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Now for something completely different

05 Nov 2021 | Dr Shefaly Yogendra Dr Shefaly Yogendra, independent governor of London Metropolitan University and keynote speaker at the Advance HE Governance Conference 2021, explores difference on the Board.

Dr Shefaly Yogendra is a keynote speaker at the Advance HE Governance Conference 2021: Evolving governance fit for our futures. She will address the conference on the theme of 'Governance futures: A vision from beyond HE'.

This blog post is reproduced by kind permission from and was first published on 10 December 2020.

I often speak at events for aspiring board directors where I am billed as the speaker with an unconventional — different — path to the boardroom.

Different is an interesting word. It means “not the same” but is also used to mean diverse, divergent, disparate. These words describe the idea of “diversity”, a key topic of discussion on boards, most recently back in the news with two developments. 

In Germany, the coalition government has proposed the introduction of a mandatory quota that will require that “management boards with more than three members must include at least one woman“. In the United States, Nasdaq has filed a proposal with the Securities and Exchange Commission that will require disclosures of “consistent transparent diversity statistics” from companies listed or seeking listing on Nasdaq. Nasdaq is demanding at least two “diverse” directors, including one female and one who self-identifies as either “an underrepresented minority” or LGBTQ+.

Earlier there were similar moves for accountability made by the state of California. In the UK the Corporate Governance code has required companies to report on their diversity policy since 2012. In 2017 the Parker Review recommended “One by 2021” asking boards to have one ethnic minority director on board by 2021.

So far, so … “protected characteristics“*.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this approach to building diversity and inclusion. After all it eases reporting to show intent, action, progress.

It is just that it is insufficient and reductive.

It is also reliant on self-disclosure by individuals for many protected characteristics e.g. sexual orientation which, much research shows, often leads to “out” individuals suffering discrimination in the workplace anyway.

The term “cognitive diversity” has been gaining currency of late. Presumably to address some of the obvious shortcomings of the “protected characteristics” approach to diversity. The understanding of the term however is sketchy and variable. Questioning chairmen often elicits disheartening mealy-mouthed responses. That lack of clarity is ultimately unhelpful because if interviewing boards do not know how to test meaningfully for cognitive diversity, they cannot really choose between one candidate or another.

Further confusion arises when based on a protected characteristic, a person is presumed to tick the “diversity” box when their presence could just bring more of the same to the group. For instance, I have had occasion to point out to a few, who notice my gender and ethnicity and think of me as “diversity”, that with our elite education from the same or similar institutions and our socio-economically privileged backgrounds, we may be more cognitively similar than they might imagine.

It turns out it is not that simple to test for cognitive diversity after all!

So what is a chairman or a board to do?

To go beyond tokenism on “difference” or “diversity”, we need to practise the governance of “difference” differently. Starting with how we recruit board directors. Going beyond things they cannot change for most part — protected characteristics — to exploring how those characteristics and other experiences made them who they are, while not presuming they make them different by default.

Here based on my experience from both sides of the board interview table are some practical tips.

First, from the interviewer side:

Try to understand what makes someone different. Then be prepared to listen to the answer with an open mind.

One of my colleagues — let’s call her A — would, at first glance, tick perhaps nothing more than the gender box for diversity. However her backstory – her parents and how she grew up surrounded by people from all around the world – is so fascinating and rich that her empathy and deep understanding of “difference” and “othering” falls into place instantly once you hear it. I call this “formative diversity”.

Similarly people can bring “experiential diversity”. My friend A has also been a CEO in a crucial technology organisation where as a woman and a non-engineer she was an unusual appointment and her experience has been valuable. Similarly another friend of mine — let’s call him B — came to cybersecurity via a career in law enforcement and military intelligence, and has an altogether different, practical and valuable lens on cybersecurity shaped by those experiences.

Learn to differentiate between “being” and “performing”. Author Brené Brown has written about the important distinction between “being vulnerable” and “performing vulnerability”. The former can enable authentic connection, while the latter is exploitative and can damage trust.

For every truly authentic “different” person I have met, I have also met another who plays up some or the other aspect of their life as if it entitles them to special dispensation. It is off-putting in work settings. In interviews, it is a certain death knell. It is important that interviewers learn to probe respectfully to understand the actual value of difference.

For the interviewee:

Learn to articulate how your difference adds value. Being effective on modern boards requires perspective, provable and differential technical skills, and independence of thought.

Perspective can be shaped by difference in experiences — not just at work but in life. I can only share my own example. My own experience working with a range of clients including PE investors, regulators, legislators, mid-sized to large businesses and startups has given me an instinctive interest in and knowledge of the entire value chain of businesses, how politics and regulation constrain or shape strategic timelines, how businesses actually make money, what risks they may face and how they may mitigate them. All of these are useful skills in providing oversight and delivering good governance. Having been outside of the usual corporate career paths, and having worked, studied and lived in three continents have meant my networks are eclectic and varied but the experience also kept me un-embedded and independent in how I approach issues.

It is up to an aspiring board director to reflect on the entire arc of their experience to understand — and articulate — how their “difference” of formative and other experiences deliver value.

For both interviewer and interviewee:

We need to map the interviewing process or conversation to the skills gap being addressed. This of course assumes that the role was transparently advertised with the relevant detail. What we find in the interview conversation should comfort us that we are getting what we are seeking — the interviewer board gets the skills and perspective they seek, the interviewee gets the cultural fit and the challenge they seek.

There is also the matter of reporting.

Almost all diversity reporting is still focused on protected characteristics. Regulators as well as independent reviewers still focus their efforts on this narrow definition of difference. These characteristics would be insufficient to surface unusual candidates such as my friend B, and can easily miss the unique wonderfulness of my friend A.

Asking for such narrow reporting is an insufficiently strong leadership stance.

Reporting by boards also needs to become less perfunctory e.g. just the mention of numbers of ethnic or other minority members. It must be said that the Parker Review did ask for more clarity on reporting, transparency, role of exec search firms, and internal pipeline. The actual reporting remains disappointing.

There are virtually no disincentives, leave alone punitive measures, for boards not reporting clearly or meaningfully. This is where the regulator could help advance inclusion by sharpening the guidance, knowing fully well that the guidance issued in the past is often used as a checklist by less diligent boards.

But crucially we need new thinking on noting, appreciating, and reporting on true difference.

Until then, board diversity, like the title of this post, may just be a Monty Python sketch!


Dr Shefaly Yogendra is Vice Chair and Chair of the Audit Committee at London Metropolitan University, joining the Board of Governors in August 2017. She is an internationally experienced strategist with experience of building organisations, brands and culturally diverse teams. She has diverse fiduciary and governance experience in non-profit, for-profit, listed and private companies, and is also a trusted advisor with experience of shaping the executive conversation on technology, risk, talent, branding and growth. For more information please visit

Advance HE holds its Governance Conference 2021: ‘Evolving Governance fit for our futures’ on 18 November.

This one-day virtual conference will focus on the skills and attributes required for good governance of HEIs and include key themes of sustainability, inclusion and strategies to navigate ever changing policy.

Delegates who are part of an Advance HE member institution will be eligible for a buy one, get one half price offer when the second person on the booking is a Chair of the Board.

Find out more and book your place.

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