How to become fluent in diversity and inclusion: keep practising

Wednesday 02 June 2021
CMI Companions talk how leaders can move from othering and executive-level disinterest to action and organisational survival
Young man speaking and gesticulating on a video call

Diversity and inclusion is now a case of ‘organisational survival’, said Robert Baker CMgr CCMI, kicking off this important discussion among CMI Companions. The murder of George Floyd, the #MeToo movement, Sarah Everard’s murder, #BlackLivesMatter all mean that leaders and their organisations need to be thinking about ways to be diverse and inclusive if they want to survive.

As evidence, he cited Mckinsey’s Diversity Wins study, which shows the business benefits of diversity of thought. Businesses in the bottom quartile in terms of gender and ethnicity are 27% more likely to underperform on profitability.

So why are we still seeing a lack of diversity in so many organisations? How can leaders and organisations move from seeing diversity as a challenge to seeing it as central to performance and survival? What can you do to become a leader who’s fluent and effective when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

Time to skip a generation?

Bill Moore CBE CMgr CCMI, believes there is sometimes ‘an institutional age issue’ the higher up the executive chain you look. He cites ‘old-school chairman’ who did not understand the benefits of a more diverse and inclusive board, and the changes that were needed had to be put on hold until he left.

Gillian Wilmot CMgr CCMI, chairman of Zoo Digital Group, says that “there’s a whole group of people who believe that they got to where they are through a perfect meritocracy – the fact they all happened to be White males from Oxbridge was just a coincidence.”

“A huge amount of business is done by people we know, people we mix with, people who went to our school or live near us,” says Rudi Plaut CMgr CCMI, an entrepreneur and business owner. “It takes time to move on from just liking people that are like ourselves,” he says. This bias pervades into business culture – from the hiring managers to the language used on job roles, to the organisational culture. It is bred from wanting to be around like-minded individuals; but in order to progress from this, we need to accept that ‘like-minded’ can also be coded language for ‘people like us’.

Boards must now enforce their ‘squeaky clean’ ED&I policies

Too often boards pass over candidates who would really ‘shake things up’ over in favour of candidates who already look and think like existing board members. Gillian: “They’ve gone through their process, done all the right things, and said how important it is to get the right person for their board – but actually at that point, when the final shortlist are all by definition appointable, what is the issue with enforcing diversity on the actual appointment from the shortlisted candidate list?”

George Floyd’s murder triggered some real soul-searching, says Robin Landman OBE CMgr CCMI, an executive team member of Black FE Leadership Group. “They – FE college and sector leaders – suddenly realised that their sector didn’t represent the students. Everyone asked: ‘how did that happen?’ – well, it happened on their watch. They participated in that. They all had squeaky-clean ED&I policies and procedures, but they weren’t putting them into practice.”  BFELG produced a 10-point action plan and Diagnostics Toolkit that gave these organisations a route map. Today there are around 40 colleges working with BFELG to implement these changes.

The science sector is committed to attracting more diverse candidates but does face some issues with limited number of candidates, and progression in some specific areas, says Helen Gordon CMgr CCMI, chief executive of the Science Council and vice president of University of Reading Council. “We know there’s a lot to do to ensure that the science workforce is fit for purpose for UK plc going forwards. I’ve won the argument with my board to be even more proactive in this area...the work we can do is huge,” says Helen.

Being inclusive in the virtual world

It’s important to be aware of inclusivity in Zoom calls and virtual environments, says Dr Maggie Semple OBE CMgr CCMI, member of University of Cambridge’s council and co-founder of I-Cubed. “I’m researching the effect that has on the people on page two. Say you’re the last person to be called, or someone’s forgotten you, and you feel like you’re not having such a good time in your workplace, or you feel your leader hasn’t acknowledged you… That’s a new reality. And that’s a trend leaders will need to be really conscious of.”

Leaders and boards need support

Leaders are expected to understand what they need to do in order to cultivate a diverse and inclusive organisation, says Rob Baker. But is that fair? Or do they need support?

“There might be diversity and inclusion within a company, but it is at board level, where the true picture is found” says Bill. “You can have all the aspirations from the wider team to get diversity embedded in the culture, but diversity and inclusion will only be recognisable in a company when it is represented on the Board”.

Maggie and Robin agree. “Leaders do need to be brave – but they can’t do it on their own, they have to have support from the board, or else it won’t happen,” says Robin. Brave leadership can be a lonely place.

Make data-driven decisions

Decisions around diversity and inclusion will be most effective when they’re driven by data. Another Companion shared their experience as  an executive director for an investment bank and co-chair of their diversity network. The organisation is all about numbers, so by presenting decision-makers with the statistics around the business benefits of diversity, they were able to get buy-in from key players. “Once they started realising that they were losing out, that’s when they started to sit up.”

Diversity needs to be integral to the business

“The ED&I programme is special and important and needs to be high-profile, but equally it needs to filter into everything we do,” says Helen. By treating diversity targets as separate issues to the everyday running of the business, we risk it slipping down the priority list when we get busy, or by treating it as a ‘nice to have’ target rather than an ‘urgent to fulfil’ one. By not integrating ED&I into the core of the business, we run the risk of inaction. “We’re really thinking about programmes of activity that are pervasive in all ways in an organisation – such as cultural change and HR policy changes.” She works with 36 other organisations in the science sector, and they regularly exchange information on diversity and inclusion practices, which can be tailored to individual companies. This trial-and-error approach mirrors the evolution of ED&I practices; they are constantly evolving, and we as organisations should be, too.

Bill agrees that leaders must prioritise diversity and inclusion measures by owning them and making them an agenda item in every conversation. “They have to talk about it. Then it becomes the normal narrative in that company. It should be driven by the chief executive; then it’s not just a side show, it becomes about the culture.”

Focus on retention

Research has found that upper-level leaders from a diverse ethnic background are twice as likely to leave an organisation as their white peers, says Rob. Unless organisations accelerate progress on diversity and inclusion, they’ll lose out on this talent pool.

So how can leaders facilitate this change? One Companion says that their investment bank investigated the retention issue among diverse employees and found that it was often down to their leaders’ silence on diversity issues. “They needed to change the story around talking about inclusion and addressing issues.” But to do that, leaders needed to put their hands up and say they didn’t understand it, but were open to learning from their employees. By asking colleagues what changes they felt were needed and what programmes would benefit diversity and inclusion in the workplace, they were able to facilitate a productive conversation and get buy-in for this culture change. “The only way you can start doing that is through open, honest conversations.”

So how can we detect diversity and inclusion fluency in a leader?

  • Must be intellectually curious and willing to be upfront about what they do and don’t know
  • Leaders must say they need help – foster a culture of learning
  • Set a roadmap so that you can be held to account and know the practical steps
  • Good leaders should have high emotional intelligence, and their teams should feel comfortable to provide feedback on their leaders; a fluent leader is someone able to demonstrate their own learning and growth
  • Get the language right to demonstrate own learning, commitment, and inclusivity

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