light bulb moment Unconscious bias leadership

Case studies

Great leaders who make the mix work

United States case studies, March 2014

How do you move from recognising the value of diversity to executing it? Most organisations recognise the benefits of embracing diversity and inclusion, but many still struggle with the execution. This leaves leaders with the ultimate challenge of figuring out how they can successfully make the diversity ‘mix’ work in their organisation. This article explores why 24 CEO’s identify diversity and inclusion as strategic and how they go about executing on this priority. By Juliet Bourke - Consulting, Partner.

The value of diversity and inclusion has been well discussed and debated. For organisations that embrace the potential of diversity and inclusion to improve business outcomes, it is often a challenge to know how to shift from vision to execution. What are the most effective ways to embed diverse and inclusive practices within an organisation?

Leaders play a significant role in both driving and supporting inclusive behaviours. Professor Boris Groysberg and Ms Katherine Connolly (Harvard Business School, USA) interviewed 24 CEOs around the globe and across several industries to understand their personal drivers, common obstacles to success, and recommended practices for bringing diversity to the forefront in their organisations. 


This research aimed to better understand how diversity becomes a significant part of a CEO’s agenda. There were three elements to investigating this question:

1.  Why business leaders had made diversity a strategic priority for their organisations?
2.  How the CEOs executed their goals?
3.  What has been the impact on their organisations?

light bulb moment Unconscious bias leadership


Groysberg and Connolly conducted interviews with 24 CEOs from different industries across the globe that are recognised as being committed to diversity. Participants included CEOs from Telstra, General Mills, Sodexo, Bank of America, Nissan Motor Company and Duke Energy.


Key findings from the research were that:

  • The business case plus: Diversity and inclusion was a priority for the CEOs because there was both a business and moral imperative to do so
  • It’s in the system: In progressing the diversity agenda in their own organisations there were still a number of significant institutional barriers which needed to be acknowledged and overcome
  • People and practices: Leveraging diversity and inclusion involves looking at both the mix of people in your organisation and how to best make that mix work through effective organisational practices.

On the whole, the CEO’s believed there is both a business imperative – largely focused around remaining competitive in an increasingly diverse world with diverse customers—and a moral imperative—largely driven by heightened awareness and insights acquired through their personal experiences – to making diversity and inclusion a priority.

While organisations have progressed in leveraging diversity and inclusion, several obstacles still remain. Many of these come from unconscious biases embedded in a person or organisational culture. Many of the CEOs recognised moments where they had unintendedly discriminated against women, despite being champions of diversity in their companies. The CEOs in this study highlighted five key barriers to success, including:

1.  Difficultly breaking into the ‘good old boys club’. CEOs observed that women are still excluded from key conversations and networking opportunities. This results in missed opportunities for women to form relationships and build their reputation or brand. Seven CEOs commented that this exclusionary behaviour remained a persistent obstacle for women in climbing the corporate ladder, noting that these behaviours may be unconscious in nature and reinforced by the organisation’s culture.

2.  Undervaluing diverse individual’s contributions. One CEO recounted an incident where three women made a suggestion in a meeting and were unnoticed by the CEO. Then a male colleague made a comment in a similar vein, which he then acknowledged and heeded. The women informed him of his behaviour after the meeting, creating a learning moment for the CEO.

3.  Relying on unexamined assumptions. Relying on assumptions (e.g. women’s willingness to travel when they have a family at home) and stereotypes (e.g. the same behaviour—toughness—is assessed as positive for a man, but negative for a woman) unfairly limit women from opportunities for which they are ready and/or be interested.

4.  Geographic immobility of women as they increase in seniority. CEOs commented that immobility limits women’s opportunities for broadening their network and exposure to challenging, career-building experiences. However, in some cases the lack of openness to move may be based on assumption, rather than the individual’s actual interests.

5.  The challenging balance between work and family. This is an obstacle especially when taking time off to start a family and is compounded by individuals receiving insufficient support after re-joining the workforce.

While many CEO comments focused on women in the workplace, it is easy to draw parallels to other underrepresented groups in organisations (e.g., racial, ethnic, sexual orientation).


To overcome these obstacles, the research identified eight practices CEOs deemed most effective for harnessing diversity and inclusion in their organisations. These included:

1.  Measure it —CEOs embraced measurement in different ways, such as focusing on workforce composition (e.g. demographics of leadership team); advancement (e.g. promotion rates for different groups); engagement surveys (e.g. level of commitment towards the organisation), or diversity and inclusion diagnostics (e.g. assessing factors such as fair treatment; workplace respect; opportunities to succeed; degree of support offered). The bottom line in many organisations is that “what gets measured gets done”.

2.  Promote and enforce accountability — The CEOs interviewed discussed several ways in which they held individuals accountable for embracing diversity and inclusion in their organisations. Some examples included making diversity and inclusion part of managers’ performance objectives and/or individual development plans. Some CEOs also advocated for including it as a core element in decisions regarding cultural fit, salary and promotions.

3.  Allow flexible work arrangements — Providing and supporting flexible work arrangements sends the message to employees that you value their lives and contributions inside and outside the office. The CEOs interviewed as part of this research referenced the importance of practices such as flexible hours, on-site childcare and on boarding support after a leave of absence.

4.  Leverage a diverse pool of candidates — If you want to leverage the mix, first you need to create the mix. This means focusing on recruitment, retention and promotions. CEOs approached these activities in different ways and with varying degrees of success. At General Mills, they start by looking at the level of diversity in the candidate pool and those who receive a final offer. They also analyse promotion rates by level, retention rates by group and reasons for turnover. The CEO examines this data personally and uses it to develop action plans addressing any weaknesses identified.

5.  Educate leaders — The CEOs interviewed in this study advocated for investing in existing talent early in one’s leadership career. Some also recommended educating all employees on unconscious biases and how it can manifest in our daily lives (e.g. assumption we make; impact on decision making).

6.  Sponsor and mentor employees — Some CEOs encouraged the use of employee resource groups, affiliation groups or networks to support and promote diversity. The CEO of WellPoint is directly involved with these groups, providing them with real-work assignments, framing their effort in a business context.

7.  Lead by example — Leaders need to walk the talk, ensuring their organisation reflects the composition and behaviours they hope to instil across the organisation. The CEO of Kaiser Permanente, however, warns of the damage tokenism can have on the diversity agenda if people are promoted based on their classification or minority characteristics rather than their ability.

8.  Make the Chief Diversity Officer count — increasingly organisations are appointing Chief Diversity Officers, or similar executive positions. These positions often focus on areas such as, recruitment and retention, advancement, legal compliance, marketing innovation, and ethics, as well as leading and championing change.

Half of CEOs interviewed strongly believed that setting the tone and demonstrating their commitment to diversity and inclusion was key for creating an inclusive culture that permeated throughout the organisation.

Whilst obstacles remain, the CEOs opined that their organisations are making great strides towards instilling diversity and inclusion as a core part of an organisation’s culture. The 24 participating CEOs provided clear insights on practices that enable them to execute on their diversity goals. The challenge now is embedding these and other practices in our own organisations. How will you make the mix work? 


To read the full transcript, see Boris Groysberg and Katherine Connolly. "Great Leaders Who Make the Mix Work." Harvard Business Review 91, no. 9 (September 2013): 68–76.



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