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Lived Experience Creates More Effective Boards of Directors

Diversity, equity, and inclusion matter. Fiscally. Ethically. And because it creates stronger businesses and nonprofits.

Like you may have, I’ve read a great deal about venture capitalists, and think I know quite a bit! But if you ask me for venture capital… alas, you will not get the funding, because knowing about VCs doesn’t actually make me a venture capitalist. (Although that would be lovely if it did.)

So it is with board diversity.  Diversity is important because study after study shows that diversity and inclusion of boards of directors (and project teams, committees, groups in general) creates better products and services that more people want.

Diversity also creates more inclusive and equitable work environments that keep employees longer, creates higher engagement overall within organizations, and has many other benefits.

Board diversity includes diversity of lived experience.

But diversity can sometimes be viewed as “checking a box,” if it’s considered at all, and the overall effect of “checking a box” can still be homogenous.  Having a board with members who are diverse by gender or race is commonly considered “diverse,” and is preferable to a board comprised of exclusively one group, and even that level of diversity is missing on many boards.  However, that can miss the point of having diversity, which is variety in thought.  Simply having racial or gender diversity can still create an overly homogeneous board if everyone has similar backgrounds otherwise.

Diversity comes in many types (see below).  The main point of diversity is to have multiple perspectives so that there are no blind spots, nothing gets missed, people are truly included, and projects are as effective and productive as possible, financially, and ethically.

Therefore, diversity needs to include many different types of lived experience.  It’s one thing to study or learn about something, and quite another altogether to experience life directly by living it.  Lived experience cannot be taught, learned, or passed on through relationships with others.

Diversity includes things commonly missed on many boards, like age, physical ability, gender expression, socio-economic status, education, religion, political leaning, or body type.  Yes, it includes race and gender, but not only race and gender.  The goal is to avoid homogeneity.

A homogenous group is one that shares many similarities in thought.  For example, a group of men and women of many races who all have PhDs are homogenous around education and status.  A group of people of many races of both genders who are all affluent is homogenous.  A group who are all within 10-20 years of age to one another is homogeneous.  A group of all women is homogeneous.  A group of all men is homogeneous.  A group of one race or ethnicity is homogeneous. Any group comprised of all grassroots ambassadors, executives, Millennials, Boomers, wealthy, poor, educated, uneducated, experienced, inexperienced, progressive, conservative, religious, non-religious, or any other specific type of lived experience is homogenous and therefore at risk of missing things. Homogeneity can leave big blind spots that are invisible to the entire group, blind spots that might be strikingly obvious to others with different perspectives or lived experience.

Think of lived experience as a key element of consideration and weigh how that lived experience compliments other lived experiences on a board of directors.  Simply factoring in someone’s natural traits does not create diversity inherently.  Considering someone’s lived experience in addition to or instead of their other traits comes much closer to achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Diversity helps unlock answers and avoid blind spots.

A board that has members with diverse lived experience as a core diversity and inclusion benchmark is more likely to benefit from all of the positive elements that come from being truly diverse – more engagement, more likelihood of startup success, more likelihood of capturing new markets, programs and products that are more utilized, and better financial success overall.

Ask community members for ideas – they often have the best ones.

A great example for a board or in general is including community members of whatever community you serve. Whether you are a nonprofit or a business, asking people who might utilize whatever you’re suggesting they buy or use for opinions and feedback can save lost opportunity cost from getting it wrong. Having passionate fans in the community who are on your team is much more preferable than “parachuting in” with a pre-made solution in mind that nobody asked for or wanted. And being confident that you “got it right” leads to more effective projects (and fewer potential public relations issues).

In addition to having diversity because it inherently makes sense in today’s world, it also makes financial sense, because your business or nonprofit is likely to statistically perform better because of it.

Looking for more information on diversity within boards?   This study might help, and please research your industry for additional ideas and suggestions.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion matter. Fiscally. Ethically. And because it creates stronger businesses and nonprofits.

What do you think? Please share your feedback or ideas in the comments below!

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