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Diversity: it takes cultural change

Halfway through interviewing 10 chief executives – from the Chief of Australia’s Army to the MD of Microsoft – for the upcoming sequel to my 2003 book CEOs Unplugged: Business Leaders Get Real about Women and Business, it’s fascinating to reflect on what’s changed – and what hasn’t – with regard to workplace diversity and inclusion.

What’s new is that each CEO I have met with so far understands that his or her diversity issues are not a gender or race problem, but a business challenge – and are consequently approaching their challenges with a business mindset.  Instead of looking at diversity through a traditional ‘compliance’ lens, these forward-looking thinkers instead view diversity through an organisational capability lens.

By looking through a diversity lens to build and grow organisational capability, these CEOs believe they will attract and retain the best talent, increase innovation, improve decision-making and deliver better solutions for their diverse customers and shareholders.  They have come to understand that talent comes in many packages.

“When I started my career I didn’t see myself as a champion of diversity,” Philippa Purser from Cargill told me.  “I thought it was so obvious – that anyone who was good at what they did would rise naturally to the top, and that it would happen by itself.  It’s only when I realised that it wasn’t happening – and that we had to do something about it, and do it differently, that I became a diversity champion.”

Similarly Australia’s Chief of Armysays: “I came to realise that a diverse and inclusive workforce is an absolute requirement for us to be a modern organisation because it produces heightened capability.”

What’s clear to these workplace chiefs is that harnessing workplace diversity will not be achieved with an ad hoc HR-driven approach. They all describe being on a strategic journey that by necessity must be led by the organisation’s leader.

Although each CEO’s business is at a different stage on the diversity journey, these CEOs accept that a compliance approach allows differences to be tolerated. However, tolerance is not always enough.

“I don’t like the word tolerance,” says CBA’s chief executive, Ian Narev. “It sounds like you are extending a courtesy to see what you then might decide to retract.  That’s not what we are after. If you don’t start by setting very high standards of genuine openness and respect then you can go down a pretty slippery slide quite quickly.”

CEO champions of diversity also understand they cannot go it alone. As a result, they are constantly engaged in conversations with their leadership teams, with their employees and with experts outside the organisation. They also work in partnership with HR to equip leaders with the skills to create inclusive teams by looking at talent through a diversity lens; by addressing ‘unconscious bias’; and by providing flexible workplace practices.

“I have an incredible leadership team and incredible people management community,” says Pip Marlow, MD of Microsoft Australia. “And we achieve inclusion outcomes as a leadership team in partnership with the people management community. “

So what hasn’t changed?

Business leaders concur: when it comes to diversity and inclusion, the pace of change is still snail slow. “This is culture change. It takes a long time, and it’s repetitive and relentless. Execution is long-term and you have to stay the course,” notes Narev.

Other challenges include the narrow perception by many in business circles that diversity equals gender, while unconscious bias continues to undermine opportunity and appointment on merit. Assisting senior and line managers to evolve as inclusive people managers is another.  And with the exception of the Microsoft MD I spoke to, business leaders find it difficult to offer flexible work conditions across-the-board.

Also, despite talent pipelines becoming increasingly gender and racially diverse, senior leadership teams continue to be predominantly male and Anglo.

Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see more female leaders in charge, and at the helm of businesses once considered male domains.  We also now have compelling business case research and ‘best practice’ benchmarks and case studies on how to achieve a more gender-balanced and diverse workforce.

For HR professionals, their role is to work in partnership with CEOs and leadership teams and encourage a strategic approach to diversity and inclusion, thereby delivering an empowered, inclusive and sustainable workplace.

This is an excerpt from Fiona Krautil’s book CEOs Unplugged : Business leaders get real about diversity and inclusion where she interviews CEOs for their view on diversity in the workplace. 


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