Let’s look beyond targets to unlock the value of strategic diversity

15 Nov 2018

Let’s look beyond targets to unlock the value of strategic diversity

As many businesses set targets for gender-diverse leadership teams, Liz Stewart argues that the bigger prize is a diversity that embraces the full breadth of life experiences, mindsets and personalities.

Spurred on by gender pay gap reporting and a growing recognition of the benefits of a more diverse set of people leading organisations, many businesses are setting targets or ambitions on the mix within their top, and “feeder” teams.

Although these diversity targets help to focus the mind, they risk falling short on fully leveraging the value of diversity.

Just because someone is from a diverse category, i.e. they’re not white, middle-aged and male, it does not mean that they will deliver new, fresh thinking. And that might be exactly what the enterprise needs to stretch the vision beyond their current strategy and practices to achieve a more sustainable success.

Candice Cross, Group Head of Diversity and Inclusion at BT Plc, states that “having clear ambitions that can be measured helps keep attention on creating a more diverse leadership team. Only using this approach, however, can mean that a business misses out on securing people with the skills needed for the future and who have truly different perspectives which can be translated into actual business value.”

Although we should not cast aside any ambitions regarding the gender and ethnicity compositions of our leadership teams, it is time to look beyond these potentially limiting measures, by focusing on strategic diversity.

What is strategic diversity?

No two humans are completely identical in terms of knowledge, skills, life experience and personality. Each of us will bring something different to every role we perform, whether at work or in life.

What’s more, no two people will approach the same role in quite the same way.

Strategic diversity in this respect goes beyond definitions of gender or ethnicity. It focuses on the full life experience of individuals.  It considers how their experiences have shaped their perspectives and created a diversity of thought. This then translates into their approach to developing strategy, leading people and delivering results, where they focus on ideas and opportunities that people from more homogeneous groups do not see.

When we think about roles in organisations, the experiences that we think will equip people are often restrictive and not always representative of the experiences they will have in the future.

Take, for example, a typical executive search for a CEO for a publicly-listed company. Often, in order to reduce perceived risk, clients state that having “experience of being a CEO in a Plc is a key requirement”.

More progressive organisations will also then request a ‘diverse shortlist’ of candidates that meet the criteria. What they might not realise that their starting criteria have already automatically limited the pool of potential candidates. This then perpetuates the limitations of the existing model.

Strategic diversity, on the other hand, helps define a much broader set of experiences that we believe people need. This way, many more diverse perspectives and approaches can be brought into the business more quickly.

How do we leverage strategic diversity?

“To move beyond the existing model,” Cross states, “we have to challenge every aspect of the processes that organisations rely on. That starts with assumptions about the nature of the experience people require to perform a role.”

Leveraging strategic diversity – diversity of experience, mindsets, approaches and personalities – therefore requires us to keep focused on what the role is required to deliver. This opens up greater opportunities to explore the full range of ways people can use their diverse expertise and perspectives to deliver.

Naturally, it also puts the onus on executive search firms to search differently too, and look beyond the obvious pools of talent and think more laterally about where to find leaders.

Unlocking fresh success

In today’s rapidly changing business and social environment, it is clear that the tried and tested approaches of identifying the “right person for the job” will come under increasing pressure.

Renewing the focus on diversity and inclusion by going beyond targets, we can leverage the full value of strategic diversity to unlock fresh routes to organisational success. As that famous Apple advertisement said, it pays to ‘think different’.