Words by: Lindy Nelson

Diversity is a most talked about subject, yet arguably the least understood governance concept. What does it mean, why is it important and how do we get it?

For the last ten years we have seen diversity as gender – get a few females around the decision-making table and the job’s done. Recently we have begun to mature our view and see it in a new light. Diversity is beyond gender: it is about ethnicity, experiences, capability, perspectives, and to work it must be about inclusion.

If we can’t embrace how diversity shows up, nor understand the challenges it brings and our own reactions to that challenge, then diversity looks good from the outside but doesn’t function on the inside.

At its heart diversity means “I think differently, my experiences and my perspective are different, I am probably likely to challenge your thinking.”
Mostly as humans we like “similar” – “different” can feel we want to debate, deny or dismiss it. Yet in the complex, disruptive world we find ourselves, our own perspectives and experiences are limited, and only through diverse decision making will we succeed.

If I have ever felt tense at the board table it’s because diversity has just shown up and my opinions have been challenged.

If I’ve made others tense it’s because I’ve been that diversity. If we can’t recognise our own bias and human responses to diversity and challenge, or if we have diversity but not inclusion or belonging, we can’t embrace the brilliance and value that diversity brings.

The Institute of Directors has five suggestions for getting it right: create a culture where diversity will thrive; recognise unconscious bias; review your current board composition; cast a wide net to find the best people; and measure what matters.

A board culture where diversity thrives embraces debate and dissent and uses robust decision-making processes. It makes diversity safe and normal. I can disagree; my perspectives are viewed as supporting “us” to get it right and are respected; you include me, not disclude me for my views.

We seek to understand and work with bias. While we all have bias and mostly its function is to keep us safe, when we do nothing about exposing our and others’ biases we make poor decisions.

A communication tool I have used to support bias is thinking about the ladder of inference – “how I got to this decision/thinking” – then using advocacy and enquiry.

Advocacy is simply “here is what I am thinking and here is why I’ve come to that conclusion”. It is about making your thinking ladder visible to others.

Enquiry is similar but used in reverse to unpick others thinking and knowledge – “Help me understand how you have formed that perspective and what is the knowledge you have?”

Understand why you really want diversity and then get the right mix of attributes, experience, and skills you need to create it.

Cast a wide net in recruiting talent.

I would love to see boards build better relationships with local iwi to build both depth in the board’s decision making and support different governance experiences and opportunities for Maori. Magic happens through partnerships.

Last, decide how you are going to measure diversity in your board and organisation, which will have the greatest impact.

Yes, diversity takes effort, but the organisations that will succeed tomorrow will be led by boards where diversity not only belongs but is thriving.


  • Create a culture where diversity will thrive
  • Recognise unconscious bias
  • Review your current board composition
  • Cast a wide net to find the best people
  • Measure what matters.

(NZ Institute of Directors)

  • Lindy Nelson is the founder of the Agri Women’s Development Trust, providing leadership training and development opportunities to women in the rural sector.