Inclusion requires more than simply hiring people from diverse backgrounds. It takes time, hard work and leaders ‘walking the talk’.
Since taking on the role of Chief Diversity Officer some months ago, one of the aspects I’ve valued the most is being able to share personal experiences. I have seen that with every conversation I have, I learn something new. This has made me reflect on my role and that of other leaders – and I’ve realized that we shouldn’t assume other people have the same experience, and benefits, that we have.
I can use my own experience to explore this. When I studied Electronic Engineering at university, I was one of only six women in a class of 100 men. I got along and worked with men without any difficulty. I learned the value of curiosity, of asking for help and being yourself. I have also been offered opportunities to progress in my career – often from male managers. But I understand that this isn’t the experience every female student or employee has and many women can feel marginalized and ignored.
Having said this, I think we have reached the first phase of far greater awareness about the importance of diversity, at least in the corporate world. Now we need to make changes to achieve real inclusion – and this is going to be harder and more complex. It’s going to take time and it’s not a one-off exercise. And, most importantly, this journey of change starts with us.
Diversity is not a “tick-box” approach
It’s not enough just to hire people from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds and assume this will produce benefits. As a 2020 Harvard Business Review article points out, taking an “add diversity and stir” approach, while business continues as usual, will not spur leaps in a company’s performance. Increasing diversity does not, by itself, increase effectiveness; what matters is how an organization harnesses diversity.
One aspect of this is that all employees have to feel valued and respected. This involves taking their needs and interests into account, recognizing their contributions, empowering them and giving equal opportunities to contribute and advance.
What do I, as a leader, do to support this? For one, as I mentioned above, I open the door and invite people to share their experiences, and then I use this to develop and educate myself. This is a two-way street: we need people to be open and speak up. And we have to be close to our teams, listen and then we can give advice. People often have their own perception of their particular situation, and we can help them change their perception.
We also have to act to help their situation improve for the better. If someone comes to me, it’s my responsibility as a leader to help them; I can’t delegate this to someone else. Only in this way will we ensure that diversity isn’t just a “tick box” exercise, but that real change happens.
What role do companies play?
The importance of the leader’s role is reflected by the 2020 Financial Times/Statista Diversity Leaders ranking, which is based on surveys of employees and recruitment professionals. One finding: Companies that have scored especially well tend to have a history of focusing on diversity and expect their managers to work on inclusion. This underlines that even if change starts on an individual level, it’s also important to anchor this within an organization.
At the company level, we need to adopt a holistic approach and adapt processes so that we can truly support Diversity & Inclusion. Some examples of this are the talent acquisition process, the way we offer recognition and reward, and employee development activities, such as unconscious bias training.
Another area – and this is particularly significant for a digitalization leader like Siemens – is to integrate D&I considerations into product research and development to ensure our portfolio is targeted at our full range of customers. Here, for example, we could include a quality gate for taking diversity into account.
Companies also have to set themselves clear and ambitious targets and measure progress against them. This can be done by individual leaders who are bringing about change – for example increasing gender diversity within a team – or via wider levels of measurement, like an all-company employee survey.
The means to create sustainable change
Finally, we have to engage at a stakeholder level – and by stakeholder level, I mean with our customers, our suppliers, our shareholders, the communities in which we operate, and society as whole. Even if a company is able to reach its targets, if we don’t engage with other stakeholders and ensure we change in line with the society around us, we will never manage to transform our environment in a sustainable way.
One final thought that I want to underline: we have to say what we do, and do what we say. If we ask people to speak up, we also have to ensure that we listen and act. If we don’t walk the talk, we will end up with tokenism and lose the trust of employees, communities and society. And we need to all, each leader, consciously work on change as it won’t happen by itself.