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Diversity is key to success in corporate Canada

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

In my role, I have the pleasure of spending time at universities across the country, meeting with students to talk about their careers and the important role they can play as future business leaders in Canada's economy.

What always strikes me when I enter a room of students is the incredible diversity in Canada's universities. These students are immersed in environments where women are equally represented and a vast number of ethnicities and cultures make up the demographic of their academic experience. The reason I always find it so striking is that the majority of my time is spent in boardrooms in corporate Canada where there is a vastly different demographic picture.

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I am not sure who coined the term, but I often hear Canada's leadership teams referred to as "male, pale and stale". While I consider "stale" a bit harsh, the "male and pale" is hard to deny. A mere 12 per cent of TSX publically listed company directors are women, and visible minorities make up 4.5 per cent of FP500 company directors in Canada. One could argue that universities in Canada were not all that ethnically diverse 30 years ago when the current crop of senior leaders were graduating, however, you can't argue that there were no women there. Women have represented 50 per cent (or more) of university graduates for 30 years. Women have also been abundantly present in middle management roles for years. The pool of female talent for leadership roles in our economy has existed for decades, yet less than 20 per cent of senior officer roles are held by women and 40 per cent of leadership teams in Canada have no women at all.

So as this current generation graduates from universities, can we tell them with confidence that 20 years from now Canada's leadership teams will look like their classrooms? History would argue that "same likes same" in the corporate world. Unless leaders start challenging that overwhelming desire to hire and promote in one's own likeness, we will find the disconnect between the demographic in our universities and that in the corporate boardroom continues to persist. The reality is, it will take intentional and tenacious focus to hire, develop and promote diverse talent.

To date, corporate Canada hasn't been all that strong at developing diverse talent. If we want Canada to lead when it comes to innovation, productivity and economic competitiveness, we must take advantage of the immense pool of diverse talent in this country. Our diversity can be a significant competitive advantage. Volumes of research by credible organizations like Credit Suisse, McKinsey and Catalyst have demonstrated higher levels of gender diversity in leadership result in stronger financial performance, same hold true for ethnic diversity.

If you are a leader that buys into the thesis that you need to access the best of 100 per cent of the talent pool to win in the 21st century, you need to start the hard work now. You need to equip your management team with the motivation and tools to change the way they recruit and develop talent. Most importantly, you need to be the biggest, most vocal and tenacious champion of the need for diversity in your business's talent pool. Even those with the best of intentions fall back on comfortable practices in challenging times. It will take a long-term view to change habits and culture in any organization and the CEO must champion that change.

When young people start their careers in an organization, they are looking for role models. People they relate to and aspire to emulate. If they don't see anyone that looks like them, if they don't fit in with the dominant group, that can appear to be a barrier to their prospects. It needs to be clear that "fit" is not "sameness", that difference of opinion and perspective is valued, and that the leadership team of tomorrow, will look different than the leadership team today.

The best management teams, the ones the next generation will want to work for, will need to evolve from amalgamating power in one dominant person or group, to recognizing that the highest value they can bring to their organizations is to empower other people. To give power to diversity of thought, ideas and solutions. That is innovation in the 21st century.

Jennifer Reynolds is chief executive officer of Toronto-based Women in Capital Markets.

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