Unlocking the Fuzzy Handcuffs

By Chris Wilkie, CEO, SHPE

My name is Dr. Chris Wilkie – a Sexologist by formal education, and a nonprofit executive by profession. I am currently the CEO of SHPE (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers), and I have some thoughts on governance.

Now, while I won’t be talking about safe words, fuzzy handcuffs, or leather in this piece, I will be sharing my views on a few business concepts that, when combined, have the potential to create some steamy business taboos that really should be more mainstream.

Case in point, let’s consider the following combination – leadership, governance, and diversity, equity, & inclusion (DEI).

First, we have the Board and the CEO whose roles represent the conceptual foundation of simple governance and leadership. I read an article the other day on this exact partnership called “The Functions of Governance, Leadership, and Management” from Starboard Leadership.

The piece started with the familiar list of the “do’s/don’ts” that we so often jump to when talking about this dynamic. For example, “the board should not be in the day-to-day operations” or “ board members cannot direct staff to do tasks.”  But the board “should focus on due diligence and fiduciary duties.”

While important, these types of rules shift us immediately to the idea of basic responsibilities and less towards the “why” behind governance in the first place. And so, I was especially struck by the next part of the essay. It goes on to define governance as “a ‘radical’ function that seeks to challenge the root assumptions of leadership, to address those matters that are normally taken for granted or are not discussed.”

In other words, our organizational structures should actually encourage our Boards to generate alternative visions or scenarios, and to ask the hard questions. All the while, holding the CEO accountable to the answers.

Professionally, I love this approach. I think it’s important to drive the CEO to test current approaches to see if the organization is remaining relevant in today’s unstable and ever-changing environment. As CEO, it’s a refreshing concept to be able to say that, “my Board is comfortable embracing the hard questions, unpackaging how we have always done things, and reassessing our innovation and relevance in the current landscape.” This is not challenging to me as a CEO. On the contrary, it is a clear representation of trust between my position and that of the Board. And, I welcome the opportunity to influence, shape, and champion the board’s compelling, or even provocative vision.

But, in today’s environment, this dual faceted conversation of governance and leadership isn’t enough. We have to also look at adding the third layer into the conversation – DEI.

Now, you and I know that DEI is all the rage right now. It’s a buzzword that investors, consumers, and employees are all demanding to be addressed by anyone in any kind of business. It can be easy for C-suite executives to feel bound by what can be seen as unrealistic or vague expectations. But I’m here to tell you that, leaning into DEI and embracing it fully, can actually set you free. Let’s go ahead, and unlock those fuzzy handcuffs.

First things first – we need to recognize that in order to achieve a culturally competent, responsive, and psychologically safe work environment, external proclamations must be reflected internally with updated policies and tangible actions. Public statements are nice, but it’s the organizational practices that matter. Ultimately, as leaders, we must create an internal mindset that emphasizes trust-building and celebrates all our different identities, life experiences, and education.

And while I often shy away from promoting top-down governance strategies, I do make an exception when it comes to diversity. DEI must be encouraged and enacted at the highest levels of any organization – and this means taking active steps in diversifying the Board itself. If we truly want our Boards to have the robust conversations that lead to pushing the envelope and disrupting norms, we need the deep insight and multiple perspectives that can only come from differing lived experiences – whether by race, ethnicity, orientation, or gender. Diverse boards are the best boards.

In addition, the Board should get into the practice of producing and reviewing an annual Diversity report. This will help inform the overall governance provided and communicate to all stakeholders how DEI is prioritized and executed.

Diversity reports often include the following observations and measurements:

  • An updated Board diversity statement
  • The diversity and inclusion policy of the organization
  • A history of the business’s journey towards diversity
  • Goals and progress towards achieving those goals
  • A list of employee resources for diversity and inclusion
  • Board recruitment strategies that seek out underrepresented candidates
  • Programs, events, conferences, and other resources held that year
  • If applicable, diversity council members or external diversity advisors
  • Partner organizations to continue fostering diversity and brand reputation outside the board
  • Diversity awards and honors

By formalizing DEI into a Board responsibility and keeping the CEO accountable to it, you will ensure that your organization benefits from the innovative, unbound, and free-thinking that a truly diverse team offers. I consider this the best kind of “risky business,” and I can think of nothing more sexy when it comes to good governance and leadership.

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