8 ways corporate leaders can address D&I right now

Experts say CEOs and board directors have considerable power to make positive change.

The feeling is natural. Despondency. Hopelessness. Anger.

The killing of a yet another unarmed black man by police and the resulting week of protests are reminders of how many nonwhite Americans feel that institutions are stacked against them. And the numbers, unfortunately, bear that out, whether one looks at how many African Americans are in prison or how many people of colour are in corporate leadership positions.

But experts on diversity and inclusivity say that while tackling societal changes may be beyond the corporate world’s scope, change inside organisations are not. From his perspective, Andrés Tapia, global diversity and inclusion strategist at Korn Ferry, says it starts with a mindset change at the top, creating inclusive leadership. “It can’t be going through the motions,” he says. “It’s insisting on change.”

Does such change need to take place slowly, however? Here are seven ways expert think leaders at organisations big and small can speed up D&I growth in their firms:

Acknowledge the problem

As Ayana Parsons, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who focuses on board and CEO diversity, equity, and inclusiveness, puts it, the protests across the country are not just about police misconduct. “This is much broader,” she says. Part of the bigger issue, experts say, is how many institutions, both public and private, were designed with just white men in mind. As unfortunate as that may be, acknowledging that reality can give individuals a lot more power to make changes. A CEO, for example, may not be able to mandate police reform, but he or she can force a firm to change its own hiring, training, and promotion practices.

Select behaviours you could change or adopt today

“There is literally an infinite range of possibilities for anyone, in all walks of life or positions,” says Jean-Marc Laouchez, president of the Korn Ferry Institute. Some examples include a simple hello to those “invisible people” you walk by every day or learning about peers, their past, and future career path. Reaching out and listening to colleagues who may be struggling can help too.

On an organisational level, leaders can also review professional selection or promotion metrics, as well as identify and coach unconventional high-potential employees. Such behaviours transcend differences in gender, race, religion, nationality, or social origin, Laouchez says. “They allow a connection at a more fundamental and universal human level.”

Challenge existing norms

In 2020, there are only four black CEOs leading Fortune 500 firms, and as of 2019, fewer than 10% of the most senior P&L leaders in the Fortune 500 were black. “I’m not suggesting that Caucasian men can’t be excellent CEOs, but we must admit that we are far overrepresented with this population of leaders, both nationally and globally,” Parsons says.


Diversity without equity and inclusion just doesn’t work

Diversity and inclusion, while different, are linked. Experts say that the best leaders are inclusive, giving their employees permission to challenge the status quo because those are the types of employees who can inspire innovation. However, a major part of being an inclusive leader is being an effective advocate for diversity, championing efforts to add more women, people of colour, and other underrepresented groups into the organisation.

Many firms have made a commitment to increase the ranks of women and minorities in its workforce. For those diverse groups to work most effectively, however, they need to be not only engaged in the work but also feel that the company respects their points of view. “Inclusion is considerably harder than diversifying the workforce,” says Korn Ferry’s Tapia. “Companies can get caught off guard assuming that by being diverse they are automatically inclusive, or vice versa.”

Embrace—and communicate—that diversity, equity, and inclusion are good for business

Data shows that companies with ethnically diverse executive teams are 70% more likely to capture new markets than their less-diverse peers and generate 38% more in revenue from innovative products and services. “Purposeful and participative leadership will help address this crisis—now,” Laouchez says.

Give ethnically and racially diverse workers P&L responsibilities

Too often, many of the systems to find and develop top leaders were designed for one type of candidate—a white, able-bodied male—and keeping them perpetuates a lack of representation and voice. “The default person can thrive, but we need to make sure that everyone else can, too,” says Alina Polonskaia, Korn Ferry’s global leader of diversity and inclusion solutions.

Experts say organisations must be more intentional about creating opportunities for nonwhite talent to move across functions and lines of business where they can take on new and challenging roles and assignments. Once those opportunities are created, Black and Latinx workers must be supported with critical resources to help drive success, Parsons says.

Hold leaders at every level accountable for demonstrating inclusive leadership

Inclusive leaders are open to diverse points of view, motivate people from different backgrounds, and reach out to traditionally underrepresented employees and clients. Parsons says organisations must consider making that a prerequisite for every new board director, every new CEO appointed, or every C-suite leader. “Imagine what corporate America would be like if every executive were authentic, emotionally resilient, self-assured, inquisitive, and flexible.”

Commit for the long haul

Many organisations have crafted messages for both internal and external stakeholders about how they are appalled at recent events. But committing to diversity and inclusion means investment in inclusive succession planning, recruitment, development, training, and education—and not relenting. “Every board director, CEO, and C-suite leader should be thinking along these same lines if we are to challenge the status quo,” Parsons says.


Korn Ferry

Korn Ferry is a global organisational consulting firm, synchronising strategy and talent to drive superior performance for its clients.

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