EngagementDiversity & InclusionMaking diversity in leadership matter

Making diversity in leadership matter

“Damned if I did and damned if I didn't.” Jacinda Ardern, the current Prime Minister of New Zealand, said defending her decision to make a costly extra plane trip to a meeting on a Pacific island in June this year. A plane trip that allowed Ardern to minimise time away from her baby daughter, whom she was breastfeeding at the time. What may sound like an extreme case illustrates the complexities that women or members of other underrepresented groups can face when they aspire to leadership – and issues that may arise when organisations seek to increase diversity in leadership.

Diversity is at the forefront of the HR agenda but it’s not just about meeting quotas. Diversity in an organisation is typically defined by differences in the surface level attributes of employees, like ethnicity and gender, but also deep-level diversity in terms of the attitudes and experiences they bring to the table. A team made up of people who possess a mix of different qualities will prove more productive because diverse individuals are less likely to think alike. Collectively, they are able to produce more informed, creative and innovative output. These variances are just as important in positions of leadership. A diverse leadership team promotes a culture of inclusivity and serves to sew positive beliefs about diversity into a company’s ethos.

However, while it may be easy to point out that diversity in an organisation is beneficial, it’s a significantly more difficult task for companies to actually enforce. The issue is one which permeates society as a whole, not just the corporate sector. As we see from Ardern’s example above, diversification in leadership means change; organisations themselves need to change the way they function in order to accommodate a diverse workforce but society as a whole also needs to change the way it views and appreciates the needs of a ‘diverse worker’.

So, how can employers diversify?

One approach is role modelling. Finding even one or two highly qualified and appropriate candidates who do not fit the stereotypical mould and offering them well-deserved leadership positions can inspire others. Having a leader who, for example, comes from an ethnic minority background will help to make high powered roles within a company appear more accessible to non-white employees, and hence increase the chances to choose from a wider pool of candidates suitable for leadership. Future applicants won’t be put off by the impression that their ethnicity might disadvantage them in the recruitment process. Similarly, incorporating role modelling directly into recruitment campaigns can prove useful. It has been shown that advertisements for jobs that show images representing both genders attract more women to apply.

Beyond the recruitment process, role models continue to serve a purpose within businesses. Underrepresented groups can look to leaders who come from similar backgrounds to themselves and learn from them as they work on furthering their own careers. Formal mentoring sessions and informal networking events are both great ways of creating these kind of opportunities for people to inspire one another and overcome barriers.

Popular discourse on the topic of diversity tends to cling tightly to themes of gender and ethnicity. Whilst variation in both of these areas should remain very important within an organisation, to create a truly effective leadership team organisations must extend their focus beyond those basic distinctions. Employers need to also consider deep-level attributes such as the educational backgrounds, skill sets and beliefs of individual candidates. The best results come from teams whose minds work differently, enabling them to provide differing input which serves to shape well-informed, well-reasoned company strategy.

Of course, having a diverse leadership team also helps to spread positive beliefs about diversity and lend credibility to the message, ‘diversity matters’. Evidence of this can and should be provided at the executive level. Consumers and stakeholders alike are increasingly focusing on the leadership dynamic of the companies they buy from and invest in, so the benefits of diversity are not just social, but financial. Investors are not blind to the fact that leaders who come from a variety of backgrounds are more likely to understand the varying needs and interests of their customers and profits are bound to reflect this.

Diversity signals openness and innovation within an organisation. Businesses which master these qualities benefit, especially with a workforce of millennials looking out for these values in their employers. Working on the challenges of recruiting and supporting a diverse workforce will pay off in the long run. Creating a diverse leadership team is the gift that keeps on giving.

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