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Pursuing Sustainable Diversity

Written by Malcolm Gabriel, Global Leader - Culture, Talent & Inclusion at Corteva Agriscience and CultureCon 2022 presenter.


Diversity initiatives across many companies have been only skin deep, and have not placed enough emphasis on first creating inclusive work cultures, which explains why initiatives can lead to diversity exhaustion. The opportunity here is to position diversity within the business strategy, rather than a stand-alone initiative, and to create inclusive work environments as the driver for diversity. Furthermore, leading inclusive and diverse work teams is hard, and more emphasis is needed on developing leader capabilities to create inclusive cultures that leads to diversity. The following article provides an approach and path for sustaining diversity.


Let’s first review the three main reasons why business leaders support diversity initiatives.

1. The Egalitarian Value

The most obvious is that pursuing diversity initiatives is the morally right thing to do, and it is almost impossible to find anyone that is not supportive of diversity initiatives. At least, no business leader wants to be perceived as resisting the initiatives for fear of the repercussions to their image as a leader. Also, on a more personal level, leaders with family members that are part of a minority, or fall in any of the LGBTQ categories, also want their family members to be supported in companies.

2. The Business Value

Much less commonly emphasized and articulated is the business value for diversity initiatives. Business leaders get caught up on wanting to project an image of diversity, subsequently driving initiatives without clearly articulating its business value to the organization. As a result, front-line managers perceive diversity as an add-on initiative; rather than core to the business strategy. True, diverse organizations attract diverse talent; but by itself it is not a differentiating strategy since almost all organizations in some way are focused on diversity. Differentiation occurs when it is embedded in the business strategy, which can be articulated through two lenses.

a. Continued Market Relevance

The first lens is that companies want to have continued market relevance in the near future. Societal and economic demographics have changed significantly over the past decades, and these shifts are impacting consumers purchasing decisions and the companies with whom they choose to do business. A 2016 Pew Research report, highlights some of these shifts:

  • Americans are more diverse. By 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.

  • Women’s role in the labor force and leadership positions has grown dramatically. In 2011, mothers were the sole or primary breadwinner in 40% of all households with children.

  • The American family is changing, and one-in-six kids now live in a blended family with the roles of mothers and fathers converging due in part to the rise of breadwinner moms.

  • Religiously unaffiliated surged in a short time span, now comprising 23% of U.S. adults in 2015.

To further illustrate the point of continued market relevance, in a recent diversity initiative in which I was involved, a consultant shared an experience of a major U.S.-based B2B company that enjoyed decades of a profitable relationship with a B2C company. But, the B2B Company had not evolved the diversity of its sales team and found themselves out of sync in understanding and being able to empathize with their client’s more diverse procurement organization. The client organization abruptly changed suppliers. Therefore, remaining relevant to the changing demographics of buyers and customers who make purchasing decisions is critical for remaining relevant over the long-term.

b. Innovation

The second reason is Innovation. Companies that are not innovating new products or coming up with creative ways to penetrate new markets will not be competitively sustainable. To be creative and innovative, companies need a team culture that generates diverse thinking; and this requires diverse teams. Rock & Grant (2016) in the Harvard Business Review writes that diverse teams are smarter because working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance. Rock & Grant (2016) go on to cite many research studies with one experiment in particular showing that diverse teams were 58% more likely to be more accurate compared with homogeneous groups.

So, once a well-articulated business case is formulated, we can proceed with engaging business leaders on taking the next steps on inclusion and diversity. Raquel Tamez, CEO of the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers, writes: “we need to diversify diversity, and make it more inclusive. If we are not intentionally including, then we are unintentionally excluding”. I agree with her; therefore we need to diversify our approach for engaging business leaders on diversity and inclusion. Furthermore, a sustainable diversity strategy that is built on engagement is a plus for broader employee engagement.


I believe that inclusion is the driver for diversity, and that an inclusive environment is a necessary condition for sustaining diversity; but diversity by itself is not a precondition for inclusivity. An organization can be diverse without being inclusive. A diverse team doesn’t mean that it is an inclusive team environment. I’ve observed my fair share of people in minority categories with very non-inclusive xenophobic and homophobic mindsets. Also, a team that is diverse doesn’t necessarily mean that they play well together, or even want to play well together. An inclusive leader or team member possesses traits that is self-aware of their own gaps, and mitigates these by seeking out and collaborating with others that have different thinking and work styles.

Diversity, along traditional ethnic, gender, etc identity lines is very pre-industrial, and outdated. Cable news reporting around election campaign times in the U.S. only reinforces these pre-industrial identities. A modern post-industrial view of diversity is at the uniquely individual level; where talent is seen for their individual cognitive, behavioral, and experience profiles. Just because a team is diverse on a color, religion, gender, or sexual orientation level, it doesn’t actually mean that it has the type of diversity that is needed for innovation. In fact, this superficial level of diversity may not change anything unless it evolves to leveraging talent for their unique and diverse individual strengths, styles, and experiences. Arguably however, the pre-industrial identity lines are probably still practically useful for kick-starting diversity initiatives; largely because people unconsciously and consciously identify themselves through the lens of how society has labelled them. Frankly also, what people see on a company’s website creates a first impression; so working from the basis of a pre-industrial model towards a post-industrial diversity model makes practical sense.

The following is a suggested step-by-step guide for creating inclusive work cultures that would help organizations create and sustain a modern post-industrial diversity journey.

1. Communicate the Business Value

The CEO of the company must come out front to lead the charge on setting the burning platform for pursuing an aggressive inclusive and diversity strategy by clearly linking it directly to the business strategy for market penetration, innovation, and competitive advantage.

2. Remove the Blame

Leaders typically do not authentically own initiatives if they feel that they are being blamed for the lack of diversity. To help re-mediate this potential trap, organizations can begin with Unconscious Bias training for all leaders and employees. By positioning communication that explains that leaders are not intentional about bias helps eliminate the blame, and because unconscious bias affects everyone regardless of level, it becomes an enterprise-wide ownership; not just for the leaders. A good way to implement this is for a handful of key opinion leaders to be trained as trainers in this program. When leaders deliver the training, then it sends a very strong message that this topic is important.

3. Modify Leadership Development Programs

A focus on diversity and inclusion creates the need for developing leaders’ capability to create inclusive cultures, and how to leverage diversity to drive innovation. The difficulty in cultivating and leading a diverse team is often glazed over and under-emphasized in leadership development programs. Evan Apfelbaum in the 2018 MIT Sloan Management Review, says that diversity is not better or worse — it’s just harder - socially, cognitively, and it makes us work. Therefore, leading diverse teams requires more than just using an effective coaching model.

There is well cited research showing that homogeneous teams are less likely than diverse teams to generate better solutions; but the homogeneous teams feel more confident in their solutions despite being less effective at generating the right solutions than the diverse teams.

Apfelbaum (2018) further cites the specific research where diverse groups were factually more accurate than the homogeneous groups, but it was actually the homogeneous groups that were more confident in their results. By implication, if you’re managing two groups and one group tells you that they are 95% confident and other group says that they are 75% confident, then in most organization settings, the group that says they’re 95% sure is mostly likely going to get the support, thereby unfortunately only further reinforcing the reliance on homogeneous teams in organizations.

Measuring Inclusivity

So, what is a useful way to measure the current organizational inclusivity index? Tavares (2018), a partner at the consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles, in an article entitled how to build an inclusive culture work”, piloted a measurement app called SYNAPP. According to Tavares (2018), “many organizations focus on hiring, since it’s easier to quantify; but it is important to look at how people really interact with each other.”