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Leaders as Diversity Champions: Tell Us More!

When asked which diversity topics were most important to them, many respondents to an IBIS newsletter-generated survey included on their list an examination of “Leaders as Diversity Champions.” I can’t help but think about the band, Queen, and their hit song “We are the Champions!” Part of the song’s message actually fits the topic very well:

“I’ve paid my dues,
Time after time.”

Diversity Champions Ensure a Sustained Effort

The sentiment of this lyric from Queen’s hit song points to one of the most important leadership characteristics and distinguishing pieces of  evidence regarding the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives – a sustained effort. What are the benefits? The list is long, including an ability to recruit and retain high skilled talent, tap new markets, insure customer loyalty, and build an organizational culture and branding that supports the collaboration, creativity, and innovation needed to remain competitive. When you examine DiversityInc’s yearly listing of Top 50 Companies for Diversity, you will find companies that have many diversity champions at all levels of the organization. These champions embrace a shared vision for the value of diversity and inclusion and a shared sense of responsibility for sustaining the work.

Diversity Champions Track Business Metrics

Tracking key business metrics and incentivizing performance are core business practices. Regular and systematic monitoring of key business metrics provides organizations with important information about performance. Incentives motivate stronger performance.

Yet far too often the exact opposite is true when it comes to how organizations approach D&I initiatives. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard statements like the following: “Initially there was all sorts of energy around our organizations’ D&I work, but eventually things just petered-out.” The worst consequence associated with this shortsighted approach is the subtext of what you inevitably hear in the speaker’s voice – diversity and inclusion work is a nice addition, but not critical to organizational health and success.

This is certainly not the case at organizations like Sodexo, Inc. The global food and management services company with 75 million consumers in 80 countries is highly recognized for its efforts to ensure accountability regarding its diversity and inclusion initiatives. Under the leadership of Senior Vice President and Global Chief Diversity Officer Rohini Anand since 2002, Sodexo has devised a system to hold management accountable regarding key “Diversity Index” components such as hiring, promotions, retention, supplier diversity, employee engagement, and training and mentoring programs. Incentives are tied to Sodexo’s Diversity Scorecard reports that provide leadership with data on progress on a monthly basis. You can learn more by reading Shifting the Diversity Climate: The Sodexo Solution, a Harvard Business School case study.

Diversity Champions Challenge Conventional Thinking

Smart organizations know that maintaining the “status quo” often times means the death of their ability to adapt, innovate, improve, and thereby remain competitive. It is not as easy to recognize the importance of challenging the conventional thinking that can predominate and undermine the health of an organization’s culture. Diversity champions are not only aware of this, but know they must act to avert the resistance that will grow and sabotage the success of D&I initiatives.

Author Avivah Wittenberg-Cox presents a very thorough discussion and a strong case in point in the Harvard Business Review blog, The Trouble with Gender Targets.

“There are few things in business less popular than targets for a fixed percentage of women in management. Men don’t like them, and women don’t much like them either. They offend everyone’s sense of meritocracy …And even if these companies reach their targets, they often realize that they have not necessarily shifted the culture to be more global, more customer-centric, or less hierarchical.”

The subtext here is that diversity gets a bad rap, and resistance and resentment abound.

Wittenberg-Cox uses an examination of the Harvard Business School’s efforts to advance a gender balance in order to illustrate the fact that “successful gender balancing requires more than a simple statistical push.” As the New York Times reported, there was a backlash. Wittenberg-Cox delineates what leadership did right in responding and suggests additional tactics.

But what is most important to our discussion is what the Harvard Business School did as diversity champions. They had the courage and the will to enact change. They faced the inevitable resistance that comes when challenging conventional thinking and the power of cultural bias, and they made adjustments and continued the work. They didn’t just fade away.

Diversity Champions Embrace the Benefit of D&I

Diversity champions work intentionally to realize the benefits of diversity and inclusion across the demographics of their organizations.

The Reverse Mentoring Project at The Hartford is an excellent example. As the report out of the Boston College Sloan Center on Aging & Work and the Center for Work & Family identifies, the insurance and investment company was able to realize the benefits of a “multi-generational employee transfer of knowledge” regarding the use of social media.

Moving beyond diversity as numbers and targets, diversity champions know the power of diversity and inclusion to transform people and relationships. I am personally inspired when I listen to Elena Richards, Talent Management Leader, Office of Diversity, at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) tell the story of “Vanguard,” PwC’s on-boarding program for black professionals at the professional services firm. The program’s focus is to increase the engagement, retention, and development of new black hires. However, with a smart “all hands on deck” approach that engages the human capital community across the entire organization, PwC was able to realize even greater benefits for many more people.

Diversity Champions Have a Vested Interest

The thing that stands out the most from what I learned in my combined thirteen years as a diversity and inclusion manager is the following: successful D&I management requires an approach that covers the full scope of the work – from personal engagement to systems accountability.

Diversity champions have a vested interest in the work. In researching this topic, I came across a listing of diversity champions in the Boston Globe’s Diversity Boston Magazine. For an article entitled, “Meet the Champs” in the winter, 2012 edition, the Globe surveyed readers and staffers to find out who deserved recognition “for promoting diversity in Massachusetts.”

It is interesting to note that only 2 of 12 individuals selected were not members of underrepresented, protected groups. Robert Rivers was one. As President & CEO of Eastern Bank, he did what all diversity champions must do – personally step forward to, as he put it, “break the cycle.” The cycle at Eastern Bank included a lack of diversity on the bank’s governing committees. Not only did Robert Rivers raise this issue to the surface, he personally did the related leg work. He went out to events, even did cold-calling to recruit professionals of color. The number of individuals from underrepresented groups on the governing committees tripled.

One of my favorite stories of the vested interest and personal engagement of a business leader as a diversity champion is the story of Randy Lewis. As Senior VP of Supply Chain and Logistics at Walgreens, Lewis turned a distribution center into a model for recruiting and retaining workers with disabilities (as of July a plant with 42% disabled employees), and changed lives in the process.

I have my own stories to tell about efforts to strengthen my own ability to be a diversity champion. Besides thinking systemically to refine strategies and best practices, it requires me continually trying to gain a better understanding of the open access I have had (and have) in my life as a white, able-bodied heterosexual male. It also requires gaining a better understanding of my “blindspots”. One of my mechanisms for this reflection is a blog, Diversity Leadership for White Males? Excuse Me While I Skip a Beat!

Robert is a diversity and inclusion consultant with a combined thirteen years’ experience functioning as a Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the Director’s level. If you are interested in having a conversation about these issues or want more information on the Blog, Robert can be contacted at