Seven ways to derail diversity – and how to avoid them

There is now, generally, greater focus on creating business cultures that are more accepting and inclusive of diversity.

Public debate on gender has highlighted the need for women to be more equally represented on company boards, senior levels of business and positions of influence in public life in Australia.

The 2012 Australian government white paper ‘Australia in the Asian Century ‘ highlighted the need for business to gain greater cultural understanding and representation to leverage the opportunities provided by a closer and deeper understanding of the geographically close Asian countries.

Korn Ferry has identified seven headwinds that people from diverse groups typically experience. They are: bias, cultural difference, reference groups, laws and regulations, diversity targets, internal debate and, an organisation’s traditions.

These headwinds need to be thoroughly understood, for many organisations jump to conclusions informed by assumptions leading to sub optimum solutions.  The most typical example is deploying programs for women’s career development in the absence of any analysis of the culture or leadership impacting those women.

Those with an interest in business and diversity might, understandably, believe that in Australia diversity is code for gender, for the conversations tend to be weighted towards female workforce representation.  In other countries in the Asian region however, a diversity strategy is likely to include gender along with ethnicity, culture, age and education.

I believe businesses in the region share an agenda for inclusive workforce participation but what isn’t so clear is how they do this successfully.

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Source: Korn Ferry report: Beyond ‘if not, why not’: The pathway to directorship for women in leadership

The standard method

Most organisations approach diversity through a data-led and data-fed lens.  They first count the numbers: representation of women at various levels of the organisation; promotion rates; recruitment targets and, more recently, pay level comparisons with male employees.  Once they have counted the numbers, they feed in more data: industry participation norms; productivity rates; diversity policy and compliance requirements.

They might then layer their data with results from focus groups, performance appraisals, exit interviews and anecdotal feedback.  They gain knowledge on participation and set recruitment and promotion targets.

And then they count it all again, bookending diversity strategy with data while wondering why initiatives to improve participation have not made a significant difference.

Moving from quantity to quality – the seven head winds

It is important to go beyond the numbers and understand why they look the way they do. This requires a solid qualitative exploration and diagnosis to understand the headwinds and tailwinds that help and hinder people of diverse groups.

There is something fundamental missing in any ‘colour by numbers’ approach.  The information is important and often critical however data won’t draw out why there are issues with diverse participation in the workplace nor does it enable analysis of the root cause of the issues.

The numbers tell us what and when but they do not tell us how or why. The numbers alone do not create the business case for diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Going beyond numbers

Business leaders need to ask, why does diversity matter to us? How does it assist us achieve our business goals? Reframing the diversity conversation into the business context enables a broader and more strategic approach to representation and barriers.

The conversation then becomes entwined with business outcomes and we then ask: how we can ensure our employees can contribute at the most strategic level of their capability and experience to impact the business performance? Not: “How can we get more women/cultures/ages?”

Performance and risk

The business case is typically proven by exploring five performance and risk drivers:

Representation - How agile are we as an organisation to attract and retain women?

Performance and Engagement – What are the invisible head winds within organisations that hold people from diverse groups back and stop them engaging and performing in the organisation?

Market Position and Growth – How do we grow into new markets like Asia? How do we successfully merge and acquire businesses? How do we handle difference? How do we leverage knowledge, culture and style to grow a business? What is our approach to inclusion and diversity to enable us to be set up for up for success?

Innovation – How do we lead for inclusion to ensure relevant innovation for customers and markets?

Brand Image – Are we compliant and is our brand and reputation protected by our adherence to regulatory requirements?

These performance and risk drivers will help to guide a strategic and meaningful approach to diversity, but ultimately, leadership is the key level for change. A shift in emphasis toward leadership for inclusion is required for leaders and managers in business continue to struggle to deploy educated, informed and active sponsorship of the talent agenda.

While people from diverse groups benefit from popular career programs and mentoring it is vital that organisations also focus on building leadership capability and advocacy around inclusion. One without the other does not change things.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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