How Boards Can Lead Inclusively From The Top

diversity and inclusion (D&I)Inclusive organizations rest on the shoulders of inclusive leaders. Our research shows that when senior leaders champion diversity and inclusion (D&I), employees report feeling 25 percent more engaged, 47 percent more creative, 43 percent more likely to stay in their jobs, and 41 percent more empowered to bring their whole selves to work.

To find out more, Russell Reynolds Associates spoke with nearly 60 directors and senior executives at large global companies across 10 countries who are driving the D&I agenda at their organizations. Their message was clear—boards are critical to the success of D&I strategy, both in their individual roles and in their joint work. If you are a board director, here are five things to do when embarking on the D&I journey:

Get uncomfortable

Addressing D&I issues often involves asking difficult questions regarding employee demographics and organizational practices, cultures or biases. Some examples: Why is there consistently low racial diversity on the executive committee? Do we have pay parity between male and female employees? What is the main reason female executives are leaving our organization?

Leaders who ask these questions need to be prepared for some candid answers, and then have the courage to take action; be it hiring talent from unconventional backgrounds, investing in pay parity, or conducting detailed exit interviews with diverse employees in order to uncover potential issues.

Set diversity goals (and stay accountable to meeting them)

Boards who are committed to D&I set clear goals and communicate them both internally and externally. They also hold themselves and other executives accountable to meeting D&I goals and are transparent about the success or failure in doing so.

When the boards commits to D&I, the board chair can set the tone by raising important questions with management and by making sure D&I remains an agenda item at board meetings. When the chair regularly probes for details regarding D&I goals and how the organization is meeting them, he or she empowers the CEO to advocate more strongly for it.

Embed diversity and inclusion into systems and strategy

Policies and structures that help to create diverse and inclusive working environments, such as mentoring and sponsorship, are critical to success. Yet it’s essential to understand which programs will be most meaningful and effective within a particular organization. Boards who are committed to the D&I agenda have a pulse on the D&I issues in their organizations.

Advanced organizations have moved away from a check-the-box mentality when it comes to talent management and are making efforts to solve their own unique pain points by using employee inclusion, engagement and demographic data to inform their strategy.

Lead inclusively and incentivize others to do the same

An inclusive organization is built by systems and leaders. Board chairs and CEOs make the most progress on D&I when they not only have the right systems and metrics in place, but when they also lead inclusively themselves.

Boards who model inclusive behaviors start by creating an environment in which others can safely voice different opinions, communicating the importance of D&I to the organization, making D&I an organization-level rather than HR-level priority, and emphasizing D&I as part of business strategy. The most advanced organizations have metrics in place to recognize and reward other inclusive leaders, and ensure that executives in positions of influence, like business unit or regional leadership roles, are trained to lead in an inclusive manner.

Accept that the work is never done

Leaders who are truly committed to D&I know that it is a journey. They balance a pragmatic and big picture approach with an unwavering focus on hard numbers and results. They celebrate progress but do not take it for granted, with the knowledge that diversity numbers move backward the instant they take their foot off the pedal.

Why do they persist? Because they know that diversity is vital to building organizations that are resilient, able to mitigate risk and capitalize on a wider range of opportunities. Ultimately, the organizations that benefit from the power of all forms of diversity are those that survive rapid transformation and disruption.