An open letter of advice to CEOs

The writer is associate professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School

Dear CEO,

The facts are the facts — you have to start from where you are. As you move forward from your #BlackLivesMatter statement, admit where you are in plain words. The chances are that you too do not have much to show when it comes to the most obvious and visible aspect of diversity — your top leadership team. Looking further down the ranks of your organisation, you may have some representation of minorities and women, but it’s likely you have also documented issues with these employees’ sense of belonging and inclusion from employee engagement surveys, plus anonymous reporting of bias via human resources or employee networks.

Many leaders whose companies are making progress in promoting minority staff will want to trumpet their achievements. This is a mistake. Put bluntly, while you should always celebrate your minority leaders, if you have only achieved token diversity in your business overall, then treating this first step as a big achievement suggests you do not understand (or have) serious diversity goals in mind.

If you are going to ready yourself to respond to the current moment and make enduring changes, educate yourself first. The sad reality is that most leaders have had no meaningful education or training in diversity and inclusion (a problem that business schools must remedy). Moreover, when today’s leaders first entered organisations and moved up their ranks, they travelled through levels and networks that were overwhelmingly affluent, white and male. You and your peers at the top of business may have missed out on learning about issues of diversity and inclusion personally, through friends’ experiences.

LBS Faculty Photos Aneeta Rattan 5/6/17 Aneeta Rattan: ‘Perhaps the most powerful aspect of today’s global social movement is that it reminds us that each of us can contribute to a more equal world’ © Sheila Burnett

This lack of life experience can make you vulnerable to ignorant mistakes: equating black and Bame employees, equating diversity of representation and thought, discussing diversity so broadly it barely retains any meaning, or shirking responsibility by assuming that “the pipeline is the problem”.

Engage with tough ideas, and challenge your assumptions. There are countless articles on individual bias, organisational procedures, and what organisations can do to improve racial diversity. Invite your entire senior leadership team to join a book club in which you read about the history of black experience and racism, invite in experts and authors — and then listen, really listen to the employees from under-represented groups in the lower ranks of your organisation. If there seems to be an obvious answer, if the conversation is comfortable, this is your signal to work harder.

And if you are currently thinking that this moment — the protests, the pandemic, the economic outlook — is not the right time to act, ask yourself what more you require, beyond a global movement, to make you see diversity as a priority?

Education must be paired with action that addresses biased systems and moves the company, and its diversity, forward. This will include setting goals, developing and implementing action plans and collecting and evaluating data to objectively judge your progress.

If you achieve great things, share your insights (not just your outcomes) widely. If your efforts fail, share your insights equally widely, to prevent others from the same mistakes. As you make progress in one area, add others.

The solution is not to outsource responsibility for these efforts. You, as the leader, must offer your legitimacy, priority and your power. Until now, you may have offloaded oversight of the company’s diversity initiatives. That responsibility may have been given to the sole Bame person or woman in the top leadership team, to your employee resource groups, to your diversity and inclusion director or to the human resources department. People in these groups have been working for years — often without appropriate pay, recognition, or power — to improve organisations.

Keep using their knowledge, value them and call on them. But if you have not educated yourself, when you are eventually asked hard questions and struggle to answer, you will be judged harshly. It is you who will set back your company’s progress — not those diversity experts.

Of course, the responsibility for addressing diversity in organisations falls not just on the CEO. Board members and search firms: have you made efforts to remove bias from hiring processes, or made sure you have vetted all candidates’ ability to talk about diversity against a sceptical (not sympathetic) ear? HR leaders, are you doing more than taking a compliance approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion — have you overhauled your procedures and evaluation processes to prevent bias?

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of today’s global social movement is that it reminds us that each of us can contribute to a more equal world. It also marks the moment at which competence on issues of diversity became a necessary, rather than nice-to-have, leadership skill.