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Diversity in the Board and C-Suite: Why Companies are Making Leadership Diversity a Priority

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Written by Paul S. Williams, Partner, Major, Lindsay & Africa and Co-Leader, North America CEO & Board Practice, Allegis Partners

In my career, I’ve had the good fortune to work with some of the best and brightest leaders in business. I’ve been a board member of four different organizations, and I’ve facilitated CEO, board of director, and general counsel placements for top companies across industries.

This experience has shown me that increasing diversity at the leadership level is not only the right thing to do; it makes business sense. Diversity at the top makes for a smarter, more agile, and more competitive organization.

I have also found that most company leaders agree with this idea. When clients come to me to help them fill a role for their leadership team, the majority will say that they would like to see diversity in the slate of candidates they consider. But beyond simply wanting to consider diverse leaders, companies are making leadership diversity a practical priority. The reasons for such change are compelling.

Reflecting the Marketplace

It would be a disservice for a company not to align diversity in leadership with the diversity of its markets and customers. A diverse leadership team brings a nuanced perspective that can better set the direction regarding how the company serves its customers today and how it innovates to meet changing needs of the future.

This need to reflect the marketplace is something I have personally addressed before. As executive vice president and chief legal officer of a Fortune 20 healthcare organization, I was part of a team that knew we had to reflect the makeup of the people we served. During my time there, I built out a legal team where more than half were women, and half were ethnically diverse. This level of diversity was very important for a company that needed to reflect the market it served. The process took time, but with a conscious effort, we were able to make it happen.

Challenging the Status Quo

Diverse leaders bring new, and sometimes challenging, perspectives that are essential to leading a dynamic business. Obviously, there is no way that a diverse leader (or any leader) can walk into a boardroom without being the absolute best person for the job.

Whether we’re talking about a CFO, general counsel, or CEO, the leader who is diverse is not in that position because of her diversity. She is there because the organization recognizes her as a credible expert in the field. But that same leader can also open the door to better decisions by not shying away from difficult conversations.

Whether considering a direction in products or services, a strategy for operations, a legal approach, or possibly the selection of other new leaders in open roles, the view of the diverse leader is critical. I’ve had the experience of being the first diverse person on a board, and I’ve placed diverse leaders who were in positions to be similar catalysts of change in other organizations.

Of course, it would be nice to walk into a diverse boardroom every time, but I’m also passionate about being that person who speaks up and pushes for change when change is needed.

Finding Diverse Leaders Outside the Comfort Zone

Companies can’t be content to rely on blind luck to send diverse leaders in their direction. People naturally gravitate toward the networks of people they know. In leadership, that means a board without diverse members is likely to have candidates in line for succession who are not diverse.

Changing the makeup of a leadership team requires a conscious effort at building a diverse slate of candidates to break into that circle of opportunity. Companies can achieve this by evolving the way they identify high-potential employees for promotion, and they can also turn to someone like me to identify candidates from an entirely different network.

In both cases, an organization can bring in new faces and new perspectives for consideration. Over time, a consistent diversity of candidates will change the makeup of a leadership team.

Yes, Improving Diversity in Leadership is the Right Thing to Do

Finally, I often talk about the business value of building diversity, but we can’t lose sight of the principles of leadership diversity. Improving the makeup of leadership teams is the right thing to do. Our clients believe in that principle, and I’ve lived that principle.

As companies look to their futures, they are looking for leaders who will guide them through complexity. A healthy mix of perspectives at the top provides the vision to do just that, and it makes the world a better place.

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