12 top tips for leading diverse teams

Awareness of diversity issues is no longer a choice for leaders. Here's how HR can help leaders be more sensitive

A decade ago HR still had to provide the business case for diversity. Now that the positive impacts of diverse teams are well recognised, the profession’s biggest challenge is supporting leaders to get the best out of people who may be very unlike themselves.

With workforces becoming ever more varied, here are 12 tips for developing your leaders to deal with the challenges, and embrace the opportunities, that come with leading diverse teams…

  1. Embed good practices into your day-to-day processes so diversity is automated. Frances Duffy, VP HR at Capgemini, uses the hotel industry as inspiration: “Hotels wanted people to turn the lights off when they left their rooms, but often guests didn’t. So they started using technology that meant when you took the key card out the lights went out. Similarly HR can build-in change, like anonymising CVs, so leaders don’t even have to think about it.”
  2. Integrate diversity-related KPIs into performance reviews. “We need to measure results and have accountability, which enables progress,” says Helen Tucker, HR director for Northern Europe at Procter & Gamble. Nestlé’s global head of diversity and inclusion Sonia Studer agrees, explaining that the company has a leadership framework “on which every leader is evaluated”. It includes measures such as being “open-minded towards new and different ways of doing things” and not dismissing “others’ views even when they are contrary to their own”. The approach is clearly working, as Nestlé was ranked 13th in Thomson Reuters’ D&I Index, launched in September.
  3. Inspire leaders to take responsibility, then action, on the back of their own biases. While most agree you need policies, guidelines and targets to provide a robust framework, genuine openness to diversity comes from an individual’s intrinsic motivation, rather than adherence to rules. You can kickstart this personal journey by helping leaders identify their unconscious biases. Recognise that this may be a difficult experience for many and could unearth some uncomfortable truths. Support them through this by reframing the process as a learning opportunity to become a more effective leader. “I’ve seen people who have been so concerned about their results on unconscious bias tests that we’ve organised for them to have extra sessions with our diversity trainers,” says Leigh Lafever-Ayer, HR director, UK and Ireland at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. “They’ve then talked about what they need to do to improve their leadership. That’s where it gets really fascinating; when they make the connection between diversity and leadership and take it seriously. Some, of course, never get to that because they treat diversity as a tick-box exercise.”
  4. Encourage an ongoing growth mindset, rather than a tick-box training mentality. It is not enough simply to offer a one-off unconscious bias workshop. Put your money where your mouth is and invest in ways to tell the stories of your diverse workforce through – for example – film, magazine articles, social media campaigns, cultural ‘cook offs’, events, debates, themed weeks, canteen displays and team-building activities. “We tell stories about our successes; it’s part of our constant communication. We don’t treat it [diversity and inclusion] as a project but make it intrinsic to how we do things,” says Christiane Schumacher, HR director of Roche UK, which was ranked number one in Thomson Reuters’ index.
  5. Emphasise the importance of not only telling these stories, but really listening to them when they are being told. This is key to making people feel truly accepted and understood. “The most successful leaders are able to put their preconceptions and sense of authority to one side, and deeply listen to the perspectives of the people they manage,” says Rochelle Chopamba SVP HR EMEA at Astellas Pharma, which is fifth in Thomas Reuters’ ranking. “The more diverse the team the more important listening to each other becomes.”
  6. Long after they’ve done unconscious bias training, keep motivating leaders to sweat the small stuff. This, as Deloitte’s managing partner for talent Emma Codd says, could be as simple as turning left instead of your usual right to assign a piece of work. “It’s about understanding that bias exists, then knowing to challenge yourself and your norms,” she says. Another great way to “challenge a norm” is reverse mentoring, particularly when a senior leader is paired with a much younger employee.
  7. Actively involve business leaders in initiatives so they are not seen as led by HR. Codd says: “Too many programmes sit in HR. This has to be about the business. About who you are and how you interact. It cannot be owned by HR, though HR has to enable it. I’m a talent partner without an HR background, which has allowed me to get messages across.”
  8. Ensure leaders are well-briefed on what the workforce is thinking and feeling. This means not only doing regular surveys and focus groups to keep your finger on the pulse, but also interrogating the data so you understand what is going on. “HR can leverage data and analytics to better understand employee needs and HR has access to the latest information on how the world of work is evolving,” says Catherine Kemp, VP, UK market HR at American Express. “What are the things employees value? How do millennials approach work differently to their co-workers who may be gen x or baby boomers? What are we hearing through our employee networks that is important to our staff or we need to address further?”
  9. Encourage them to think beyond the obvious demarcations of diversity like gender and ethnicity. Progressive companies are highlighting all types of difference such as thinking styles, socioeconomic status and work/life balance. PwC is even starting to talk about ‘neurodiversity’ and BNY Mellon considers level of ‘global acumen’ and ‘tech savvy’ as markers of diversity. “Picture an iceberg. Only one-tenth is visible. The same is true of human beings. We look at all those things that make up an individual,” says Joanna Symes, EMEA head of diversity and inclusion at BNY Mellon. PwC’s head of people Laura Hinton agrees: “We’re not moving the dial nearly as far and as quickly as we should be. We need to move beyond the obvious.”
  10. Once they have got their head around embracing a diverse mindset, move them up to the next level to realise that, as Codd says: “you can have a diverse team but if it isn’t inclusive you’re not going to get the best out of people”. This means leaders have to not only welcome difference, but show they truly value it through adapting their leadership style accordingly. Why? Because team members will perform better if they feel comfortable being themselves at work, which they are more likely to do if their boss speaks to them in a way that suits them (rather than sticking rigidly to a one-size-fits-all model).
  11. Make clear to leaders that you’re striving to create a ‘call out’ culture where employees feel empowered to challenge each other’s point of view without fear of repercussion. “It’s so business-critical to have these conversations,” says Lafever-Ayer. And there are practical ways HR can help leaders here. Isabel Naidoo, SVP talent at FIS Global, suggests to leaders that they “ask a trusted adviser on their team to help flag when they may make an assumption that has an impact on others. You can have a code word or hand signal that gives you pause for thought and helps you reposition, even in the middle of a meeting.”
  12. Coach leaders in distress tolerance. Reassure them that feeling uncomfortable is normal. It’s part of the learning process. As Schumacher says: “Diversity means difference, difference means potentially different views, different understandings, different values, which can create conflict. HR needs to help leaders when the conflicts arise; hold the mirror up to leaders about their inclusiveness.” Hinton goes further. She tells leaders that “if you’re not feeling uncomfortable you are not having edgy enough conversations.” HR should also reassure leaders they are playing the long game and leading diverse teams successfully is not a challenge to be solved overnight.