True diversity is more than lip service: excerpts from a 'Signium Speaks' podcast on executive leadership skills

Signium brought together a group of international experts in senior leadership consultancy for an exclusive podcast, a first for the industry. The specialists, who are all Managing Partners from Signium’s international network from offices in China, the US, Mexico, Germany, and South Africa, convened to discuss some of the sector’s most important matters, streamed to a live online audience and now available as a podcast.

In the first of this exclusive series of reports from the podcast, our panel of specialists tackled the subject of diversity and inclusion – an area that has become critical in the modern workplace as more and more companies make it a part of their corporate values. 

But true diversity can be difficult to achieve, especially at the most senior levels. Our representatives tuned in from their offices around the world to discuss the successes and pitfalls of achieving genuine diversity in business and how to promote a culture of inclusiveness.

All five experts agreed that the advantages of greater diversity far outweigh the challenges of implementation. The rewards are not only enhanced innovation and creativity, but also better local market knowledge which leads to the ability to offer a more adaptable range of products and services. Moreover, it then becomes a virtuous circle, said Carolin Fourie from the Signium office in Munich, Germany: “drawing from a cultural diverse talent pool will then allow an organization to attract and retain more of the best talent, as the organization will be perceived as more attractive.”

However, the Signium group had a number of crucial recommendations for any firm embarking on a diversity and inclusion strategy. Firstly, the broad spectrum of human difference needs to be acknowledged – “the understanding that diversity is not just about gender or culture, but that it includes a wide spectrum of race, religion, culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, geography, physical, and educational diversity,” said Annelize van Rensburg from Signium Africa. Once these aspects are taken into consideration, a company can then define the specific areas where progress is needed.

Furthermore, senior teams need to be honest about how much they genuinely desire diversity, and about the psychological barriers that may need to be overcome. “From a psychological point of view, as human beings we tend to like people who are like ourselves,” explained Kin Chong U, managing partner at Signium Greater China, “That's why in our personal lives we tend to hang out with people with similar interests and hobbies - it’s very natural. But it is completely different at work. At work we need to have people with different styles, different skills, and different interests in a team to be effective.”

Carolin Fourie agreed with the need for greater self-awareness. “I get approached by clients, like a majority of our leaders who are white and between 40-50 years old, who say they want to become more diverse. But when you present a shortlist of very international candidates, from different religions and cultural backgrounds and also reflecting their different markets and customers, they often pick someone who is similar to them. They don't follow their own objectives. So at the start there needs to be honesty about what the goal is and how open a company is to hiring people who are different.”

Kin Chong U presented an additional scenario where companies can be too short-term in their approach. “In the beginning, perhaps the first 90 days, they love it. They say, ‘this is such a fresh breath of air into the organization’! But then very often, 6-9 months later, that person has not been enculturated and is rejected - the novelty factor wears out very quickly. So I think that senior management need to keep reminding themselves why they want to build a diverse organization. There must be a clear business imperative behind the decision which will remind them all the time why they should embrace different views, different personalities, and different styles.”

The risk of a short-termism is either a failed recruitment or, if the pattern continues, the problem of “silos and compartmentalized working,” according to Felipe Rivelles from Signium Mexico. Some of this can be mitigated by new executives who are “smart and adaptable enough to quickly immerse into the culture of the company.” But ultimately, argued Felipe, this problem should be avoided in the first place by ensuring that building diversity is an organic process, grown from pre-existing core values. 

“It should be part of the company’s DNA,” he explained. “This is not something you just want to put a checkmark next to. Diversity has to be something that is happening naturally in a company. If there is already a culture of diversity, there will be very few issues. But if diversity comes without any planning, there’s something wrong with the process of how they got there.”

The group had further insights for effectively implementing a diversity agenda. Glenn Anderson from Signium USA advises companies not only to have a clear strategy that is written out and shared, but also to ensure that all stakeholders buy into it. “There has to be something concrete. So it’s not just something up in the cloud somewhere or somebody saying ‘hey, wouldn’t this be nice if we did this?’”

Annelize van Rensburg agreed that “it starts with communication, communication, and once more communication – there must be a very clear directive of why you are doing it, what is the purpose. And therefore leadership must walk the talk and be the champions of diversity. Secondly, I think one can also introduce better on-boarding processes to create the environment of inclusivity and belonging.”

Practically speaking, suggested Felipe, this might involve providing more opportunities for people to work together. “It’s important to have processes, events, workshops – somewhere you bring a lot of these people to work together face to face. Exercises where the vision and the mission are reviewed or challenged so there is better alignment.”

This leads in to how companies can more broadly foster diversity of thought and approach, not just diversity along cultural lines. The group concurred that it is crucial for all companies to create safe environments for robust discussion. “I think as a first step companies should ensure everyone has equal chance to speak up and share their views. We have done many organizational surveys and seen that often people don't feel safe to be different and feel pressured to go along with the majority view. Even though you have a team of executives with very similar cultural or professional backgrounds, they will have different approaches. I have assessed hundreds and thousands of executives in my career, I have not seen two executives with the same style or motivational factors or values. So I always try to impart one simple principle to any team: when you're working together, don't try to seek 100% agreement, but always seek 100% understanding of each other.”  

Annelize van Rensburg believes that the key ingredient here is respect. “There should be freedom to communicate but in a respectful way, understanding that people can agree to disagree on certain points. I think healthy competition within a company is very important to stretch people’s thinking. A lot of companies have a war room where people can be open and direct – a platform where things can be said, where they can compete with each other but without insulting. It also helps if there is training continuously on how to communicate well, to recognize that some competition and tension is there for the benefit of the organisation to think in creative, innovative ways.”

Indeed, all Signium experts were clear that the way to channel diversity into one voice is through considering the bigger picture of the entire company, rather than just individual preferences. “It’s important to keep the entire brand in mind. It is also helpful to submit team goals, not just individual ones,” said Carolin Fourie. “And, last but not least, to celebrate the successes – keep showcasing the achievements that have resulted from bringing together diverse points of view.”

To listen to the full discussion, download the podcast.