This is how organisations can improve leadership team diversity

group of diverse people in corporate environment, women in finance

Katie Sharpe, Principal in the Technology Practice at Odgers Berndtson, discusses some of the most effective methods of increasing diversity within senior leadership teams.

Unequivocal commitment to inclusion and diversity is now a fundamental aspect of any successful organisation. However, achieving it in a leadership team requires sustained commitment over time, using multiple approaches that complement one another. There is no silver bullet to diversity but a number of routes that organisations should take.

Earlier this year, Odgers Berndtson and BoardEx conducted research into UK leadership teams to identify the most effective approaches that increase diversity. Following a survey of over 600 Board and C-suite members, the research pinpointed three I&D recruitment and retention initiatives being used by the UK’s most diverse organisations.

Below I explain why these initiatives are so effective and how they can be used to increase diversity at the top of an organisation.

Develop diverse talent networks

Having access to a readily available network of diverse leadership talent is one of the most effective ways of building a diverse leadership team.

To achieve this, the UK’s most diverse organisations form partnerships with I&D membership bodies. These can include professional networks for underrepresented leaders, mentoring initiatives aimed at helping diverse talent step up, and industry events for specific diverse groups.

Partnering with headhunters who have proven networks of diverse leadership talent will achieve the same outcome. Importantly, this also provides an organisation with statistical evidence of conducting placements of diverse talent from wholly inclusive shortlists.

However, it is not enough to simply partner with these groups or headhunters when searching for leadership talent. Organisations need to create an environment where managers genuinely understand what it means to have a sense of belonging. The culture needs to be inclusive or any newly appointed diverse leaders will leave very shortly after joining. It takes a new hire two weeks to get a sense of belonging. If this doesn’t happen, then they almost always make the decision to leave within the first six months.

Reduce unconscious bias when recruiting

Biases can have a significant impact on hiring talent. Probably the most common bias in recruiting is ‘affinity bias’. This is the unconscious preference for candidates who display similarities to the person or group hiring them. These similarities can be anything from gender and race to personality and background. Organisations that reduce or eliminate these types of biases are statistically more diverse than those organisations that do not.

One way of reducing unconscious bias is by engaging psychometric testing. This is a scientific method of measuring a candidate’s skills and behavioural traits against those of the current leadership team. It means that organisations can augment their current leadership skills mix with the specific skills and behaviour types that they may not currently have.

Importantly, it is also highly effective at negating unconscious bias factors. By forcing those involved in the hiring process to concentrate purely on a candidate’s capabilities, knowledge, and potential, they are far less focused on personal similarities.

Commit to diversity targets

Setting diversity targets is not only an effective way of enacting change but it also means organisations can report on the progress they’ve made. Especially when made public, they provide an accountability mechanism that drives forward the diversity agenda in an organisation.

What’s more, public diversity targets demonstrate an organisation’s long-term commitment to attracting and retaining diverse talent. This can make an organisation more attractive to both candidates and existing employees from underrepresented groups.

However, depending on the rate of employee turnover, it can take an organisation some time to redress imbalances in a leadership team. Achieving diversity targets therefore requires long-term commitment from the board, supported by other I&D initiatives.

The most important of these initiatives will be the development of a continuous pipeline of diverse candidates. Organisations that want to meet their diversity targets should be regularly engaging with I&D membership groups and headhunters who have access to diverse talent. Broadening the search parameters and engaging with candidates based on capabilities and potential rather than just job title will also widen the pool from which an organisation can draw from. It means that when the time comes to make a leadership hire, the organisation has an ample network across which it can search for candidates, making that organisation more likely to meet their diversity targets.

In today’s business environment, leadership diversity is a non-negotiable. It is both a moral and business imperative that goes beyond simply attracting and retaining the best talent. It’s a challenge that impacts everything from customers and clients to corporate reputation. The above initiatives are proven methods of effectively tackling this challenge and increasing diversity on leadership teams.


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