There’s a growing body of research that outlines the many business benefits of addressing diversity and inclusion within the workplace – from a safer, more positive culture, to increased revenue, to greater innovation, just to name a few. However, simply increasing diversity within an organization doesn’t necessarily automatically result in these benefits; how well an organization utilizes diversity and empowers their people has a significant impact on its success. That’s why leaders are so influential when it comes to workplace D&I success.
According to the latest Canadian Underwriter Diversity and Inclusion survey, sponsored by Sovereign Insurance, 88% of brokers who work at organizations with no diversity within their leadership team said they’re experiencing a challenge to create a diverse and inclusive workplace. This is significant compared to just 33% of brokers who work at organizations with a diverse leadership team. Essentially, the data suggests that the more diverse an organization’s leadership team is, the less of a challenge it will be to create a diverse/inclusive workplace.
Clearly, leadership teams have a considerable influence on whether D&I will be just “a program”, or a way of life for the organization, embedded within its culture.
In this Q&A, Jo-Anne Yanuziello, VP Marketing, HR and Corporate Admin at Sovereign Insurance, shares her insights on the importance of leadership teams and corporate culture in making D&I a lasting success.
Why are leadership teams so influential to the success of workplace D&I?
Having top leadership support is critical, as leaders set the tone and culture for the whole organization. It’s important we make a visible commitment, lead by example, and create an inclusive environment where people feel heard, which will create a ripple effect throughout the organization. Leaders also hold a lot of influence – we set priorities and empower our teams, which are two critical aspects to creating a culture that embraces and celebrates D&I.
Our influence can’t be overlooked, so it’s also important that we lead with humility. We all have room to learn and grow, and leaders are no exception. When we’re able to admit our biases, demonstrate empathy, show vulnerability with our teams, and adopt a learning mindset, it creates space for others to do the same. This ultimately helps foster a culture of inclusion and acceptance.
It’s also important to recognize that D&I is a journey. There’s no switch to flip to achieve D&I in six months or a year. Leaders can influence culture, but they alone can’t change it overnight. To support D&I success, we need to view it through a long-term lens – it’s part of a multi-year journey tied to the strategic business plan.
If diversity and inclusion is a journey, what is the starting point and how can leaders chart the course?
It’s important to have a strong foundation to start from and that, to me, is a values-based culture. This establishes guiding principles for decision-making, actions and behaviours for all employees. It means supporting a healthy workplace environment, including creating psychological safety, which is the belief that one can speak up and share freely without fear of negative consequences.
Understanding why a D&I strategy is important, what the benefits are, and what an organization wants to achieve is another component of success. D&I should be integrated into everything – starting with the business strategy. It’s a business goal, and so it needs the appropriate resources behind it. Just like any other business strategy, leaders need to look at how they’re managing D&I in terms of investing, measuring the progress, celebrating the successes, and adjusting along the way.
Finally, integration is paramount. A D&I strategy can’t live in one place or be splintered into smaller teams. To really be successful, D&I has to be integrated into everything: the programs, policies, communications, training, recruiting process, and so on. It needs to be part of what you do and how you work.
Why is it important that leadership teams themselves reflect diversity?
Diversity in leadership enables diversity of thought, perspectives, and experiences. These are key elements that not only support better business decision-making, but also contribute to the quality and richness of the organization’s D&I programs and policies. When you have a diverse group of leaders with different perspectives and experiences, you create a broader lens to support greater innovation and creativity.
A diverse leadership team also enables employees to identify with their leaders, demonstrates to employees that there is a place for them long-term within the organization, and validates their unique attributes as valuable strengths. As leaders, when we bring our full selves to work every day, we model this for employees. A diverse leadership team can be a powerful catalyst that empowers employees to be themselves, share freely, and experience the psychological safety I mentioned earlier.
How can leaders involve employees in the organization’s D&I efforts?
In most organizations, there are people who are really passionate about D&I. We can invite them to be actively involved in developing D&I strategies and to provide ongoing ideas and feedback. Employees can also be invited to share their own stories and participate in D&I-related activities, including panel discussions, training opportunities, town halls, books clubs, and online conversation hubs. We should ask people how they want to be involved and what they’re excited to create or build on.
To continually foster employee involvement and engagement, it’s important that they see it is ok to grow through this work – none of us have all the answers and D&I best practices continue to evolve. That’s why when we as leaders express what we’re learning and how we’re growing, it provides a safe environment for others to explore and learn themselves.