Last week, I found myself sitting next to a woman at dinner who chairs companies. We were talking about boardroom diversity, and she suddenly declared: “I always make sure that there is one shit on each of my boards.”
I wanted to kiss her. It was not just the word, so sharp in contrast to the soft drivel that nearly everyone lets rip whenever they discuss diversity. It was also the bracing sentiment that delighted me, even if I had a nagging doubt that she might be wrong. Surely, I protested, the ideal number of egos on a board was zero?
She looked at me with exaggerated patience, as if I were an amiable, if dim, child. I was making the elementary mistake, she said, of confusing egos and shits. The ego has no place on any board, as he is only interested in himself. A cumbersome ego is no help at all when you are trying to examine the corporate risk register.
The argument for Shits on Boards (SOBs) is quite different. An SOB is someone who couldn’t care less what others think of him or her, and is therefore low-maintenance, whereas an ego demands endless admiration and attention.
An SOB doesn’t mind upsetting people, cares nothing for bonding and rather enjoys stirring things up. They are dislikable people, but their very nastiness is useful.
Now that I think of it, I can see that the SOB serves many functions. They dash in on the attack, battering-ram style, leaving it up to the chairman to restrain them before serious damage is done. Their attack leaves the way open for the nicer, more constructive, board members to come in after them, attacking more powerfully than they otherwise would have.
The SOB has other uses too. He prevents things from getting too cozy round the table, and is someone harmless for others to gang up against.
Indeed, the pro-SOB arguments are so persuasive that there ought to be quotas to ensure every company has a beast in the boardroom. According to my new friend, the ideal number of SOBs around the table is one – implying a quota of about 10 per cent – as more than that means too many clashes.
However, this scheme may be harder to implement than other quotas. If you are a woman, say, you know that you are one, and others do, too. But if you are an SOB, you may not think of yourself in that way.
Verifying whether a company has hit its target could be tricky, as the SOB might not want to be labelled as such. The system would have to operate rather as it does in poker: if you can’t work out who the sucker is, it’s you.
There is another reason why there is no need for a formal SOB quota. That is because they are in such plentiful supply, the problem may not be getting one on board but not getting half a dozen.
Still, whether one does it through quotas or more informally, ensuring a diversity of the nice and nasty seems a better way of achieving diversity of thought (which is the object of the exercise) than to use the proxy of male and female. The latter has never struck me as obviously better than insisting on a mixture of black and white, old and young, rich and poor, or posh and chav.
Yet every week the WOB (Women on Boards) lobby shouts more loudly. Last week, management consultancy Hay Group published an apparently shocking survey of large European companies showing that women directors get paid 7 per cent less on average than men because they are under-represented on the audit or risk committees.
I can’t see what’s so bad in this. The additional pay directors get from being on the audit committee – €11,000 a year – doesn’t seem a lot when you think of all that time, all that detail and all the extra risk you carry should things go wrong.
My chief feeling on not being on the audit committee of the company where I’m a non-executive director is not outrage, it’s relief.
The survey also bleats that far too few companies are chaired by women. If all WOBs were all like the one I sat next to at dinner last week, I would agree: the quota for female chairmen ought to be 100 per cent.
But alas, they aren’t. Women can be straightforward, or they can be full of hot air. The last female chairman I came across also took it upon herself to explain her system of board composition, for which she had an acronym, too. Hers was ABC – Attitude, Behaviours, Commitment.
ABCs have a place in the world, but that’s in primary school. At board level, give me SOBs every time.