From aspirations to bottom line: Why strong leadership matters in DE&I

Strong leadership is crucial for organisations to leverage DE&I to drive innovation, productivity, and employee engagement.
By: | June 13, 2024

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) have evolved from aspirational ideals to essential business strategies. In today’s competitive landscape, organisations that foster a culture of belonging reap numerous benefits: a more innovative workforce, increased productivity, and a happier, more engaged employee base. Achieving these benefits, however, requires strong leadership.

Sophie Guerin, Global Head of Inclusion, Wealth and Personal Banking, HSBC, emphasised transparency, prioritisation, and clear communication as key leadership behaviours. “Leaders should be transparent about their D&I journey,” she told HRM Asia. “They should share what they are learning, how they are driving accountability, and discuss both successes and areas needing improvements.” This openness encourages a culture of dialogue and experimentation, which is essential for creating an inclusive environment.

In Guerin’s perspective, leaders must prioritise D&I as a top-of-mind concern rather than simply talking about it. To ensure D&I discussions are not relegated to an afterthought or separate meetings, integrating them into the core business agenda is an effective yet simple strategy, she suggested.

Moreover, Guerin highlighted the importance of leaders advocating for D&I by understanding its business impact. By articulating how D&I drives innovation, boosts productivity, and reduces turnover, leaders can embed its importance within the organisation. “D&I is good for business and our people,” she said. “Business leaders should be comfortable and well versed in how this specifically shows up in their businesses and industry.”

“D&I is good for business and our people. Business leaders should be comfortable and well versed in how this specifically shows up in their businesses and industry.” – Sophie Guerin, Global Head of Inclusion, Wealth and Personal Banking, HSBC

Curtis Baker, Regional Inclusion, Diversity and Employee Experience, Asia-Pacific, Dow, echoed this sentiment. He emphasised the power of leaders’ personal connections to DE&I, explaining, “Leaders often underestimate the power and influence they have in this space. Not just those with titles but also influential workplace figures. Leaders can set the tone through action, creating a psychologically safe space that welcomes discussions, questions, and diverse opinions.”

Baker suggested that leaders can demonstrate their commitment to DE&I through vulnerability and personal connection. By sharing their own experiences, such as having LGBTQ+ family members or facing rejection based on gender or ethnicity, leaders show empathy and understanding. “Everyone has a diversity story. Embrace it and let it connect you to the purpose of DE&I,” he added.

Making DE&I tangible: Walking the walk

Commitment from the top is crucial. Dow integrates into its core by tying 20% of the annual performance award directly to DE&I goals. This commitment from the top, starting with CEO Jim Fitterling, underscored its importance. Dow’s policies, such as equitable parental leave, reflect employee needs and promote an inclusive culture. “We removed the barriers of maternity/paternity leave, making it 16 weeks of fully paid leave for all parents. This policy was developed by listening to employees’ needs,” Baker shared.

“It’s the approach of Listen. Learn. Lead. This is also seen in our annual employee engagement survey and then quarterly survey tracking how our employees are feeling inspired, proud, and belong. Not just surveying but then taking action based on those results and being transparent.”

“Everyone has a diversity story. Embrace it and let it connect you to the purpose of DE&I.” – Curtis Baker, Regional Inclusion, Diversity and Employee Experience, Asia-Pacific, Dow

Similarly, at HSBC, Guerin has spearheaded the 4 Components of Success (4CoS) framework within the Wealth and Personal Banking business. This framework ensures D&I is a shared responsibility across the organisation.

She explained, “The 4CoS framework articulates a vision for D&I that optimises how we serve our Customers, Colleagues, and Community through our Culture of Inclusion. Each member of our business leadership team is responsible for customising their strategy around the 4CoS framework and holding their next-level leaders responsible for driving and embedding clearly defined measurable outcomes. In this way, D&I shows up consistently across the employee experience, be it from how they think about customers, the way we think about talent, how we engage in our communities, and the behaviours that we encourage day to day.”

“Our approach ensures that this is not a one-size-fits-all strategy; rather, it is customised, led, and owned by business leaders at multiple levels of the organisation, so it’s appropriate and meaningful for the areas of business and region.”

Building the skills for an inclusive future

Leaders need specific competencies to effectively promote D&I. Guerin emphasised curiosity, listening, and reflective thinking. “Having a healthy curiosity balanced with respect allows one to listen, learn, and be open to experiences different from what you may have experienced,” she explained. By actively listening and pausing before reacting, leaders can better understand diverse perspectives and build bridges between different viewpoints. This approach is crucial in addressing unconscious bias and fostering thoughtful consideration of alternative approaches.

READ MORE: Beyond hiring: How inclusion fuels innovation

Dow’s Baker highlighted the need for cultural awareness, emotional intelligence, and effective communication. Understanding different communication styles and decision-making processes is essential, especially in diverse regions. Leaders must empathise with team members from diverse backgrounds and communicate transparently and inclusively.

“It’s more than just a training on unconscious bias,” he concluded. “It’s about creating a workplace where conscious inclusion is a cultural expectation, not an add-on. Leaders must create psychologically safe workplaces and be accountable for maintaining them.”