Building Disability Board Diversity

To reach better levels of diversity we need to throw merit out the window.

Speech by Christina Ryan – 16 May 2019

Perth, for People with Disability WA


I’d like to start by acknowledging the Noongar (noon- ar) people of the Wadjuk nation, who’s land we are meeting on this morning, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

Diversity is an ongoing conversation. Its one we keep having because we struggle so hard to achieve diversity, and we struggle even more to be inclusive of diverse people once we have them in our organisations.

I’d like to talk to you about 3 elements this morning: merit, inclusion and competence.


Let’s do a quick check: who here appoints people to your organisation’s board or executive team based on merit? Hands up.

Okay, that’s excellent. Let’s have a look at how we can stop appointing on merit, because we now know that it’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.

A couple of years back the Male Champions of Change got together with Chief Executive Women and they did some research into merit. The Male Champions are focused on gender equality, but fundamentally they are in the same game as us, they are working to build more diversity within their organisations.

The Male Champion’s research discovered that appointing on merit has one outcome: more people who look like you. So, if your organisation is working on becoming more diverse, appointing on merit is the last thing you want to be doing.

Merit based appointments assume that there is a single pathway to seniority and that this path looks like the one that the position’s predecessors took: including having certain qualifications, holding certain types of positions, and working in specific industries to get to wherever you need to be.

The merit trap, as the Male Champions call it, effectively locks people from diverse experiences out of positions, particularly executive and board positions, because the people who have taken the same path are the ones who have the same advantages, backgrounds, education and privileges that you have experienced to get to where you are now.

In other words, people who look like you do, have similar experiences, and approach things in a similar way. They are probably also people you are comfortable with because they are “your” kind of people, and they think the “right way”. If someone’s path is different, it doesn’t matter how competent they are, they won’t be appointed because they aren’t “qualified”.

Our board rooms and executive teams are full of people who are appointed on merit and look at the result. A lack of diversity.


Last year the Disability Leadership Institute undertook research to identify ways to improve inclusion and develop strong inclusive cultures within organisations. To do this we did a global scan to understand what was being done around the globe and how it was working. This global scan led me to wondering if we haven’t been coming at the whole culture and inclusion conversation from the wrong angle. There are organisations that have changed their culture and embedded a more inclusive one from top to bottom. How have they done this?

In an attempt to better understand and serve their consumers, many organisations have established advisory bodies of consumers which provide advice to be fed into the day to day operations of the organisation.

Who here has a consumer advisory body?

This model attempts to bring the voice of consumers into board rooms and executive teams, but it does it at arm’s length. There is no real evidence that such advice is listened to, or acted on, or that it makes a difference to the consumer experience, or more importantly to how the organisation runs every day. More critically, there is strong evidence that the advice is simply ignored if it is inconvenient or poorly understood. Such examples include the National Disability Insurance Agency, and several of the US insurance company advisory bodies that we examined (Anthem, United Healthcare, and Centene). These organisations have clear structures in place that don’t necessarily translate into practice as a stronger consumer voice.

Organisations with advisory bodies need a key person who acts as the channel to ensure that the “advice” is transferred into the organisation as valued input. This transfer doesn’t always happen effectively. Additionally, when that key person departs, or the executive changes, the value of the advisory body faces significant risk with many not being used further, or no longer being valued for their contribution. Advisory bodies often become tokens for publicity or marketing purposes and do not contribute meaningfully, if at all, to organisational policy or practice.

The organisations that do have strong evidence of a consumer voice that contributes to how the organisation is run every day, and how the culture is designed to support a strong and positive consumer experience, are those that employ significant numbers of disabled people (or other target diversity consumer group) and which have a board that has a strong presence of that target group. It is these organisations which have experienced the culture shift required to embed long term consumer engagement. It is these organisations which are ahead of the global pack. (National Council on Disability (US), Association of Community Living (US), Think local act personal (UK) and Uloba (Norway)).

A key feature of organisations with a strong internal presence of consumer voice is that the culture is shifted from within in a sustainable way. This culture shift does not rely on individual key people, rather it is shifted by having a critical mass of the population group within the organisation, throughout its operations. Therefore, leading companies now work to build diversity in their executive and governance teams, particularly featuring population groups that are in their target market. This shift has been underway for decades, primarily featuring gender and race diversity, and now also broader diversity groups including disability.

There are several features of organisations that build consumer voices into their entire operation to “make it real”; these include:

  • significant buy in from the top echelons of the organisations most notably at CEO level,
  • strong representation from the consumer demographic in the board room, and
  • a high proportion of employees with consumer / target market experience.

Without these contributing factors organisations are vulnerable to their intentions slipping because they remain focussed on what is being done “to” the consumers not “with” the consumers.

Sometimes we get too hung up on ticking the diversity box, and not learning the lessons of other elements of business practice, like marketing. Marketing uses techniques which speak directly to the consumer, based on understanding that consumer. The most potent way to go about this is to have people from a particular demographic on both sides of the organisational experience, as staff and board as well as consumers, so that the conversation is authentic.

To affect a real culture shift to become an organisation which understands its target market/s there will, therefore, need to be considerable work done to bring the consumer voice into the board room and the staff group including at executive team level. Most importantly, the shift will need to be driven by the CEO to ensure total organisation embedding.

I enjoy the case study of Tom Peters, a CEO and leadership specialist who has worked with McKinsey and talks about “the ‘squint test:

One, look at a photograph of your exec team. Two, squint. Three: Does the composition of the team look more or less like the composition of the market you aim to serve?”

This example is about gender, when a company realised that it couldn’t successfully sell its product to women without having women as part of its board and executive. At the time, back in the 80s, they had no women, it was an all male board, and they realised that their big problem was that they weren’t talking to women, they were talking at them.

It has been long established that having women in board rooms and executive suites is good for business, particularly if an organisation wants to connect authentically with the female population, yet, curiously, there is not a similar understanding that the same strategies are required for other diversity groups like disabled people. There remains an assumption that disabled people can be spoken “for” and “to”. This thinking was abandoned decades ago in relation to women yet persists in relation to disabled people.

When a consumer / target market voice is embedded within an organisation, whatever that organisation does, it provides a further layer of engagement with its relevant community, and through that, a more robust approach to appropriate structures and processes.

Fundamentally, the culture is shifted organically through critical mass, rather than through one or two key people driving it as with advisory group structures. This provides for a long-term sustainable culture shift that is not reliant on a named process or specific key people.

Deloitte released a report last month which also showed this and took it a step further. They also insisted that there must be diversity inside our board rooms and executive or management teams to ensure sustainable culture shift and recommended that this happens alongside having a strong organisation Inclusion Policy. One that is owned and monitored by the board. This ensures that the board maintains an oversight role of how diversity is adding value to your work, and how it is contributing to your overall decision making and organisational health.

The Disability Leadership Institute has been working with the Victorian Government, Leadership Victoria and Voice At The Table as part of a project to increase the numbers of disabled people on Victorian Government boards and committees.

Some of the measures being taken include:

  • Setting a target
  • Advertising positions to people with disabilities so that they feel encouraged to apply for them. The DLI does this through our National Register of Disability Leaders. Many of the people on that register have done the Company Directors Course or have board careers in the community sector. Many had stopped applying for positions after repeated knockbacks and earlier bad experiences. If the position comes through us, they feel more encouraged to apply for it.
  • Leadership Victoria has been delivering governance training so that those who haven’t got governance experience can learn the basics.
  • Voice At The Table have been delivering training in inclusive meeting practices. This is really great work and I highly recommend it.
  • The DLI also has coaching available for getting your application right and for holding down your appointment once you have it.
  • The DLI has delivered Masterclasses, in recruiting disability to boards, to government board recruiters and chairs.
  • The Victorian Office for Disability also has a requirement that they must be notified of all board and committee positions that become available across government.

None of these mechanisms will have any effect, though, unless there is a commitment to appointing disabled people to boards and committees by the people doing the recruiting.

Stop for a moment, close your eyes, why do you want board diversity? What is the point of having disabled people inside your board room?

Diversity is about embracing the value, the richness, that diversity brings. This means operating differently, ensuring that all board members are equal and contribute equally, and recognizing the skills, expertise and perspective of disability leaders on your board. Disability leaders will operate differently, and you want this, embrace it, value it, use it. It might make you uncomfortable or seem annoying to have to change how you have a conversation, yet this is exactly the outcome you are trying to achieve because it means you are being pushed outside your box and having your perspective disrupted.

Disability in your board room is not about ticking a box, it’s about improving your board’s decision making and your organisation’s overall health. It’s about going outside your regular networks to those that you don’t normally engage with, it’s about stepping outside your comfort zone.

There isn’t much point, though, in appointing disability leaders to your board or committee if they aren’t valued for their contribution. This seems like an unnecessary thing to say, yet we’ve had many stories come to us at the DLI from board members who are never sent the papers in a format they can read, or aren’t given time to hear what is happening via their interpreter, and even highly experienced board members who are never given the opportunity to speak and share their views. They are, quite literally, token appointments.

Diversity is also not assimilation. There isn’t a lot of value in finding people of diversity to be on your board and then expecting them to think and act as you do. You want to be taken outside your comfort zone, sometimes you will hear perspectives that make you fidget, and this is exactly what you want, no matter how awkward it makes you feel.


A further interesting element of the recent Deloitte report was that they identified that appointments are usually made based on confidence not competence. This takes us right back to the merit trap and the path required to be considered qualified.

To avoid the merit trap we need to start thinking about how we source our people, both board and staff, and how we measure “merit”. This is where competence comes in.

Nobody is suggesting for a minute that you should not be recruiting competent people who are the best person for the job, including on your board. Problem is, merit isn’t finding those people for us, so how do we go about it?

Alan Joyce from Qantas is an original member of the Male Champions of Change. Qantas decided to achieve a gender balance amongst its pilots. The usual route to becoming a pilot is through the engineering division, apparently, so Qantas started making sure that its engineering division intake was skewed towards women. At one point 100% of their intake was women. Many questions were asked, but they stuck with it.

The aim of the program, and target, was to get STEM minded women inside Qantas and then work them through to becoming pilots, including international pilots. Nobody will argue that competence is a key driver here. Qantas isn’t going to risk its reputation on recruiting token women, rather they recruited women who had a strong STEM background and who could be trained in aircraft engineering with a view to becoming pilots. This is certainly not the “merit” based route, yet it will result in a large number of highly skilled women pilots joining the Qantas workforce. These pilots will be as good as any other Qantas pilot that came before them, and Qantas will also have achieved its gender balance goal.

Using competence to recruit is about not listening to the loudest most confident voice, nor is it about falling into the “merit trap” of appointing the person with the CV that contains certain qualifications and previous positions.

Competence is about recognising the skills, expertise and abilities that the position requires and recruiting for those. Increasingly business is recruiting people from outside their field because this gives them the diversity of thought and experience that helps them to be more innovative.

While people with disabilities may not have undertaken management positions or completed the Company Directors Course (although many have), there are certainly plenty to choose from who have significant expertise, skills and competence in the skills that governance requires. For example, I was talking to a DLI member last week who has no formal qualifications in risk management, yet they have significant expertise which allows them to identify and judge levels of risk in given situations. This has proven to be a strong contributor to the boards that they sit on. Many disabled people are very good at risk because we are making constant risk-based judgements about our own safety on a daily basis.

There is also an increasing body of research that shows that disabled people are 10% more innovative in the workplace, have strong lateral thinking and problem-solving capacities, and are highly collaborative and inclusive. These aren’t generic qualities, but they are significantly present amongst disability leaders.

Why would you risk missing out on that?

Pulling all this together:

  • we want people with disabilities in our board rooms and management teams because its good for our business, particularly if we have any ambition to be serving disabled people in our day to day work.
  • To reach better levels of diversity we need to throw merit out the window as an outdated concept and start recruiting on competence.
  • Our boards and executive teams should reflect the people that we are serving, our target market.
  • Boards must take ownership of inclusion by having policies and monitoring systems in place to ensure their organisation is welcoming diversity and sustaining it.

Thank you.

Author: hchristinar

The professional hub for disability leaders. Time to change the way leadership is understood.

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