Award schemes should stop rewarding organisations with unrepresentative boards, says Debbie Sorkin

In The Healthy NHS Board, the NHS Leadership Academy notes that a core role of the board is to shape a healthy culture for the organisation, taking a lead in establishing, modelling and promoting values and standards of conduct.

The Academy also observes: “The ‘how’ is less about exhorting the adoption of a culture, and more about leaders of organisations being mindful of the cultural messages that they send, intentionally or passively.”

We need to demonstrate who gets to be in a board role

Debbie sorkin

Debbie Sorkin

Debbie Sorkin

One way to send a very clear message is by demonstrating who gets to speak, or to be in a board role. If there are relatively few women on a board, and even fewer women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, we’re communicating, without the need to say a word, what the culture really is, especially as it relates to who gets to make decisions and whose job it is to be on the receiving end.

Roger Kline, in his 2014 study Snowy White Peaks, calculated that the proportion of women on all NHS boards in London was 40 per cent – better than elsewhere in the country – but still not representative either of the wider population or of the total NHS workforce, which is overwhelmingly female. For people from BME backgrounds, whether male or female, the figure was even lower, at 8 per cent, and the percentage had actually decreased since 2006.

Taking initiatives

The NHS, to its credit, is looking to do something about this: Ed Smith, the current chair of NHS Improvement, is backing a campaign to get 50 per cent representation for women in executive and non-executive positions on boards. And Simon Stevens has thrown his weight around getting people from BME background better access to career opportunities at senior level.

We have evidence that these initiatives, properly backed and adopted in organisations, work: following the publication of the Davies report in 2011, which called for 25 per cent female representation on FTSE 100 boards by 2015, the number of women in such positions has almost doubled in the last four years.

And the need for action is pressing. Not only from a gender equality standpoint (which, I think is fundamental) but also because it helps boards make better decisions.

Going back to the NHS Leadership Academy – if the first role of any board is to formulate strategy, and if that strategy needs to ”have inclusion at its heart” to be effective, it helps if a board has a sense from its own members of what this might actually look like.

To prevent “groupthink” (and incidents such as Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust), it is important to have diversity of views and perspectives.

I would like to see award judges take a more active role towards encouraging diversity

So I’d like to suggest a pincer movement. As well as encouraging more people from diverse backgrounds to go for senior executive and non-executive roles, could we please stop rewarding, via the many award schemes in existence, those organisations that persist in keeping the snowy white peaks pristine.

I remember one “Board of the Year” award couple of years ago, which was made up entirely of white middle-aged men, with one exception – a white middle-aged woman.

This is not to say I want to compromise standards, or discourage people from standing for non-executive positions (I’m a white middle-aged woman myself). But I would like to see award judges take a more active role towards encouraging diversity, and rewarding it when they see it.

You get more of what you reward. So let’s stop rewarding what we might want to see less of – at least quite as much as we do.

Debbie Sorkin is national director of systems leadership at the Leadership Centre