February 28, 2017

The Value of Diversity on Corporate Boards – A New Take

Peter Asmus

Peter Asmus
Navigant Research

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I’ve been preaching the value of diversity for quite some time in my specialized field of energy. When it comes to developing a portfolio of energy resources to supply a region, country, state or city, it is never a good idea to put all of your eggs in one basket.

For example, natural gas prices today in the United States are low. One might be tempted to shift one’s supply to natural gas in a major way – and many utilities are doing just that. It is also a resource that is cleaner than coal, and is a more flexible resource. This latter point is an important consideration as we add more variable solar and wind to the energy equation, since natural gas power plants can help fill in the gaps when the shine doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow.

But California ratepayers such as I will see higher bills in 2017 since gas prices have gone up on the West Coast. The best policy in order to hedge one’s bets is to always diversify, albeit intelligently, with a mix of resources so that over the long-term one is not overexposed to risk, but can also take advantage of the see-saw nature of energy markets.

Energy is just one example, but in a business world now driven by new data streams, creative trading strategies on equities and corresponding complexity in understanding future market opportunities, diversity can take on new meanings.

The same basic logic on diversity applies to your investment portfolio. Some of us are tempted to sink our resources into a single stock or commodity that can really make us rich – and that approach can work. But more often than not, we don’t have perfect information and unforeseen circumstances have an impact on the fate of companies and hence the performance of stock. One can get rich by placing one’s bets on a single company, product or service – but one can also go broke.

Likewise, a workforce consisting of employees all from similar backgrounds, race or nationality may limit the creative interplay when people of different walks-of-life, education and life experiences tackle a problem or develop a product. Just listening to the ideas of people who are just like you can be comforting. But this approach may not serve a company well when its products or services are looking for a national audience, or ideally, global reach.

What does all of this have to do with the make-up of corporate board? Typically, when one uses the word “diversity” within the context of a corporate board, that word is a code word for gender and/or ethnic diversity, mirroring government mandates to create opportunities for all citizens. But there is another aspect of diversity that is harder to quantify, and therefore often gets short shrift.

This is ensuring that a board also includes human beings with different life experiences. People who might offer a radically different perspective. In doing so, they may take other board members out of their comfort zone – or perhaps challenge traditional board orthodoxy focusing on financial metrics that might have served a company well for decades, but which might mask risks now.

In today quick paced and volatile global economy, the bean counters that dominate corporate boards are no doubt important. Yet the radical changes that transformed telecommunications and now energy herald a new world economy where change is fast, risk is heightened, and fresh ideas embracing new business models are more important than ever.

When structuring board priorities, I would urge that at least one board member be included that does not fit the typical mold of what you would normally look for. Someone who might take a longer view or perhaps offer insights from another industry that has already managed to adapt to a changing world.

With so many companies starting up every day, and so many large traditional companies reinventing themselves -- General Electric is a great example -- the value of articulating how and why a company’s products and services fit within an overall digital economy is vital to long-term success. I believe companies shifting toward a global perspective on all aspects of sustainability will be rewarded in more ways than one.

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