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Diversity initiatives are “the right thing to do.” But doing “the right thing” is not motivating to some. To commit time, energy and resources to a diversity initiative requires that it also be a smart thing. A business approach to diversity is important to get buy-in and support. A business approach includes three key elements:

  1. It is based on facts.
  2. There is a compelling business case.
  3. It is addressed in neutral, non-judgmental terms.

These three elements apply for action to improve diversity and inclusion in any area. I will illustrate with the area of gender diversity.

Get the Facts: If there is concern that women are not making it to the senior levels of your organization, get the facts. What is the percentage of women overall and at each level of the organizational hierarchy? Are women represented on key management committees? What is the relative turnover rates of women vs. men? How do your numbers  compare with data from other organizations in your industry? If the numbers demonstrate there is a problem, use employee surveys, focus groups and exit interviews to determine root causes of dissatisfaction, disengagement or turnover.

Develop the Business Case: Improving gender diversity is not just a women’s issue. It is a business issue. You must be able to demonstrate the “WIFM” – what is in it for me. Your organization has a lot to gain from creating a culture where women thrive:

  • The educated talent pipeline has more women than men. In hiring the best talent, a business will be hiring a substantial number of women. Developing and retaining this talent just makes sense. Doing so will reduce turnover and increase productivity and profitability.
  • The marketplace is gender diverse. Women control much of the wealth in the U.S. Women-owned businesses are an important and growing sector of the economy. And women are decision-makers in many business-to-business relationships. Having women in leadership can help you tap this market.
  • Most significant, there is a growing body of research showing that gender diversity in leadership is correlated with better business results. Catalyst, McKinsey and Credit Suisse are among those behind such studies.

To engage individual leaders in a “women’s initiative,” it may be important to personalize the case. For example, if the business does well, point out that bonuses will be higher!

Avoid Judgment and Blame: In articulating root causes for disengagement or turnover among women, anger and accusation can backfire. The term “bias” can sound like fingernails on a chalkboard! For example, I talk about human “blind spots” – and confess that I have them, too. I talk about the unconscious, unintentional tendency to prefer to be around people like ourselves (the “comfort principle.”)  And I help people acknowledge that we all have unconscious images about how leadership and success look (“unconscious images”).

Have you tried a business approach to diversity? What advice do you have for others?