Unlocking Innovation Through Diversity

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The first panel at the 2016 Global Board Leaders’ Summit’s Diversity Symposium provided directors with real-life examples and related metrics from four executives who have successfully linked diversity with competitive advantage.

Unlocking Innovation Through Diversity

Leslie Mays, partner at Mercer, moderated the panel that included Rohini Anand, senior vice president and chief diversity officer, Sodexo; Phillip Goff, president and cofounder, Center for Policing Equity; Herschel R. Herndon, founder and president, HRH Global Connections; and Sonya F. Sepahban, director, Genomenon and Cooper Standard.

The panel suggested four essential steps to build a more diverse workforce and create value through innovation.

Start With the Board

Anand noted that because the Sodexo board does not take its commitment to diversity lightly, performance metrics for the CEO are directly tied to diversity initiatives. Sodexo, a facilities management company, sets ambitious recruitment goals across every department, with the aim of achieving a C-suite consisting of at least 40 percent women by 2020. The CEO’s commitment to Sodexo’s diversity goals has in turn driven deeper engagement in diversity and inclusion at all levels of the company. The result? Anand said that the division of Sodexo that she leads has realized $1 billion in new business that can be directly tied to the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

Set the Metrics for Innovation

Herndon defines innovation as “anything new that creates value.” The value of a more inclusive workforce will be revealed if specific business practices are established:

  • Tie recruiting metrics to the statistical makeup of the market the company serves—or seeks to serve.
  • Monitor if and how diverse talent is being cultivated through the leadership pipeline.
  • Establish new-business lines targeted to previously underserved populations and then track their success.
  • When planning strategy, challenge your board to keep diversity top of mind.

Work to Remove Biases

Goff noticed that workers at a company he consulted to performed with greater efficiency when paired with a coworker of the same race. These workers had little training in how to work with someone who was not from their own background, and when paired with a colleague of a different race, faced tensions that slowed their work.

To realize the full economic value of diversity and empower teams to do their best work together, companies should provide training in how to overcome unconscious biases and in how to be mindful of tensions caused by misunderstandings when evaluating workers’ performance. “Bias can be baked in,” Goff said. “If we define all the things we care about and measure based on them, we will see greater success.”

Inclusion Must Be Pervasive

Sepahban, who currently works closely with start-up companies and venture funders, said that while only 12 percent of venture capital is awarded to companies with diverse leadership, companies with at least one woman founder performed 63 percent better than those without a woman leader based on exit valuations.

To change the tide towards inclusion at start-ups and larger companies alike, Sepahban urged her fellow directors to make inclusion pervasive. “This isn’t someone else’s job,” she said. “Even with all the great work done by diversity leadership, it’s still everyone’s job. Leadership should educate all to ask themselves what they are doing to help.”

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