Tomorrow, 8 March, marks International Women's Day. As we celebrate the achievements of women in the workforce and beyond, my advice for leaders may seem counterintuitive: Stop talking about diversity.
In this year’s Annual Global CEO Survey, CEOs cited their explicit focus on workforce diversity, including programmes to encourage diversity in the leadership pipeline. This is not surprising or new information. In our interdependent and volatile global economy, a variety of experiences and thinking styles are integral to success and provide some inoculation against uncertainty.
What I found compelling in this year’s survey is that CEOs have changed the conversation. They’ve framed diversity broadly using the vocabulary of growth and sustainability. I picked up three distinct themes in their responses that link business success with diversity, although they don’t explicitly mention diversity. I believe that discussing diversity implicitly — as an integral part of business and growth — will sustain momentum in the face of uncertain markets and help us to tap into the talent we desperately need.
Excise ‘diversity’ from your vocabulary
When we talk about diversity globally, word choice can impede progress. In mature markets, people are often tired of talking about it — they have ‘diversity fatigue.’ In emerging markets, they don’t always believe diversity is relevant, because they see it as an ‘imported’ concept.
When we take ‘diversity’ out of the conversation, the essence of its meaning as a business driver becomes clear. It’s intuitively seen as vital to global growth and sustainability.
As A.M. Naik, Executive Chairman of Larsen & Toubro Limited, India, observes, “Obviously, you need different types of orientation, organisation, structure and leadership to build international presence quickly. Being unable to do that is our biggest threat.” Traditionally, I believe we’ve made the conversation too narrow, about only one or two facets of diversity; CEOs have started to discuss diversity in terms of its real power — a broad range of perspectives and experiences that bolster business.
Increase transparency with customers and employees
Trust and transparency emerged as strong trends in this year’s survey. Overwhelmingly, CEOs said customers, clients, local communities, and users of social media will significantly influence their business strategies.
Again, diversity is not mentioned explicitly, but it’s inherent in these statements. With a multifaceted customer base, businesses must adapt to their various needs — especially if they want to grow that base, which over half of CEOs say is a priority in 2013. Customers have increasing participation in the decision-making process, and companies that understand and respond with agility will stay relevant.
Transparency is equally pertinent to talent conversations. Alex Lo, President of Uni-President Enterprises Corporation, Taiwan, said, "If a company has a clear [staff development] framework and explicit objectives, everyone is able to understand what role to play, just like in a ballgame. And when people systematically do the right things in the right way, there’s an increase in productivity."
With transparency, talented professionals understand what it takes to rise to the top. Business will move away from a ‘who you know’ mentality that maintains the status quo. By creating transparency in leadership role competencies, leaders can increase objectivity and level the playing field.
Develop junior talent now
Many CEOs reported they develop their leadership pipelines by involving managers below board level in strategic decisions. Indeed, including the perspectives of different generations is another way to stay relevant with customers and connect meaningfully with employees.
The conversation about diversity has often been limited to senior women. Europe has implemented quotas for women on boards, and detractors lament the lack of qualified candidates. Although I’m not convinced that adopting a different mechanism of favouritism will help women in the long run, I do recognise gender imbalance exists today. Despite the influx of female talent, women have not organically risen to the top of organisations.
By shifting the conversation to include junior women, we have the opportunity to press the right lever for balanced leadership teams. We should put our energy behind something we can influence right now: grooming junior women for future leadership roles. This is a sustainable solution for a pipeline full of talented men and women.
As CEOs change the conversation about diversity, we raise the bar for talent and transparency. We enhance trust for increased quality, profitability, and sustainability. One CEO encapsulated this beautifully when he said that in uncertain times like these, balanced investment and leadership helps companies keep their performance on an even keel and take advantage of growth avenues, wherever they may be.
When talent rises to the top, everyone wins.
Find tools and information about developing millennial women now for future leadership roles at the PwC International Women's Day site.
Chairman, PwC International Ltd.
Dennis Nally leads the global network of PwC firms. For more about how PwC is changing the conversation about diversity and talent, please visit pwc.com/women.