Adopt These Strategies to Help Advance Diversity

Across the U.S. organizations are seeking diversity of culture, thought, race, ethnicity, gender, etc., to bring enhanced decision making to their boards and C-suites. Yet the reality often falls far short of the aspirations.

This was uncovered by a 2011 survey sponsored by Witt/Kieffer in partnership with the Institute for Diversity in Health Management, Asian Health Care Leaders Association, National Association of Health Services Executives and the National Forum for Latino Healthcare Executives.

Organizations that embrace and are proactive in promoting robust diversity initiatives are better positioned to attract and retain highly skilled leaders who bring cultural competence to the table. Here are some challenges faced by the health care industry as well as tips to move the diversity dial, but the lessons apply to any industry.

Think of diversity as a must-have business builder. Respondents from the national survey of health care executives said that diverse leadership leads to measurable business benefits, such as improved patient satisfaction, successful decision making, reaching strategic goals, improved clinical outcomes and a stronger bottom line.

Organizations in all industries must adopt a more strategic viewpoint on diversity and applying its richness to achieve a superior market position. Diversity has become a business requisite that delivers a decisive competitive advantage.

Close the minority leadership gap. While the survey respondents attested to the business value of diversity, only 13 percent agreed that the ethnic/racial leadership gap has been effectively closed during the last five years. Only one in four (24 percent) agreed that health care organizations give minorities equal consideration in candidate slates for leadership positions.

The outlook is even bleaker among minority respondents, with only 9 percent of African-American respondents and one in five Hispanic and Asian respondents agreeing. This frustration was voiced by an Asian respondent: “I am trying to get past the ‘bamboo ceiling.’ We get to a certain level and then stop. We are overrepresented in certain levels [such as] science, engineering, but underrepresented in other areas [such as] business, leadership boards.”

Organizations need to align their leadership pipeline and hiring practices with their strategic diversity goals to see improvement on this front.

First get support from the top. Survey respondents stressed the importance of commitment from the board and C-suite. Organizations must embed diversity in their strategic framework and hold leaders accountable for its actualization — then they will be successful in achieving their diversity goals. Building on that as a base, organizations can go on to become magnets for attracting top-echelon female and minority leaders to their boardrooms and C-suites. When their reputation for commitment to diversity becomes known, in-demand minority leaders choose them as workplaces where they can thrive.

Use mentoring as a best practice. Survey respondents identified best practices that lead to the advancement of minority executives: mentoring, programs to expose young people to health care careers, sensitizing management, developing cultural sensitivity initiatives and communicating diversity initiatives to employees.

Mentoring emerged as the No. 1 practice, and it applies to everyone — from the board chairman to middle managers. Organizations must set up structures and processes to mentor minority up-and-comers with an eye toward placing them into the leadership pipeline.

Deploy diversity leaders strategically. An organization’s chief diversity officer may be the strongest ally in helping board members and the C-suite to achieve diversity goals. During 2011, Witt/Kieffer conducted a national survey of CDOs working within universities and colleges and found that their role is expanding and their work is more strategic and policy-oriented than originally conceived. Many of these leaders are looking for even more substantial opportunities, with 79 percent saying they would move for an expanded role and greater support within the institutional culture and 76 percent would move to realize greater integration of the diversity plan within the administrative structure.

All survey respondents reported the ability to influence the strategic plan of their institution, another indication of the part diversity plays in an organization’s vision and growth. This strategic focus can be effectively deployed when the senior diversity officer has a measurable and sustainable impact on decision making.

James W. Gauss is chairman of board services at executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. He can be reached at