faculty of 300 students, so I learned ‘how to fit in’. I learned to emphasise my similarities and reduce the differences; in my professional life, I became very good at fitting in”.

"Society has changed but slowly. Change is rarely linear; it stops and starts"

The Hampton Alexander Review, the panel agreed, did help move things on. Boards started proactively looking for more women and there was a real drive for greater female representation. Moni commented, “I had the good fortune of finding my first NED role at that time but whilst that proactivity helped women like me, there was still a huge emphasis on minimising our differences, until Black Lives Matter that is. Everything feels different right now”. Moni added: “Not being a racist is just not good enough anymore, you need to be anti-racism - just as not being a bully is not good enough, you need to be anti-bullying”. It seems that, at last, people now feel safer to be different. “It feels safer to be vocal and to be visible today; I can promote the difference I can bring at last”.

Creating a sense of belonging

The mark of a good NED, remarked Ashok, is in their ability to influence, the respect they command and how keen others are to hear their views. So, how boards accept you and how one feels accepted is key. Ashok compared this to the football team which uses the complementary skills of each member of the team; each member is accepted for their difference and ‘belongs’. So, the question is how do we get people to feel they belong; how, Ashok asked, do we help boards ‘receive ethnic minority candidates’; how does a board need to adapt?

Good chairing

Joëlle suggested this was a prerequisite and the rest of the panel unanimously recognised the importance of good chairing. Ashok pointed out that: “the role of the chair is vital; in particular how a chair welcomes challenging views and how they react when you present things differently. I am selective about the boards I join and take care to understand a board’s mindset and whether it is prepared to challenge its narrative and an often ‘sanitised’ version of itself”.

Redefine the concept of ‘on merit’

Many boards are well intended when they say they will appoint ‘on merit’; the trouble is, remarked Moni, merit is not a science but a judgment; it is what we decide it is; it is not a level playing field, so we need to dig deeper when we define ‘on merit’. Equally, colour blindless is a nice concept - Moni described it as “well-intentioned but misdirected. We do see colour, let’s not kid ourselves. Instead, let’s celebrate our differences and different talent. The talent is out there. It is the opportunity that is not evenly balanced”.

“The role of the chair is vital; in particular how a chair welcomes challenging views and how they react when you present things differently"

Where does the power sit in the boardroom?

UK minority ethnic is a wide community with a multitude of differences and so our response to a black, Asian, Jewish or other racial minority needs to be different. Ethnic minorities can mean different groups in different countries - take the indigenous population of Canada for example. Moni remarked here that it might be more helpful to talk about ‘dominant and non-dominant groups’.

Building upon this concept, Ashok commented that some cultures are indeed very dominant, which begs the question of how one best challenges these dominant cultures: “where is the power around the board table and how does one build this into board appraisals and dynamics?”. Ashok remarked that “many boards find this a difficult conversation yet talking about the type of culture boards will need to be successful in an increasingly uncertain world, would help improve our receptiveness to different cultures”.

Firmer board targets - would they help?

Setting targets is generally seen as a powerful way to shift the dial. Moni pointed out that “after all, we measure everything else in business and we hold people to account so it would be bizarre not to do the same when it comes to diverse boards.” The mistake however is to think that this is sufficient. Moni explained: “Quotas, which other countries have opted for, force the issue and would probably run against the culture of this nation. Also, quotas may get you the numbers, but they do not necessarily help achieve the culture shift you need.”

Executive Search has a huge role to play

Diversity is all about mindset and of course this starts with the nominations committee and how they set the recruitment parameters and attributes required. However, Joëlle highlighted how important it is for search businesses to play their part. “We need to work in partnership and it is, in my view, totally legitimate to give a search partner a specific mandate to find diverse candidates; we encourage clients, when they consider a level playing field of candidates, to see that there is a benefit in appointing an ethnically diverse candidate. To facilitate this, we work actively to extend our networks and indeed help clients to extend their own networks. We push boards to look at behaviour and attitude rather than just experience”. Moni endorsed the point that boards need to look at their range of skills and the angle or perspective that is missing. “We have seen it with the digital challenge – many boards did not have that viewpoint and we needed it around the table. Until it does not make a difference, it does make a difference”.

Fixing the diversity talent pipeline

Broadening our networks is one way of finding new pools of talent; looking for talent off the beaten track is another. Ashok interestingly remarked: “I have found it easier to find my voice in smaller, entrepreneurial businesses that give individuals a different set of opportunities”. Mentoring schemes and providing role models are other effective ways to fix the executive supply problem if we want to build truly diverse boards in the future.


Something is drastically wrong when the board of a company is not diverse and yet most of its customers and its staff are. We are at a tipping point where diversity and inclusion is a must and the spotlight is on boards to address this proactively, creating an environment and dialogue where people can be who they are and accepted as such. Here are a few practical tips:

  • Think harder about ‘merit’; what are the actual skills and aptitude required for the role?
  • Let us not stop at ’one and done’ – it is not about ticking a box.
  • Broaden your network and the pool you recruit from.
  • Take a leaf out of the public sector where their competency approach and processes have led to more conscious outcomes.
  • Create the right environment; share experiences; it is OK to be uncomfortable, express ignorance; have the difficult conversations around language and semantics.
  • Lazily using the term BAME denigrates the distinctiveness of different ethnicities.
  • Set your organisation targets; we measure everything else!
  • Think of mentoring an ethnic minority person; they will teach you more than any book.
  • To ethnic minority candidates: “step forward show your talent”.
  • To all: make the difference where you can today; you can’t do it all but the bit you can do, just do it!

Posted by Joëlle Warren on

Joëlle Warren

Joëlle Warren

Executive Chair & Founding Partner

Joëlle is Executive Chair & Founding Partner of Warren Partners and leads chair and non-executive director searches.