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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Diversity as a Leadership Competency at the Top (Part 2 of 4)

What CEOs Need to Know to Make Diversity and Inclusion Really Work

  • 9 September 2011

The ability to work across differences is a fundamental leadership competency for all top executives. What’s more, it is as concrete and measurable as any of the more familiar leadership competencies.

In Egon Zehnder’s comprehensive model of leadership, diversity constitutes one of the ten core competencies of senior executives. The model and the importance of a competency in diversity aren’t simply ideals. They are based on experience working with senior management teams across industries and on more than 25,000 management appraisals, including appraisals of CEOs, CFOs, COOs and CIOs conducted during the past five years.

The model provides a baseline measurement of how leaders evaluated as “outstanding,” “good,” and “average” scored on our scale for measuring each of the competencies. (In addition to diversity, the competencies are: results orientation, team leadership, collaboration and influencing, strategic orientation, commercial orientation change leadership developing organizational capability, customer impact, and market knowledge.)

A score at the lower end of the scale for a particular competency indicates purely reactive behaviors with short-term impact. Scores in the middle indicate more proactive behavior. A top score represents highly proactive behaviors focused on broad, long-term impact.

The differences in scores on competency in diversity – and what they mean in concrete terms for your organization – can be significant:

  • Executives who score poorly do accept the validity of other cultures and other points of view, but they don’t act on that understanding. They understand that a specific area of the business may have unique requirements both in terms of operations and of people that differ from the mainstream of the larger organization. They understand cultural differences between regions or organizations and realize that socio-political factors in other countries or organizations influence business opportunities. But they do not view tackling diversity as an imperative, and their response to it is largely passive.
  • Executives who score in the middle reaches of the scale go beyond understanding to action. They demonstrate their acceptance of other points of view by changing their own and by advocating “other” business approaches because of the perceived superiority of those approaches. Further, they get results working with diverse colleagues (“diverse” being defined in terms of the relevant difference from the majority, whatever the difference might be). Those scoring in the middle also seek out differing views and try to anticipate how diverse colleagues and groups will respond to their views. As managers, they are able to make appropriate decisions tailored to the socio-cultural circumstances in which they are operating. These are all laudable and valuable behaviors and if your company has such executives you’re fortunate.
  • Executives who score in the upper reaches of the scale possess a deep understanding of diversity of all kinds; they behave proactively to put diversity to work for the company, and they act as facilitators between differing groups and cultures. They are not only able to leverage diversity but also able to educate others in the organization about how to do so. Where there is friction they are able to guide those with differences to work together to produce results more smoothly. They understand the power of diversity both internally and in markets, and their competency in diversity is integrated with their competencies in strategic orientation and commercial orientation. As leaders they consciously use appropriate influencing approaches to negotiate across differences and agendas in order to create and maintain momentum for a common purpose.

As with any essential leadership competency, understanding the typical behaviors for each level of performance pays off in three essential ways:

  • It provides an assessment tool for CEOs and heads of HR who are looking to hire the right executives for the top team.
  • It offers an additional and increasingly important criterion that functional heads and other top leaders can use in selecting, promoting and developing team members.
    It gives executives and managers a personal development roadmap that they can use to improve their competency in diversity.

In short, diversity is every leader’s business.

Co-authored by Michel Deschapelles, formerly with Egon Zehnder (2007-2014).

Related Thinking

Small Mistakes with Big Consequences for Diversity and Inclusion (Part 1 of 4)
How CEOs Can Interview for Competency in Diversity (Part 3 of 4)
Onboarding: The First Step toward Inclusion (Part 4 of 4)

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