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Smart leaders see diversity as an immense opportunity

Vafa Akhavan is senior adviser at NueBridge and was co-executive sponsor of diversity & inclusion at McGraw Hill's Information & Media segment.

There is only one problem with diversity and inclusivity in the boardrooms and executive levels of Corporate Canada: There isn't any. In the relative context of our knowledge and capacity we could – and should – be much further ahead.

The numbers speak for themselves. Among Canadian Fortune10 companies, a mere 32 per cent of board members – and only 18 per cent of senior executives – are women. The American numbers are not appreciably better: 26 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively.

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In Canada, virtually three-quarters of all board members – and 92 per cent of senior executives – are white. In other words, of the F10's 124 top executives, 114 are white. (The U.S. numbers are 85 per cent and 88 per cent, respectively). These numbers apply, curiously, even though five human resources leaders in Canada's F10 are women. The challenge is not significantly different outside of the F10 group. In fact, it's relatively worse. For example, among the 13 senior leaders at Rogers Communications, all are men, and 11 are white.

Some argue that qualifications should trump diversity, but it's inconceivable that there were no qualified women for any of the 12 positions that reported to former chief executive officer Guy Laurence. In fact, the previous chief information officer was a woman and is now the CIO at United Airlines. We'll soon see if his successor, Joe Natale, does any better.

Some also argue that there is a limited pool of qualified women and diverse candidates. The business world has known about the power of diversity and inclusion for more than 20 years and still we are challenged in a corporate world, constructed by men for men.

So what does all of this mean? Obviously, though we bravely talk the talk, we don't walk the walk. Is it because our population is still so predominantly white that we don't feel the need to make cultural diversity a business imperative? Or does it mean that diversity and inclusion is fine in the lower organizational ranks, but not in the executive suites? Diversity, yes, but only so far? Or perhaps we are not convinced of the impact D&I can have on decisions and outcomes.

There are many examples of disasters because decisions were made devoid of understanding simple diversity. A Canadian company that will likely not do business in Japan because its name refers to a vile serpent in Japanese mythology that destroys everything. A Thai restaurant in Brisbane called "Thai Wi Rat." The famous "reset" button that Hillary Clinton gave Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2009 used the word "peregruzka," which in Russian means "overload."

Numerous studies have measured the impact of diversity and inclusion in leadership, and identified the key reasons for developing authentic D&I strategies. One is to ensure that management's critical thinking and discourse reflects the company's markets and customer base. Another is to foster an environment in which diversity improves results across the value stream, from the quality of decisions to performance outcomes.

The fact that you might have a Pakistani Canadian serving as chairman and CEO, or an indigenous person on the board of directors, or two women in the C Suite, does not on its own guarantee diversity, let alone inclusion. Neither does it reflect a deliberate, meaningful strategy for D&I design and implementation.

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Those at the forefront of this journey understand that diversity is not, in the end, about the colour of skin, one's religious faith, gender or sexual orientation.

Diversity is what these categories signify – and can deliver – in terms of a unique set of experiences, beliefs, life lessons, knowledge, insight, and critical thinking. It's like being able to speak multiple languages that enable you to better understand and interact with employees, customers, suppliers, competitors, markets and the world at large.

But here's the reality. Sooner or later, the invisible ceiling will be shattered, and the executive offices and boardrooms of Corporate Canada will reflect a more genuine representation of diversity and inclusion. Demographics of customers and employees are changing faster than the ability of organizations to adjust. To get there, however – to maximize organizational leverage of D&I – companies must eliminate the constricting legacy of the "old way," that set of preconceived notions, conscious or unconscious, which have governed policies and decisions for too long and raise D&I, strategically and operationally, to the level of imperative.

For the prudent leader, diversity and inclusion should be seen not so much as an awkward challenge, but as an immense opportunity, one that can dramatically accelerate corporate performance. For now, men must take on a greater role not just to support women and other diverse candidates to break the glass ceiling, but also to stump and break the glass floor.

We should do it, in other words, not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because it's the smart thing to do.

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