Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development

5 Steps to Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Company from the Top Down

Achieving substantial change or progress requires pushing past the superficial and digging deep. As a business leader, this almost certainly comes with facing some difficult, distressing truths.

This rings true across all organizations, especially when it comes to fostering diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace. While this can be a monumental task, the right approach often can start with something as small as taking a good look in the mirror.

Leaders must hold a lens up to their teams and actively seek out those challenging conversations. There are a number of approaches one can take to set a D&I strategy in motion, but sustaining that strategy always starts at the top, and it isn’t just about checking boxes.

Take a Good Look in the Mirror

As recruiters and trusted advisors, we have a moral obligation to embrace D&I on all levels and to be honest about where there are gaps. There are some tough conversations to be had along the way to changing a company culture, but it’s all part of the necessary (and sometimes uncomfortable) process of establishing a new environment that embraces diversity. The past 18 months have definitely shed light on the need for many to recognize and celebrate the importance of diversity, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

At the highest level, we’ve found there are five steps to guide leaders down the right path to creating a more diverse and inclusive work environment.

  1. Establish a holistic view. We all know diversity is important to an organization, but how do you actually define it? Historically, it’s largely focused on demographic diversity like gender and ethnicity—differences that we can “see”—but a comprehensive D&I program must also include sexual orientation, ability, age, and cognitive and experiential diversity. However, these can inadvertently be subjective and relative to specific circumstances. For instance, technology firms in California might not be thinking about hiring women in senior roles because they’re getting closer to gender parity.And while it’s true that diversity and inclusion go hand in hand, they’re actually quite different. Inclusion is meant to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities at a company and that all employees can contribute, collaborate, and influence the company in a positive and constructive way. To foster a truly diverse—and inclusive—workplace, this mindset needs to permeate a company’s culture from the top down and across every horizontal level, which is bolstered by formal structures and programs such as employee resource groups (ERGs).
  1. Consider future leadership from within. Enabling leaders to foster D&I from within the organization is essential. While the first instinct may be to hire new, outside talent, there’s no reason not to consider those you’ve already invested in. Your company might already be on the right track when it comes to D&I, so keep that in mind as you look to cultivate the next generation of leaders. But, at the same time, don’t try to force it if it doesn’t make sense—there are several other leaders out there who could be the D&I advocate you need.
  1. Empower the next generation. When you do hire, hire for the company as a whole, and deliver diversity in the context of that team rather than becoming hyper-focused on the individual. Swinging hard in one direction may create a shortcut to D&I, but it won’t correct a long-term problem. We have to be honest about diverse talent and present things truthfully, as well as accurately.That said, recruiters and HR professionals aren’t magicians—they can’t conjure candidates who don’t exist, but they can help you identify individuals with the right mindset and a track record of building diverse teams. Putting the right people into leadership positions and enabling them to grow the next generation of diverse talent from within are crucial for posterity.
  1. Create a supportive, successful environment. When hiring an executive of a certain race or orientation, make sure he or she is set up for success. Ask yourself: What are you doing to help diverse placements be successful? Do you have a mentoring or “buddy” system? What about an onboarding process? Retention comes down to these things. If you want to work toward a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix, you need to bring that person up through the company so he or she will be an active part of future integration and mentoring.Some companies do a great job of hiring women to fill leadership positions, yet they fall incredibly short when it comes to retaining them. This was exacerbated during the pandemic, which saw 2.3 million women exiting the workforce, essentially wiping out the past 30 years of progress. The harsh reality is that women often have to choose between coming back after maternity leave or losing their job. Is that conducive to developing senior female leaders so they can be a mother and have a successful career? No, absolutely not.
  1. Promote empathy and understanding. Empower your employees to be themselves, and encourage them to let others know what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Everyone has his or her own story, so it’s important to listen and create a safe space where you can help each other learn and grow. Some companies do this through listening exercises, training sessions, team outings, and the like. It’s all about identifying a path that includes everyone.

From a talent perspective, there are ways we can all tackle diversity problems (such as with diversity mapping), but we must strongly encourage and educate leaders to go beyond ticking a set of boxes. Until companies ramp up their D&I efforts—starting from the top down and the inside out—there will be little progress in growing and retaining leadership roles for women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and people with disabilities.

The issues we face are not just a matter of opportunity but also about systemic inequalities. We must work together to break down antiquated barriers, remove hurtful stereotypes, and partake in meaningful conversations that positively impact both our personal and our professional lives. You can’t talk the talk and not walk the walk—you need to actively contribute, advocate, and be part of the solution.

John-Claude Hesketh (JC) is Global Managing Partner at Marlin Hawk based out of London. He is responsible for all activities and people pertaining to client relationships, assignment and project delivery, and the strategic commercial direction of the organization. JC partners with numerous global clients and their leaders on executive search, succession planning, and talent planning. Over the last decade, JC has delivered some of the most innovative appointments in global executive search. He challenges his clients to think differently and approaches common problems with a positively disruptive mindset. Internally, JC is focused on the development of the company’s internal talent, helping to develop the next generation of leaders for the organization. JC graduated from the University of Birmingham, with an honors degree in Economics and Political Science. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

 Tracy Murdoch O’Such is President for the Americas at Marlin Hawk based out of NYC. She is responsible for the management of the organization’s Americas region and the development of its global Digital, Media, Entertainment, and Sports Practice. O’Such has extensive experience in executive search and has direct industry experience in large media conglomerates. She is focused on the convergence of media and technology, working with some of the world’s most notable brands and placing C-suite leaders as chief digital, chief marketing, chief communications, and chief revenue officers. Before joining Marlin Hawk, O’Such founded her own retained executive recruitment firm, Lex Media Solution, subsequently successfully sold to the U.K. executive search firm Odgers Berndtson before the sale of the New York assets to Diversified Search. She went on to lead the New York office at Diversified for 15 years. O’Such received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Connect with her on LinkedIn.