Shaping diversity: part two

Reconfiguring diversity

In order to capitalise on the benefits that a diverse and inclusive workplace can bring, a leader may have to get beyond initial resistance within the corporation, often arising from fear of being targeted or implicitly blamed. Members of an organisation’s majority population can feel threatened by a D&I drive or suspicious about talent decisions should they carry the whiff of positive discrimination. Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Miral Hamani-Samaan, director of M&A, corporate transactions and international governance, discusses these fears in her interview. While fully supporting the need to expressly defend D&I topics in any kind of institution, she also poses the question ‘on what terms do you really want to impose equality? … Do I want to be promoted because I’m a woman, or because I’m good at what I do?’

The attitude she describes strikes at the heart of legislative efforts made by many European countries to ensure representation of both genders in the boardroom – which make many proponents of diversity uneasy. In fact, says Lisa Kepinski, a compliance-led framing of diversity issues can be self-defeating if it triggers a backlash. Tinna Nielsen, with whom Kepinski has developed a body of work examining behavioural drivers behind bias, identifies an opportunity for in-house legal teams to actively lobby against making D&I a compliance issue: ‘It actually just triggers a Romeo and Juliet effect – because people hate being told what to do.’

Reconfiguring behaviours

Kepinski and Nielsen tell us that the framing of D&I is key to its chances of achieving real change across an organisation. Their ‘behavioural insights’ approach accepts bias as a fact of life, and the ‘Inclusion Nudges’ initiative they have developed encourages people to make decisions that further inclusion by making it easier to make those choices than not; by reconfiguring the path of least resistance. Kepinski illustrates this idea by using presentation of metrics as an example: ‘Oftentimes leaders are used to seeing small numbers of minority populations when looking at data. For example, “We only have 10% of women at senior leadership level”. But it’s far more unsettling if we present that data as “Our senior leadership is 90% male”.’ Understanding the way our minds process information unconsciously, explain Kepinski and Nielsen, can nudge us towards making holistic changes, rather than those that are skin deep.

Reconfiguring structure

But any behavioural changes need to be scaffolded by a robust structural framework to embed diversity and inclusion into the fabric of company culture. According to Out Now’s Ian Johnson, companies must ‘Act high, act in the middle and act local’.

Act high

The benefits of top-level buy-in were clear to most of the GCs we spoke to, and they stressed the importance of a leader-led approach. Donny Ching paints a picture of how this works at Dutch Shell (where he is legal director), citing CEO support, KPIs for leaders regarding D&I, and diverse leadership teams. In Ching’s view, ‘The leadership really needs to show up in regards to D&I. Our credibility comes from action and outcomes… We need our current leaders to break the glass ceiling for others by breaking the barriers from above.’

At global insurer Aviva, group general counsel Kirsty Cooper credits tone from the top as the major driver behind the company’s strategic focus on D&I: ‘…our CEO has been integral to this. Mark Wilson is a New Zealander and worked for a long time in Asia. When he came to the UK, he was surprised by the lack of diversity. He found the lack of women in senior management quite strange and worked to change that; a third of our executive committee today are women, and on our board we have three female directors out of 11. Mark’s commitment is backed up by strong sponsorship from our main board and the chairman.’

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Bias and challenging stereotypes

As human beings, we have a natural preference for consistency. We need to challenge ourselves in this regard by increasing our personal awareness.

We are all biased, and our ‘unconscious biases’ potentially impact at multiple decision points, for example in recruitment, promotion, performance management, work allocation and pitching. To address this, DLA Piper has put in place a programme of learning solutions to raise awareness of this important area across the firm. This programme includes face-to-face workshops for all partners in the International firm, focusing on the crucial role of partners as leaders and aimed at identifying individual biases, responding to them and then managing them. The key principles of the training are that it is interactive and practical, non-judgemental and appreciates the different starting points across the firm – internationally and individually.

To ensure that the training leads to tangible actions, we follow up on the individual actions identified by partners during the training around six months after the training has taken place. Actions include taking a different approach to interviews or work allocation, changing the format or structure of team meetings or simply getting to know every member of the department better.

Configuring where D&I is situated within an organisation can be a deciding factor in its success, we learnt. Thanks to its close association with talent management, diversity is often identified as a human resources issue, which can be problematic if HR is viewed as a support function. In any case, the recruitment dimension is only part of the story, and corporations should be wary of limiting the scope for cross-departmental collaboration. Whatever the reporting structure, Kepinski points out, it must not obscure ‘the multiple areas of impact potential on other parts of the organisation, such as innovation, R&D, communication, leadership development, market growth and product development or services’. We can also add legal into that mix.

Act in the middle

Our GCs shared a variety of ideas designed to encourage the flow of D&I best practice throughout the organisation. For example, the D&I committee at pharmaceutical company Sandoz has D&I champions in each function, including legal. The in-house team has built on this, says GC Barbara Levi Mager, by taking a thoughtful and inclusive approach to the role of champion. The role is rotated every two or three years to allow time for its occupant to develop a programme, but to also allow for new thinking. Positioning the job as a development opportunity is a useful way to inspire interest in the subject, while injecting freshness into the process.

At technology company Dell, EMEA GC, Benedikte Leroy, tells us that D&I is led right from the top. Founder and CEO Michael Dell chairs the global diversity council and also sits on the board of diversity non-profit Catalyst. As mentioned previously, together with that organisation, the company participates in a programme called ‘MARC’ (Men Advocating Real Change), which engages men in the gender diversity debate in order to identify unconscious bias. After rolling out training to over 2,000 leaders across the organisation, the company is now ‘training the trainers’ for all employees, and Leroy reports that 68% of people surveyed have seen a change in their leaders’ behaviours.

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Tone from the top and getting strategic buy-in

‘Throughout my career I have seen first-hand the many benefits that diverse teams can bring. Our people are our greatest asset and ensuring we have a culture in which everyone feels respected, valued and included will play a significant role in our continued success.’

Simon Levine, global co-CEO and managing partner

Extensive research has confirmed that the buy-in of a strong CEO and senior management are essential: diversity needs to sit at the top of the strategic agenda. Moreover, this needs to be genuinely and authentically communicated. A commitment to diversity and inclusion should be fundamentally part of the culture and values of the organisation. Diversity and inclusion need to be fully embedded in all processes, not inserted as add-ons or subsequent considerations. There needs to be an understanding that this is a long-term commitment, not a short-term project.

The importance of leadership and senior level sponsorship in generating broader engagement and ensuring focus on realising goals cannot be underestimated. However, harnessing diversity within teams and creating an inclusive environment is ultimately the responsibility of all partners as leaders within the firm.

Act low

But the reality is that much workplace culture manifests itself away from the eyes of middle management or those with a box in their performance appraisal form. Ian Johnson points out that ‘… the lunchroom … the water cooler or … the engineering workshop’ can all be areas where inappropriate comments flourish. In the field of LGBT diversity, this is where an ally programme can come into its own.

We heard from Kirsty Cooper that Aviva’s ally initiative has been helpful in countries which are less tolerant of LGBT identity, as well as beyond: ‘Even in countries where it is more accepted, it can be difficult for people to be completely open, and it can be a very individualistic play.’

Reconfiguring working practices


Recruitment methods can be extremely influential in the eventual make-up of the team and broader organisation. Tinna Nielsen shares with us her ideas for redesigning recruitment procedures to screen out bias. They include an anonymous application process, and task-based interviews, to counteract the traditional meeting-based scenario where unconscious biases can take precedence and experienced interviewees can impress with little hard evidence to back up claims.

Listening to all voices

Working with the assumption that bias is unavoidable, argues Nielsen, can also generate some novel approaches to workplace inclusion beyond the confines of the interview room. Diversity of thought is proven to produce better decision making, and yet groupthink can infiltrate meetings as the strongest voices dominate. Nielsen advocates changing the way meetings are facilitated in order to foster diversity of opinion and ensure that even the quietest voices are heard. One technique involves splitting the attendees into small groups, each presented with the same issue framed slightly differently. Each group is encouraged to write down their own perspectives, share, and eventually share the accumulated perspectives across all groups.

Sandoz has its own method of garnering diverse perspectives. Barbara Levi Mager describes how the company often conducts Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality tests, and uses the results to facilitate participation in meetings for those who might not ordinarily be heard. ‘Introverts sometimes need more time,’ she explains. ‘So we give more time to those who need it and, for certain topics, we may have a second meeting just to make sure everyone is on board with the decision and to give others the opportunity to speak.’ To include those participating from different geographical locations, team members make an active effort to engage those on the end of a telephone, and pay attention to time zones, avoiding culturally insensitive appointment times.

Remodelling the leadership

It became clear from our conversations with GCs that a common focus of corporate D&I initiatives has been to increase the number of women at senior leadership level, in recognition of the fact that significant numbers of women leave the workforce mid-career. But research from McKinsey’s 2013 Women Matter global survey suggests that in order to realise equality at the upper echelons of corporate life, it might be necessary to reinvent the role of leader or at least challenge traditional assumptions about the qualities necessary to be a leader. Women have been shown to differ from men in terms of leadership style, but all leadership styles are not necessarily viewed as equal in corporate life. The Women Matter survey showed that while 84% of women strongly agreed that they could lead as effectively as men at senior management level, only 43% of men felt the same. The survey appears to imply that women have internalised this message, with many indicating a belief that the way they lead is not recognised as being as efficient as the dominant (male) model.

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The gender challenge

‘I think that in the legal market, the real gender challenge is having women at management level (ie partnership and law firm senior management). DLA Piper is making the right steps in that respect and I have always felt strong support in my management role. I also think that it is very important to have female role models in management positions. This helps the younger generation to understand that it is an achievable goal that does not require dramatic personal sacrifices (I am a proud mother of young twins), and also that they may have access to helpful mentoring in their careers from other women in senior management positions.’

Pilar Menor, country managing partner, Spain

The pipeline

Work is being done to build confidence among both genders in the efficacy of diverse styles. We heard several examples of workplace rethinks that aim to be inclusive of women’s contributions to the leadership table.

Role models are accepted among our group of GC interviewees as a useful way of enabling women to project their ambitions towards leadership. Benedikte Leroy recalls that although the numbers are different now, when she joined Dell there were relatively few women in senior positions. It was therefore important that those in position were visible and active in spreading the message about what it took to reach that level – and exploding the myths. ‘You don’t have to act like a man; you can bring yourself to work as you are,’ she tells us.

In the absence of widespread availability or take-up of shared parental leave in Europe, enabling women to raise families and pursue fulfilling career paths could help stem the flow of expensively-trained, productive and value-adding members of staff out of the talent pool.

Some of our interviewees argue that introducing flexible working as a workplace norm rather than the exception could be key to retaining women after motherhood. They share departmental initiatives such as part-time working, remote working, and mentoring programmes to enable team members to integrate after maternity leave.

For example, at Nilfisk in Denmark, Lena Ernlund Malmberg is a strong advocate for the introduction of flexible working practices for all genders as an issue of modernity as much as diversity. Technological innovations like smart devices, email and internet calls have made remote working an increasingly accepted feature of modern business, and presenteeism and the traditional working day seem increasingly anachronistic for both male and female workers. ‘…If you’re flexible, allow people to go and pick up their kids from school and work via different platforms, I bet you that most employees (men or women) will not have any problem with opening their laptop at night when the kids are asleep,’ says Malmberg. ‘I am a hard-working woman, and if you give me just a little bit of flexibility, I will give you tonnes in return.’

So far, so gender-focused. But Donny Ching describes how a diverse leadership can have a ripple effect throughout an organisation for differences of all types. ‘When I first became general counsel I received a lot of congratulations from our staff in Malaysia, but what surprised me were all the messages I received from other groups. I had become a diversity beacon because I was a business leader who was not white… For example, I have spoken on issues such as gender, sexual orientation, disability, generations, nationalities etc in my role as a diverse leader propelling the whole D&I effort forwards,’ he says.

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Role models and mentoring

Research indicates that role models are crucial – particularly for people from under-represented groups. However, one of the challenges in a sector lacking diversity at more senior levels is a shortage of positive role models with whom junior lawyers can identify. Resource groups (sometimes referred to as affinity groups or network groups) provide an effective route to highlight visible role models – both within an organisation, and externally, via education outreach and recruitment activities.

Mentoring programmes have multiple benefits over and above assisting and encouraging personal development. They can improve individual and organisational performance, increase employee satisfaction, enrich the experience of new recruits, make an organisation more appealing in the external market and develop future leaders.

For mentees, the relationship provides an opportunity to receive career guidance outside of the supervisor-employee relationship. Additionally, it presents an opportunity to develop professional skills, such as networking, business development, preparation for promotion, and discussion of work issues such as work-life balance. For mentors, the relationship offers the opportunity to develop their own skills, such as coaching, and broadens their own network and perspectives.

However, whilst mentoring is an important development tool, in order to increase the diversity of the talent pipeline a culture of sponsorship must be established. Sponsors will advocate for individuals and put them forward for development opportunities – having a senior sponsor who will champion you and your development can be the differentiator in terms of career progression.

Interestingly, we also heard how mentors did not always have to be diverse themselves, or diverse in the same way as their mentees, in order to have impact. For example, in a male-dominated profession (at the upper levels, at least) men often hold the balance of power when it comes to the careers of younger women. But many of our female in-house counsel speak of the powerful impact male mentors have made on their careers, particularly when mentoring evolved into sponsorship.

There was some discussion around the value of formal mentoring programmes versus informal mentoring relationships. There seems to be a place for both, with the more informal approach perhaps more likely to yield a deeper, longer-term relationship, while formal programmes allow for more precise alignment of skills and requirements. This is seen with Dell’s online mentor search platform, ‘Mentor Connect’, where mentees with specific skills requirements are ‘matched’ with appropriate mentors.

Ensuring an age-diverse workforce is another means of effective transfer of skills and experience between generations of employees, and one which was front of mind for BMW when opening a new plant near Leipzig to manufacture cars: ‘…We didn’t want the workforce aging at the same rhythm,’ says GC Juergen Reul.

Finally, structured, long-term, and regularly revisited development plans for staff with high potential were agreed to be effective, as was a departmental mindset that encourages movement to encourage growth and the development of new skills, rather than seeking to keep high-performing individuals where they are. When combined with a diversity focus, the effects can be powerful. Benedikte Leroy described Dell’s ‘Advancing Your Career as a Woman’ programme, which provides leadership training for women identified as having high potential. When roles come up, these women are encouraged and sometimes even nudged if they – as is often the case with female leadership candidates – don’t initially push themselves forward.