• Categories: Role of the board
  • Published: Feb 25, 2024
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This title chosen by Matt Fullbrook for a recent podcast (‘Why good governance is woke and that’s good news for everyone’) was, he said, deliberately provocative.

Some of Good Governance’s readers may find it so too, but it’s worth taking the plunge. This is an interesting and helpful analysis to inform the search for people who can help boards meet the challenges facing organisations today and into the future.

In introducing the podcast, Fullbrook says he hoped to frame his concerns (essentially about board composition) in a way that, for some of his listeners at least, “…might be helpful and kind of fun”. We would go further and say that the thinking explored in this podcast is fundamental to creating more effective boards.

First though, who is Matt Fullbrook? For readers unfamiliar with his One Minute Governance podcast, he is a board effectiveness researcher, educator, and consultant. For 20 years, Fullbrook led the Rotman School of Management’s governance research. Under his direction, the Rotman School evolved into the central hub of governance research in Canada. Since then, as an independent consultant, Fullbrook—through developing and implementing valuable governance processes, policies, and structures—has helped many organisations to maximise their effectiveness.

He sets the scene for his exposition with some definitions:

Confirmation bias: “a well-established quirk in our brains that makes it so we aren't actually interested in the truth but in validation. So, we dismiss information that disagrees with our beliefs and overvalue information that confirms our beliefs without much concern at all about whether the information in question is any good or whether we're actually correct. As long as we feel validated and don't have to change our minds about anything.”

Corporate governance: “the way that decisions get made in an incorporated entity. Good governance is intentionally cultivating effective conditions for making decisions.”

Diversity: “bringing multiple and potentially divergent perspectives, cultures, lived experiences, personalities and more into the process of governance, corporate or otherwise.”

Inclusion: “intentionally cultivating effective conditions to ensure that all of those diverse perspectives, cultures, etc can be safely expressed and taken into careful account in decision making.”

Equity: “the ideal result of doing diversity and inclusion well, meaning all the people in and affected by a system have equivalent opportunities to affect the system.”

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (or DEI): “the critical and undeniable intersection among diversity, equity and inclusion as defined [above].”

Woke: “an awareness that there is injustice in this world and that injustice is bad for basically everyone and that some people have way more power than others do, and that it's smart for powerful people to want to do something to help with the whole injustice thing. So being woke just means acknowledging those easily provable facts.”

Anti-woke: “a false dichotomy that pits the status quo against a mis-definition of woke. The status quo is some people having way more power than others, often for no useful reason. Basically, the thing that Wokeness acknowledges…is a bad faith lie told by powerful people that frames the world as a zero sum game where doing something about injustice means powerful people have to suffer.”

Fullbrook goes on to explain that the reason it's a bad faith lie is that:

…there's literally no reason to believe it's true. Yet people spread the lie anyway because it's triggering and manipulative. The objective of the lie appears to be for powerful people to manipulate others into helping to protect their power, even if it hurts everyone.

As the podcast proceeds, Fullbrook, in his spare time a member of a rock band, riffs on a variety of subjects. Their purpose is not immediately apparent until we can see that they were essential to creating a context for his main argument. One of these seeming deviations is an explanation of how new music composition is created using guitar pedals to facilitate the process of looping. Looping is adding layer after layer of recorded music to create a composition. He demonstrates this by creating actual musical insertions.

You might be wondering what this all has to do with his thoughts on corporate governance. However, for each additional layer of music read ‘extra information’. At this point he says, “maybe you can already imagine a boardroom metaphor, even just based on the basic looping we’ve already done”. And we can.

But before expanding further on that idea, Fullbrook introduces us to another important and commonly used concept—merit and its application to hiring decisions:

My interpretation [when people say that they hire people based on merit] is that they mean they care about what people have done in the past…and don't think it's very important to wonder what new things people might be able to do in the future unless they can prove that they've already done it in the past.”

And now Fullbrook’s central point starts to become clearer. He suggests that people perceive merit as somehow separate from potential:

Merit is a judgment of a person's past accomplishments in service of predicting what they might accomplish in the future.

He argues that there is a common, somewhat lazy argument fuelled by confirmation bias that suggests that it makes sense to put merit and DEI on opposite sides of a dichotomy. That if we allow diversity, equity and inclusion to inform our hiring behaviours…then we must necessarily de-emphasise merit.

Fullbrook also distinguishes between talent and merit, the former being something innate rather than learned. But, as he says, would we hire only people who are naturally gifted at the thing we need them to do? Clearly not, so he then asks whether opportunity and merit are the same.

He describes his own experience. He had a great opportunity as a “know-nothing 21 year old” to start working on projects around corporate governance. This opened up many further opportunities before, in effect, he had the kind of experience that would be consistent with the usual concept of merit. And he had not earned any of these opportunities. They were just there. All he did was decide to give them a shot and they worked out okay:

There are literally millions of other people who, given the same opportunities, would have made just as much or more out of them.

He further observes that opportunities are assigned to us randomly at the moment of conception that determine whether “…countless doors are open to us or if we instead have something much more miserable”. It follows that Fullbrook’s accomplishments are mostly the result of his random encounters with opportunity. And, generalising, if people don’t take advantage of opportunity, nobody would have any ‘merit’ to speak of.

On the merit versus DEI argument, Fullbrook suggests it claims that we should be allocating future opportunity based on merit—in other words, on what a person has done or appears to have done in the past. Contrasting two well-known basketball players (one long since retired) he asks rhetorically “…who needs someone who has the potential to do something generationally awesome tomorrow when we can have someone who already did something generationally awesome 35 years ago?”

Fullbrook concludes that a choice in favour of the latter (at least in the pro basketball context) would be dumb:

Just as dumb, for example, as choosing someone who's only got raw talent over someone who's got a rad combination of slightly less talent, but also grit and wisdom and fresh perspectives and a cool personality. And if we see the potential for a person to have all that, why do we care so much about whether they have merit?

He then queries if future opportunity shouldn’t be allocated in large part on someone’s future potential:

And what about a person's potential not only to be great on their own, but to make an entire group or team greater…[given] the greatness of our team is defined by the inputs into our decisions.

Fullbrook then brings all the previously unconnected strands of his thinking together:

What's an important factor that increases the probability that the decision will be a good one? Considering multiple perspectives and multiple options before choosing a path. What's an easy shortcut to bringing multiple perspectives to the table…it's diversity. What's a shortcut to making sure that diversity actually works the way we all want it to? Bam...inclusion! And if we do those things right, we might have equity.

He concludes:

… we may just have a sensible and relatable argument that D and E and I are like a life hack for good governance. Sure, we can add merit into the mix too, if you like, but really all we need merit for here is to make sure the group collectively has the technical skills it needs. And one of the things about technical skills is that if we worry about DEI first and then worry about technical skills, we'll end up with everything we want—skill and good governance. If we do it the other way around, merit and then DEI, all we're guaranteed to get is skill. So, if one of the main gripes from the Anti-woke crowd is that we're de-emphasizing merit, my response is [that it is], about…time. Because in this sense, being anti-woke is kind of like being anti-potential. And being anti-potential is kind of like being anti-performance.

In a final reflection on the implications of what he has concluded, Fullbrook acknowledges how people who have succeeded in the past based on [narrowly defined] ‘merit’ might feel about his proposition:

It feels scary to some people to think they might need more than merit to succeed, especially because a lot of us with merit got [success] because we had a heaping dose of a combination of unearned talent and unearned opportunity. However, It's not a zero sum game. The lie is that the size of the pie is fixed, and you [have] got to push other people out of the way to get yours.

While we have attempted to summarise the essence of Fullbrook’s argument, go and listen to the podcast, then read the transcript, then give it some more thought. Think about what the challenges thrown down by Matt Fullbrook imply for the way your board thinks about identifying and recruiting the capabilities it needs. And if you are still struggling with where his logic takes us, relisten to (or re-read) his early references to confirmation bias.