Farrah Qureshi, CEO, Global Diversity Practice

Farrah Qureshi is an award-winning pioneer in the D&I field. She discusses the evolution of diversity and inclusion within business in Europe, and what in-house lawyers can contribute to the debate.

ln Europe, diversity and inclusion takes on a cultural dimension – around identity, national culture, and languages. In the early years of the diversity and inclusion profession, issues of ethnicity and ethnic groups were less in the frame in Europe, whereas gender was much higher on the radar screen. The whole conversation, which had up until that pointbeen very North America-centric and historically more focused on compliance and race and ethnicity, had to be reconfigured. I think that the evolution of the strong business case for D&I has been very useful, and another useful idea that has leverage and currency is: who is the ‘other’? The conversation is around inclusion in particular.

We linked that idea to shrinking national populations, worldwide balance, and migration, and then I saw the focus evolve to include global leadership competencies, global conduct and international mindset. I had a client who said that they’d got 70 nationalities in their business, so they didn’t need to think about international mindset. They were looking to expand globally, into Asia and Africa. So my next conversation was: tell me about your leadership team. And they were all white, all male, and all British. So then we had a very different conversation about the message to local leaders about what it takes to get ahead. You need to have an international mindset to help you penetrate the local market, produce relevant products and connect with your clients.


If diversity and inclusion is seen as an add-on or an afterthought then that’s exactly the effect that you will get. If it’s seen as critical to business success, and to achievement of your objectives in the short term and in the long term, then that’s where you get leverage, buy-in, ownership and accountability.

When I first started in this field many years ago, ultimately my client was the diversity and inclusion director or the HR director. And I’m very mindful of a comment made by a CEO: no offence to HR, but this issue is too important to be left just to them. Underpinning that comment is that D&I needs to be integrated into every part of the organisational structure, and it needs to not be pigeonholed in a particular section. I’m very struck by the fact that now my interactions are mainly with chief executives and their leadership teams, merging diversity and inclusion into their plans, activities and their behaviours.

Their sponsorship of this issue is absolutely essential, but building their confidence and capability is also part of it. What a 21st century leader requires now is different to what was needed 10 years ago. It’s all about challenging the status quo and redefining the paradigms, but it’s also about building capability and competence so there’s a consistent messaging – that there’s an alignment between your behaviours and your practices.

When I go into a new environment, I don’t ask to look at a diversity and inclusion policy. I ask to look at the business strategy, I ask to look at the vision and the mission of the company, I ask to look at the values and also the hard and soft measures of success. Diversity and inclusion was always typically seen as a soft issue. Well, welcome to the new hard. It’s a critical business issue of the 21st century.


Traditionally, I would come across in-house lawyers when we were talking about the compliance piece. Some of our early projects came from that particular section of the organisation when a company had fallen foul of the law, there had been cases against them, or there were some risks identified by the legal counsel. Then I saw a shift. We worked on the 2012 Olympics in diversifying the supply chain, and I remember running a master class with legal counsel representing a whole range of organisations across many, many different sectors. Diversity and inclusion was beginning to be top of mind, because they could see it was a differentiator: what differentiates one company from the next company that’s bidding for work is its ability to align itself with the client’s own challenges, and show a representative team and an approach that is aligned with the client’s particular motives. Now there’s a shift in the middle, and the conversations are about innovation, better decision-making, and about reducing unconscious bias in decision-making.


We have a new client where the whole connection has come from the legal counsel. It was the legal counsel who picked up the phone and said, ‘Right, we need to drive this. I have expertise in X, Y and Z, but I need specialist expertise to come in and help me to fashion this new future in our company. I will be a prime advocate and I will seek to influence my colleagues, not from a compliance point of view, but because this is absolutely a strategic imperative, and for the future sustainability of our business.’

I’m a closet lawyer! I have an absolute passion for advocacy and for doing the right thing – the moral and the social imperative. When you look at those elements, topped with intellectual debate and having the best outcome, that’s what underpins the essence of a legal professional. They are the voice, the conscience. But what I’ve seen now is that they’re also moving towards a position where they are acting as the solution – identifying what it takes to make a difference and reduce the risk on the business. The legal counsel has the ear of the top team, the ear of the CEO. It’s an evolution of the role of legal counsel where it is much more strategic, it’s much more about the future sustainability of the business and its aspirations. We’re seeing the consequences of that.

In-house counsel can make sure that they themselves, their teams and the talent attraction strategies within their own particular department are bias-proofed, to make sure they’re getting the best talent. There’s that element of being a ‘do-as-I-do’ part of the business rather than a ‘do-as-I-say’ part, and that gives you the credibility and traction to put this issue on the radar. Then, when it comes to strategic decision-making, this is about mitigating risk and being forward-thinking, so for me that’s also where legal counsel play a part.


Traditionally D&I was seen as an HR initiative, then it went on to the strategic agenda, and now it’s going beyond the internal focus towards an external footprint. We’re a networked, sharing economy, and partnership and supplier diversity is a fundamental way that you can pass your aspirations for diversity and inclusion down the supply chain. That imperative focuses the minds of your suppliers: ‘Everybody else that’s supplying this product is supplying the same thing, but this is a competitive difference’. Supplier diversity is also a really important way of helping microbusinesses or SMEs. We know from research that many of those are minority- or women-owned, so you can absolutely contribute to the economic output of a diverse supply chain.