Cultural Differences on Your Board? Set Some Ground Rules.

One association uses six guiding principles to make sure that leaders from multiple countries can speak in one voice.

Board members don’t have to agree on everything. But they do have to agree on the terms by which they’ll be disagreeing.

That’s something Magdalena N. Mook, executive director and CEO of the International Coach Federation, has thought a lot about when working with her board. ICF has broad global reach—30,000 members in 140 countries—which has plenty of upsides. But with its nine board members hailing from seven countries, coordination can be a challenge both logistically and culturally.

“[The diversity of the board] is great, because we have a variety of opinions and inputs,” she says. “But at the same time we noticed that for the board to be performing as a high-performing body, we need a little structure influenced by culture.”

We give each other permission to call each other out on not operating in the same way.

That’s no small task—culture is a word that encompasses a variety of backgrounds and differences. “We’re talking about gender, we’re talking about sexual orientation, we’re talking about economic position,” she says. “In our case we have a couple of board members working at large corporations, other are entrepreneurs. It all really influences the way they see the word, and how they work with each other, and how they represent the organization.”

To help get that variety of board members to work together, ICF instituted some practical guidelines. For instance, it makes its board seats at-large rather than region-based, to emphasize that board members serve the entire organization, not just the area they hail from. But Mook has also helped the board establish a straightforward six-point set of working guidelines—called “board promises and agreements”—that it revisits each term. To wit:

  1. Remember who we serve and why
  2. Think systemically, speak and act courageously
  3. Listen to learn, and express to explore with an open heart, mind, and gut
  4. Embrace our similarities and differences to embody a global mindset
  5. Make decisions and progress towards agreed priorities and keep commitments
  6. Be intentional in mine and our participation

Those six guidelines were whittled down from an original 48, and while some of the six that remain seem straightforward enough on the surface, they actually reflect serious challenges with diverse boards, particularly global boards. “A big part of [the challenge for the board] is the style of working together,” she says. “Our American colleagues are never shy about voicing an opinion. An Asian colleague might not speak until being asked. We conduct business in English, but for many of our board members English is not their first language, and not the language they normally work in.”

That means the ICF board spends a fair amount of time checking in on itself to confirm that everybody’s on the same page regarding the details of a point under discussion. “We have to be sure to indicate in a clear way so the understanding is the same,” Mook says. “Many times when the board makes a decision, and especially when the board is voting on something, we restate and make sure everybody understands the motion on the table.”

But though Mook is working with an international board, the issues she faces are common to boards of all types. (Indeed, she’ll be leading a Learning Lab on that point titled “Culturally Diverse Boards Drive Results” at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Toronto in August.) Every board, she says, could stand to pay attention to the blind spots and different approaches they bring to the boardroom. “We do training around different cultural norms,” she says. “Our members are typically quite experienced, cosmopolitan individuals, but sometimes it’s good to see those differences. We also have a very open conversation about personal biases and preferences that they may have. We give each other permission to call each other out on not operating in the same way.”

That may be a relatively labor-intensive way of managing a board, but Mook says ICF has reaped the benefits of a considered approach to every board member. “The fact that we have an international board is an enriching factor,” she says. “It means we have a very diverse and complex organization. The voices and knowledge the experience of the board, help make decisions that benefit the entire the system, rather than favoriting one [region] over the other. It is also very educational for our board members to be able to work hand in hand with colleagues with other cultures.”

What does your association do to promote diversity on your board—and to address the cultural differences that are part of that diversity? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!