Keeping DEI a business priority: Key Learnings from March’s Leaders’ Panel

On Wednesday, March 29th, we held a Leaders Panel at the British Residence in New York, where Ashok Vaswani, President at Pagaya, Keisha Bell, Managing Director at DTCC,  Megan Clarken, CEO at Criteo, and our founder and CEO, Suki Sandhu, discussed prioritizing progress on diversity and inclusion within the current backdrop of change. 

Research proves that diversity is not only good for the bottom line, but also for company culture and morale. Against these uncertain times, companies need to maintain DEI as a business priority and implement initiatives to ensure they continue to attract and retain diverse talent.

A CEO’s role in accountability

A CEO’s role is integral when it comes to driving diversity and inclusion both internally and externally in a business. Effective CEOs are those who see culture as a key component of their remit, and are cognizant that creating a culture where people can thrive underpins a successful business.

However, CEOs may not often have personal experiences when driving inclusion for diverse talent and therefore may not understand its importance. This leads to confusion around the high costs associated with investing in DEI, from working with external consultancies to implementing specific strategies, data collection and recruitment practices. Without the understanding and knowledge to ground DEI in, ensuring it’s a priority becomes challenging.

DEI should be seen as more than a metric that is reported on, and rather a journey. When it comes to advising CEOs they must be aware of the rate of progress too and focus on the long-term gains of driving DEI rather than just immediate results.

The panel acknowledged that changing deep-set beliefs can be a challenge and that often lessons need to be revisited numerous times. However, those CEOs and leaders who are committed to change and their role in it, are defined by their motivation to do so. Taking an empathetic leadership approach and understanding how a company’s culture can be affecting employees on an individual level is key, as well as a belief in helping others to become successful.

Measuring DEI

The panel agreed that the C-Suite are responsible for making change happen and that while other employees should be enabled to drive change, the remit and responsibility must consistently remain with senior leaders. When it comes to measuring and tracking progress, focusing on the key and basic metrics is most important and defining a starting point ensures focus. Pay parity, for example, is a great place to start and is also an investment as long-term reporting provides the data required to create meaningful adjustment.

Measuring DEI also helps to build the case for equity, where some organizations may receive pushback. Alongside communication to show why equity is important, using data to prove why a specific implementation was necessary shows employees why certain programs are tailored towards specific diverse groups. Metrics also tell a story, and this can be leveraged to build the case, and support for DEI, within a business. At Criteo, Megan Clarken shared that there was initial pushback on the investment cost for gender pay parity. However suggesting the cost-effective alternative of implementing pay-cuts for men, created a more compelling case for approval of the investment.

DEI within ESG

The panel were asked about the state of play as DEI becomes embedded with ESG. The panel stated that diversity sitting within a wider agenda does ensure it receives the attention in needs, as it is then prioritized. ESG means that DEI is considered a long-term strategy, which is critical to DEI success. However, it’s important to consider that DEI can risk becoming diluted if it’s not treated with the importance it deserves within the wider ESG agenda and businesses still need to engage with it meaningfully.

Talent retention

The panel discussed talent retention and the challenges posed by the global pandemic. There was a massive impact on diverse communities and this has caused businesses to pivot towards alternative working models, whether hybrid or remote, to retain staff. Retention is a key indicator for culture and diversity because when you see problems with retention it is often indicative of a culture that is not primed for employee success or wellbeing. Companies can be guilty of a ‘hire for diversity, fire for non-conformance’ mentality, where diverse individuals are deliberately hired to invite diversity of thought, but then exited when they don’t appear to fit-in to an existing mono-culture.

Retention also includes back to work policies for employees who’ve been away from the workplace for a considerable amount of time. Ensuring that they have the means and support to ease back into the workplace is critical to their overall experience and whether they stay within a business or not. Introducing back to work schemes or initiatives that recognize the barriers or challenges some employees may face on returning to work are important in bringing people back to the workplace.

Ultimately the panel agreed that creating a culture where employees want to be, is what’s necessary to drive retention.

Key recommendations

To close the session, each of the panelists was asked for one key lesson to share from their experience driving forward DEI. Here were their recommendations:

  • Take care of yourself because the work is not easy. There is the constant need to revisit the same lessons with senior leaders and the rate of change can be frustrating. Persistence and resilience are therefore two key qualities which need to be cultivated.
  • Focus on mindset. Find in your C-Suite the one personal trigger that makes them think and change. That will make the greatest impact.
  • Don’t just talk about it, do it. DEI is driven forward through action and although you should think globally, you should be acting locally to make those ambitions for change a living reality.

Continuing the Conversation

Our appreciation goes to our panel, the British Residence, and to everyone who attended and contributed their opinions and experiences.

Audeliss has been supporting organizations with diversifying senior leadership for over 12 years, and if you would like to talk to us about your approach to diverse executive search, please get in touch.