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Why diversity is a winning business strategy

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 2013, Sheryl Sandberg revived the conversation about challenges for women in the corporate workplace with her book Lean In. The book ignited an international conversation that made it impossible to ignore the obstacles faced by working women. It also forced leaders to think about diversity and inclusion and challenged many companies to rethink corporate diversity practices.

Within the tech industry, gender and diversity gaps are highly pronounced, with women making up 24 per cent of the work force in advanced technology sectors and of that, only 17 per cent working in core technology roles, according to research from the Conference Board of Canada. Research from HRCouncil.ca shows that diverse work forces exhibit higher levels of both innovation and profits.

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Last year, big tech companies in Silicon Valley published their employee demographic data, with discouraging, but not surprising, results; mostly white and mostly male. Symantec globally shows a similar disparity within a work force that's still only 28 per cent female, and a senior leadership team that is majority male (73 per cent). Despite these statistics, diversity at the company remains top of mind. Symantec's goal is to increase work force diversity at all levels of the company by 15 per cent by the year 2020. So what can we do to improve corporate diversity?

Since joining Symantec in 2010, I made diversity and inclusion one of my top priorities. I realized that tech leaders need to be at the forefront of change in order to improve these statistics and meet diversity goals. Ms. Sandberg's book encouraged me to assess what biases were preventing me from recognizing the changes that needed to take place in order to improve our practices and to advance our corporate culture. Things like gender, race, age and economic background all contribute to our personal world view. Lean In made me realize that these factors can be blinding and that we all have built-in biases that need to be overcome. Acknowledging these biases was the first step toward change. The second step was action.

One of the several things I did was participate in a panel discussion with other leaders in Canada on the points raised in Lean In. I became one of three North American leaders at Symantec's Women's Action Network (SWAN), a global women's initiative with the goal of increasing the number of women in technical and leadership positions. Globally we made it a priority to increase the number of female directors on our board. In Canada, we brought in a third-party consultant to help identify areas where we could improve diversity and inclusion and we developed custom programs that tackle specific challenges such as public speaking training sessions to help cultivate female leaders.

Addressing diversity and inclusion in any organization can be overwhelming. Where do you even start? What issues should take priority and what does success look like?

Here are five things to consider to advance diversity and inclusion in your organization:

Define a plan

There is no playbook to work from; every organization is different and has its own unique challenges when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Do your research but aim to move beyond the academic to create a framework that's realistic, achievable and measurable. Sit down with senior leadership and develop a plan that addresses specific diversity issues and identify internal and external diversity best practices to inform your plan. Create diversity goals and define successes according to these goals.

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Attract and develop talent

Prioritize diversity in the recruiting process, create strong partnerships with academic institutions and organizations that serve diverse populations and develop an internship program that can serve as a pipeline to identify diverse talent early in their careers. Promote education, training and professional development for all employees, including training that focuses on unconscious biases and training for specific groups such as women, to groom them as leaders. Bring diversity to your leadership team to ensure that a variety of backgrounds and perspectives are represented at the very top.

Keep diversity top of mind

Diversity should be built into the operational cadence of the company. It should be a continuous part of the conversation and should inform different aspects of the business like policy and culture. One of the steps we've taken to prioritize diversity is to always include candidates from varying backgrounds in our hiring process. We also make sure that diversity is represented on the hiring panel to round out our perspective. Through steps like this, we've succeeded in increasing diversity from both the top down and bottom up.

Set a standard

What does good look like? Set a diversity standard and measure your performance against it. Are better decisions being made? Have different perspectives improved an aspect of the business? Having a clear goal in mind and tracking diversity progress will demonstrate the business value of diversity.

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Celebrate successes

Over the past couple of years, we've noticed specific improvements as a result of our diversity and inclusion efforts. We've experienced a change in our corporate culture and our company is visibly more diverse with a number of women and people of different ethnic backgrounds filling senior leadership roles. Our management is more open and comfortable addressing diversity issues than in the past and employees feel that they are in a safe and inclusive environment.

While we have come far, we still have far to go. Diversity remains a big challenge in the tech industry. My hope is that by 2020 we'll have moved the needle significantly and see at least a 10-percentage-point increase in women in tech with a goal of gender parity by 2030.

Sean Forkan is the general manager of Symantec Canada (@SymantecCanada). Symantec (@Symantec) is one of the world's largest software companies, helping businesses and consumers protect and manage their information.

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