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Governance & diversity matters

24 March 2020

Kirsti Lord Diversity Twitter Graphic

I’ve spent quite a bit of this year so far discussing governance, effective leadership and AoC’s work on diversity. To a range of people, with differing experiences and ideas about what works and what doesn’t.

Safe to say there has been plenty of thought-provoking conversations covering, as you might expect, insolvency, finance more generally, T levels, the general policy landscape and discussion around the advantages of diversity in board membership.

However, there were two things that really got me thinking…

The first was a conversation about the ‘balance of power’ in the leadership of a college and how getting this wrong can lead to organisational problems or worse, failure.

I believe some of the best strategic plans and organisational frameworks work when chairs and principals work closely together and are engaged with by every member of the board and SLT. These discussions are always exciting, and the board has the ability to shape the future plans of the college, demonstrated an excellent balance of support and challenge honestly and openly. Taking feedback from staff is crucial, coupled with a need for real understanding of the role of a chair and a principal: I’ve seen this many times and look forward to future meetings like it. There is a wealth of great leadership in this sector.

The flip side to this is discussions and decisions not made collaboratively. There can be instances where not drawing on the expertise of other non-executive directors and senior leaders in the room really diminishes the vision and strategy for the college and lack of ownership leads to limited checks and balances. Governance professionals have a unique set of skills and when afforded the space to think and speak independently, these meetings can flourish. When this doesn’t happen, the whole process suffers. Including the culture that we all wish to see in colleges – one of professional, supportive and respectful relationships, with genuine engagement at all levels.

Saying that, there are huge challenges in the sector and things sometimes go wrong, but the key to strong and impactful leadership is working together in the difficult times and remembering why we all do the jobs and roles we work in – for students.

The second is our journey through Investors in Diversity and lessons learned. Along with our upcoming campaign ‘Diversity in Governance’. The impact of diverse leaders and role modelling equality, diversity and inclusion within a board cannot be underestimated. The sense of belonging this offered students (and indeed staff) with protected characteristics, the aspiration this could generate, the breadth of ideas and perspectives that could be contributed and the cognitive diversity that isn’t always comfortable, but can drive a better, more impactful and responsive organisation.

I think our downfall, mine included, is that we can sometimes see colleges as such liberal and open-minded places that we forget huge challenges still exist. Recruiting diverse people to boards and senior leadership roles is still a massive problem, the higher we go the more overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, able-bodied and male it gets. And while a host of voices are required to tackle this issue, we also need the input from those in senior roles at the moment. Those who might think they don’t have an awful lot to contribute because they fit this description. When in fact it’s exactly those people we need in the room.

What I can say, is that I wholeheartedly believe we can only have progressive conversations about making change when the lived experiences or barriers to promotion are heard by those who do not suffer racism, sexism or homophobia. Alongside the contributions of those who don’t face oppression in the same way, but albeit will have a host of lessons and ideas to draw from to enrich discussions.

It is only when we draw from both, listen and collaborate fully with people from all walks of life that these powerful discussions begin to stick. And ultimately encourage senior teams that in lots of ways are extremely un-diverse now, to take action and recognise their role in making the sector a more inclusive place. That’s what I believe will ensure the campaign is successful and look forward to the ongoing work that our dedicated team is preparing.