Musing on the Matrix

Skills, Ability, KnowlegeBy Linda Crompton, BoardSource president & CEO

Our friend Jan Masaoka has, as usual, penned a provocative and thoughtful article for Blue Avocado, called — bluntly enough — “Ditch Your Board Composition Matrix.” In typical Jan fashion, she fearlessly examined this received wisdom of the sector: “Use a matrix to ensure diversity on your board” and came out with the verdict: Ditch it.

If boards were to use the matrix purely to categorize people, and if, as she suggests, board members viewed adding a person of color to their board as one more box to check off, I’d agree wholeheartedly with her conclusion. And if that’s how you’re using it, stop.

The board matrix is a tool, and like any tool, it is never a means unto itself. Detailed in our book The Board Building Cycle, among others, a matrix only should be used as a worksheet for detailing the skills, characteristics, and talents of your board members, and identifying gaps. And using a matrix is not the first step in board building. A strategic plan that details the future of the organization and identifies what you’ll need to enact the plan — the resources of all kinds — financial and human, both board and staff, must be created first. The Board Building Cycle’s introduction reads, in part:

The search for new board members is a strategic activity; it has long-term implications for the board’s effectiveness. It should be driven by considerations of what resources the board will need among its members in order to serve the organization well during the next few years. Having a strategic plan in place will guide the board in its choice of whom to bring onto the board. The organization’s strategic direction can help to clarify the special skills and resources required on the board.

Jan’s primary beef with the board matrix is that it focuses on what people are, as opposed to what they do. Fair enough, but I reiterate: It’s a worksheet, not a job offer. If your strategic plan focuses on ramping up your organization’s technological capacity over the next five years, and your matrix of existing competencies on your board identifies a gap in that area, you know where to start looking. But finding a technologically savvy potential candidate is just the beginning — now you need to determine whether that person has the right combination of qualities, both personal and professional, for your board, in addition to that one you’ve identified.

I imagine the whole idea of board matrices becomes particularly uncomfortable when we get into the area of other kinds of diversity, especially racial and ethnic. Again, using it to categorize and check-a-box is reductionism at its worst. Not one of us is ever just one thing. No Hispanic man, for example, could ever be asked to represent the “Hispanic viewpoint.” But look at your board holistically — Are there voices that are not being heard that should be? If you’re not systematic about looking at who is around the table now, you may not realize who is not around the table.

How does your board ensure that the voices you need to hear are around your table?

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1 Comment

  1. Certainly Jan’s right in that “skills,” “professions” and “ethnicity” have been old measures for sophisticated boards for at least two decades. I can hire CPAs or lawyers and survey any demographic important to our board’s mission. Today’s high performance board does, however, identify and seek out governance and enterprise leadership competencies for strategic targeting in the recruitment pipeline. Competency based governance is your benchmark and understanding the role of full diversity in organizational success is a competency.


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