Pursuing Cognitive Diversity in Succession Planning

Published 01/12/2020 - 3 min Read

By Martin Slattery

Senior Client Partner

Quick Summary Cognitive diversity is often misunderstood as businesses focus on gender and ethnicity to improve diversity.

3 min Read

“You don't have real diversity when you have a group of people that look different but think alike.” – Peter Thiel, Co-Founder of PayPal 

Diversity and Inclusion comes up in almost every client conversation that myself and my colleagues have. It's important, it's necessary and quite frankly it's needed. 

There are many research reports, blogs and vlogs about the positive impact of having a diverse pool of senior leaders. We know this. But the reality can be an altogether different story.

We specialise in helping clients with their search for securing diverse leaders in critical roles. Producing talent insight reports on key diversity topics is our core and we’ve written some insightful blogs on it too. 

Recently, I spoke with April Trubshaw, EMEA Head of Talent & Performance at organisations such as Cushman & Wakefield, Hays and LV. I posed a question to her “How truly diverse do you feel most senior leadership teams or executive boards are today?” 

In reply, we discussed two key diversity agenda points, ethnicity and gender. But, April highlighted a rarely addressed aspect of diversity that is often misunderstood. An organisational pursuit for cognitive diversity. April expanded by saying;

“Cognitive diversity is about the way we think, feel, perceive, behave, communicate and lead. All of which are largely shaped by our lived experiences and influence our ideas and perspectives.”  

We reflected on this and the importance of diversity within senior leadership teams. Where do these different ideas come from? Businesses will look externally to “buy” talent in who will bring this alternative thinking with them, rather than “build” it from within. 

The challenge for organisations is resisting the urge to stipulate a list of criteria known to be successful within the organisation that results in hiring in their “own image.”. Here lies the problem. This is the trap many organisations fall into. It is especially common with succession planning or leadership recruitment.

We see many business leaders surround themselves with like-minded people. These people view the world as they do, who’s journey is reflective of their own. This approach is also taken when looking for potential successors. As a result, they are expected to be successful because their face "fits”. 

The truth is this has an adverse impact and will stunt organisational growth. Our Head of Client Services explored this in more detail in his recent article.


April addressed the importance of adopting cognitive diversity at a senior level; 

“When problems are complex and you bring people with different experiences, perspectives, insights and ideas together, you are encouraging an environment that will demand different thinking styles. This can be challenging for some, and that is no bad thing. We have seen substantial uplift in problem solving, creativity, innovation and an ability to make more meaningful and informed decisions. Therefore, it’s a positive friction to have and a real win for the business.”

CEOs supported by people who only share their perspectives and thinking styles operate within a tunnel. This blinkered approach will limit the company’s success and opportunities. CEOs who put in place a D&I strategy reduce these organisational blind spots. Creating a culture that proactively encourages and rewards cognitive diversity, improves business performance.

As Winston Churchill once said:

“Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.” 

Businesses need some of that friction to fly. Those pursuing cognitive diversity in the workplace, like the kite, will elevate their business highest.

One of our Talent Partners, Momodou Balajo, has taken an in-depth look into psychometric tests and their use for promoting cognitive diversity. To learn more around this topic, download the article today.

Armstrong Craven’s approach to leadership hiring and effective succession planning is grounded in research. We’ve been focused on understanding talent demographics including diversity for 30 years. Our approach to diversity planning highlights and challenges any restrictive hiring criteria. It increases diversity in the workplace from the start of the process and offers viable solutions from the outset.


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