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Leadership accountability is key to diversifying talent

Awareness is not enough - building a diverse and inclusive organisation requires leadership

There is no shortage of agreement that diverse and inclusive teams create better business outcomes. And yet, in technology the needle has hardly moved. Nash Squared’s 2023 Digital Leadership Report shows that 14% of technology leadership teams are female. In 2016, that figure was 11%. The difference is almost negligible.

So, what’s the blocker? It’s not that there isn’t an appreciation of why diversity matters. The "why" is well understood. Most businesses have provided training and education for leaders and managers on the diversity and inclusion (D&I) agenda, they’ve raised awareness of the increased creativity and problem-solving capacity of diverse teams, they’ve underlined that the skills gaps affecting the industry could be filled (at least partially) by widening the talent pool. There has also been awareness raising around the importance of the language we use, the behaviours we project, and the need to guard against prejudice and unconscious bias.

But despite all these efforts, not enough has changed. We need to move past the awareness phase and take an increased focus on the "how" of the agenda. In other words: we’ve set our goals, we’re committed to the task – how are we actually going to make it happen?

Leadership accountability and consequences

The answer to this sits first and foremost with leadership teams. Because increasing diversity starts with leadership. It is leaders that set the strategy and the culture, which managers then carry on a day-to-day basis.

In some businesses, I think there may be a feeling that leadership has played its part by establishing the "why" – and can now sit back and watch it happen.

But the fact is, that’s not enough. Leadership is accountable for the cultural direction of a business and for its progress with diversity and inclusion. That accountability means there must also be consequences for following through, or not following through, on the agenda. This is a hard step, but a necessary one. D&I should be part of all of the leadership team’s performance appraisal – with outcomes, either positive or negative, that really mean something: whether that’s the performance rating given, pay or bonus decisions, or other reward outcome.

The whole of the leadership team – the executive board, the operating board, however the organisation is managed at the top level – should be included in this, because each leader has responsibility for at least one part of the business and every single part of the organisation can make a difference. Every part of the business either adds to or detracts from the diversity of the organisation. Some teams or functions may have relatively few people but have an influence on policies that affect diversity and/or are influential with the company’s supply chain or wider stakeholder groups that feed into the culture and diversity of the business.

Tracking and acting on what the data is showing you

With this accountability as the bedrock, it is then about ensuring you are tracking the right metrics for your business (aligned to your D&I goals) and have real and accurate data flowing into them. Whether it’s recruitment, retention, promotions, leavers, allocations of individuals to special projects, flexible working arrangements, or another area of importance to the agenda, it’s essential to have reliable and granular data.

Only then can you really hold the mirror up and answer the question: are we actually doing what we said we’d do?

It’s also essential to keep checking, monitoring and listening. Only in this way can you identify issues holding you back and take action to address them. For example, you might choose to create an inclusion index using the staff engagement survey that can be tracked over time. You might explore the barriers faced by under-represented talent within the business. You might consult with specific groups when creating or reviewing important policies. These can all act as important "nudges" towards a more diverse and inclusive business.

Recruitment & retention

Recruitment is a key area. Alongside traditional hiring routes, consider apprenticeships and schemes to attract diverse next-generation talent as a way of boosting diversity at entry level. Across hiring activities, place the emphasis on the skills and competencies needed for a role rather than getting hung up on specific qualifications or X years of experience. For experienced hires, don’t overlook groups with valuable knowledges and capabilities, like women returners.

Retention is just as important. Are there fair and equitable routes for everyone up through the business? Are opportunities being fairly allocated? What do the promotion statistics show? Are you suffering a diversity drop-off in that all-important middle layer? You need to make sure that the cultural ambition you’ve set for equity and inclusivity is showing up on the ground. Invest also in training and learning resources so that everyone has the opportunity to grow their skills and further their personal development. Where they can see a rewarding and engaging path ahead of them, people are much more likely to stay.

Redoubling the effort

Building a diverse organisation is complex, with many contributory factors. It takes time and isn’t something we’ll solve quickly. But the time has come to double down and challenge ourselves to do more.

The bottom line is – it starts at the top. If leadership doesn’t fully own and become materially accountable for how diversity and inclusion are grown, we will never see the change that we all want to bring about.

Bev White, CEO, Nash Squared will be speaking on this topic at London Tech Week on 12 June in a session entitled, Diversify your talent pipeline – building a future-ready tech team

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