Infusing diversity into the boardroom

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_ONY0833_ONY0833The panel session, from left: Johan Merican, CEO Talent Corporation Malaysia; Datuk Ranjit Singh, Chairman, Securities Commission Malaysia; Elizabeth Passey, Steering Committee member, 30 % Club UK; Iain Lo, Chairman, Shell Malaysia; and Helen Brand, CEO, ACCA.

In today’s new business world order, diversity in the boardroom is a prized asset to enhancing stronger business performance. But diversity is not just about gender, but encompasses age, experiences and skillsets that potential boardroom candidates can bring to a company.

This was one of the takeaways from the panel discussion at the recent launch of the 30% Club Malaysia by Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib Abdul Razak, and the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim. Also present were the Founding Chairs of the Malaysia Club – corporate captains, Tan Sri Megat Zaharuddin, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah and Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar.

The event was organised by the Perfomance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) in collaboration with the NAM Institute for the Empowerment of Women (NIEW), an agency under the Ministry of Women, Family and Development; and Bursa Malaysia.

The panel session was moderated by Johan Merican, CEO of Talent Corporation Malaysia, with panelists Datuk Ranjit Singh, Chairman of Securities Commission Malaysia; Elizabeth Passey, Steering Committee Member of 30% Club UK; Iain Lo, Chairman of Shell Malaysia; and Helen Brand, CEO of ACCA.

In Malaysia, there is an existing push under the 10th Malaysia Plan to increase the percentage of women occupying key decision-making positions to 30% by 2016.

Ranjit noted that many companies tend to treat the appointment of women to senior positions as a form of tokenism; a tick on the box. While he called for greater commitment by companies, he also cautioned against making it a numbers game and to aim for qualitative outcomes rather than meeting a quota.

In extending that point, Helen Brand stressed the need to drive behaviour through platforms like the 30% Club which will be more effective to avoid this sense of ‘tokenism’.

The 30% Club movement, which started in UK in 2010, champions a voluntary business-led change to incorporating more women into the boardroom based on research that it leads to stronger corporate and financial performance. To-date, the UK chapter has reached 23% on FTSE-100 boards against their goal of 30% by end-2015.

While the general discussion was against the backdrop of promoting gender diversity in the boardrooms, the panelists also spoke at length on the subject of diversity; that it goes beyond gender and extends to age, experience and skillsets that can bring about more dynamic opinions and innovative resolutions around the board table.

Elizabeth Passey said chairpersons, CEOs and current board members play a critical role in advocating this change in behaviour from within. Board members should avoid “recruiting in their own image”, she said, adding, “the point of being a board member is about thinking different and not being native to the executive”.

Ranjit also pointed out that institutional investors play an important push for greater diversity in calling for better board effectiveness from a corporate governance perspective. He also urged nominating committees and headhunters to play their role in identifying a wider pool of qualified candidates and putting their names forward.

The Prime Minister had earlier shared that there are now over 900 qualified women who are “board ready”. These women have graduated from a special training programme spearheaded by NIEW with the Malaysian Directors Academy and LeadWomen.

Iain Lo, meanwhile, spoke about assuming a sponsorship role, which goes beyond mentoring within the confines of the company, to helping promote the candidate for external opportunities; a point which was echoed by Passey for women to also put each other forward for career opportunities and board appointments.

Lo also advocated the benefits of cross-fertilisation for executive members to serve on the boards of the other non-competing businesses. He views it as a learning-sharing platform and a strong retention tool in their development growth, as they would be exposed to the workings and cultures of other companies. The Malaysian government recently announced that executives of government-linked companies (GLCs) can serve on boards of other non-competing listed companies, and encouraged listed companies to promote the same for their female executives.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Razak urged business leaders to “take the next step, break those glass ceilings and install women on your boards.”

In pursuit of this goal, the Prime Minister announced two new measures: “From now on, GLCs will by policy allow their executives to serve on the boards of other listed companies, and I would encourage all listed companies to follow suit in addition to leveraging on the pool of their own serving women executives when appointing new board members.

“In addition, listed companies will in future be required to disclose the composition and diversity of their boards and top management in terms of gender, ethnicity and age.”

‘I have asked for regular reports on our progress from Bursa, whom I have appointed as Champion for this initiative,” added the Prime Minister.

In closing, Ranjit reiterated the need for a substantial shift in efforts being put forward, removing biasness, and encouraging greater diversity in the boardroom. No doubt it will take a comprehensive effort from all quarters – CEOs, board members, headhunters, even women themselves – to achieve the 30% goal. But the rewards are worthwhile.

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