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How to lead your business to higher profits and innovation through implementation of a deep-rooted diversity strategy  

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Proof points abound to show increased profit and innovation happens as a direct result of investment in an effective DE&I strategy. Despite this, it remains hard to implement.

Read Uspire’s guide to understand the most frequent sticking points which prevent DE&I initiatives rooting and develop a 12-point plan approach for success.  

By Colin Wright | Uspire Chair

The topic of diversity and inclusion is a challenging subject but what is most alarming about this issue when you look back at its chequered history and ask yourself this simple question.  Why does it take high profile events, scandal, unnecessary fatalities, or celebrity led campaigns to just do the right thing and follow a true non-judgemental moral compass?

To consider the way forward and promote the development of the right culture of diversity and inclusion in the workplace its only appropriate to look back at some of the challenges that race, sexual orientation and gender have faced over the years.  Undoubtedly, we are making progress, but we are still surprised even today by some of the headlines we read or observations we make at work or in society.

One of the least acknowledged fights for equality and inclusion was the children's crusade in 1963, Birmingham, Alabama.  They overcame the cultural fear that was embedded in Southern society since slavery.  Thousands of children gathered at the Baptist church in place of their parents, who, under Alabama law and social oppression, would be subject to severe penalties like loss of job and imprisonment if they protested against the racist and unjust segregation laws of the State.  Many children left their schools ,some as young as eight years old, to join the march.  In response the commissioner for public safety ordered police to use dogs, high pressure fire hoses and batons to break up the crowd of children.  This atrocity created the publicity that broke the barrier to equality and social justice without realising at the time children like Cynthia Levinson became the pivotal point that caused changes to take place in society, internationally people were observing the treatment of these children and demanding change.

JFK then in its wake established new federal civil rights legislation explaining that it was not a political issue, but a moral issue and he outlawed racial segregation.

Now let me take you back to a personal experience from the late eighties and working in the confectionary industry.  At the tender age of 26, appointed the site director for a medium sized enterprise which gave me the responsibility for all parts of the business except sales, marketing, and finance.  Having grown up in a mixed-race comprehensive school, enjoying a great cross section of friends, this was a normal environment.  Now in the artisan world of sugar confectionary without me knowing existed an unwritten code.  This was a male dominated environment, and a true craft.  Large bowls of boiling sugar were flavoured, coloured and tempered on cooking tables by hand.  Men made the confectionary and women operated the wrapping machines, and the wage structure was heavily weighted towards the male dominated jobs.  We also had only one black person employed by the company a lovely man called Leroy whose job it was to take the colours and flavours to the production lines for the master confectioners to mix into the boiling sugars.

During my early months I asked the obvious question why had no women ever applied for the master confectioner jobs and if Leroy had ever been trained to become a confectioner.  Not surprisingly the response was “no it’s not womens’ work because the sugar mass is too heavy for them and they will burn their soft hands”.  Apparently, Leroy was “not very bright and could not be trained to the required standard”.  So, at 26 going on 27 what do you do when faced with such an obviously inappropriate but engrained management response?  Well hopefully and thanks to my upbringing I followed my values.

Firstly, with HR we introduced a women’s master sugar confectionary programme. Unfortunately, we had no applicants in the first 3 months.  However, several months later following encouragement a group of three women applied for the programme. I know and suspect they got considerable abuse from male colleagues and only one, Joyce, survived the programme because she was a robust character.  The whole initiative was surrounded by union officials threatening work to rule, apparently it was a divisive strategy by me to lower the wages of men rather than allowing women to earn the same wage!

I moved on after a couple of years to a new opportunity but when I spoke to old colleagues from the business the department then had four female master confectioners.  As for Leroy this was a less successful outcome in my eyes.  Fortunately, I was able to bring about change when the production team were overwhelmed by the sales volumes.  Our pipeline with key customers had taken off and was challenging the capacity and resource capability.  The team were under pressure and we brainstormed how to accelerate the training programme and get more resource available for weekend overtime production.  I suggested everyone in ancillary roles who were familiar with the working environment and health and safety conditions. Several people were mentioned as candidates but not Leroy. In the end I proposed him and insisted that he be given a chance. It turned out that Leroy who had worked for years carrying these flavours and colours to the line was a natural he had just learnt from years of observation what to do. However, two things happened that I regret as soon as volumes returned to normal Leroy was never again asked to work on the production lines.  I also discovered that he had not even been paid the increased wage when working on the lines. Six months later Leroy left the business and moved his family to Alfreton where he had got a job working at Thorntons.  I cannot help thinking that he was subjected to unpleasant treatment and seen as “bosses’ favourite” which made life increasingly difficult for him.

The history of great sacrifices and bravery should always be referenced when dealing with the challenges of diversity and inclusion.

Nelson Mandela’s fight for democracy and inclusion will never be forgotten.  He stood against the National Party white only government and fought against the racial segregation policy introduced in the 1940’s.  Serving 27 years in prison knowing that his captors had a deep-rooted racial bias his humility and forgiveness held no boundaries.  He is quite rightly seen as an icon for social justice. He received over 250 honours and the Nobel Peace Prize.

Some of his quotes were so inspirational.

“Difficulties break some people but make others.  No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying only if you are armed with hope and belief can you rise above and be liberated”.

“When people are determined they can overcome anything, and human goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished”.

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived.  It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead”.

Could you have a better vision for a corporate diversity and inclusion strategy?

Despite DE&I having been firmly on the corporate agenda for a decade now, stats are still disappointing.  

In the US, Google’s employees are 69% male overall with only 2% Black, and 4% Latino.

The Equality Group FTSE 100 CEO Diversity Data report carried out in July 2023 found there are more CEOs named Simon and Andrew than the total number of female FTSE 100 CEOs. Meanwhile, there are almost as many Simons as there are companies run by ethnic minority CEOs.

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s I can remember the unpleasant rhetoric surrounding the likes of Billy Jean King and Martina Navratilova which was disgraceful.  I recently thoroughly enjoyed the film “Battle of the Sexes”.  She was a remarkable woman who used her celebrity status to promote diversity and equality in a constructive and determined manner.  The catalyst for addressing the pay gap and open recognition of gender diversity.  She stated that “women get attention only when they step into the men’s arena and that’s sad” and boldly aired this opinion at a time less open than today which was “Everyone has people in their lives that are gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual.  They may not want to admit it, but I guarantee they know somebody”.

BJK constantly battled with the bias opinion of gender meritocracy back in the 70’s.  Even today that issue is contested. A Fortune 1000 survey in 2009 asked organisations if they have an embedded meritocracy system where people are rewarded, hired, and promoted based on their abilities.  All the board members of those companies said yes.  A follow up survey with employees from those companies in 2010 where half of the population is female found that only 15% of all executive positions were held by women.

When women were asked why they thought this was the case, they responded that it was due to lack of opportunities for promotion and respect.  In 2017, 45 top female presenters wrote to the BBC director to complain about the gender pay gap.

Notably not one man had supported them or signed the letter because “it was a female issue”.  So, it was left for the women to fight the battle without any participation from men who were benefiting from pay disparity.

Let's consider the definitions of these two important terms.


This is the broad definition of how we all differ, and it should include everyone.  Not only the obvious visible differences like, nationality, ethnicity, age gender and noticeable disabilities, but also less obvious differences.  These include religion, sexual orientation, heritage, social class and unseen disabilities, the way we think, education and family status.  It needs to embrace not only the working environment but also recognise the international framework and where your employees choose to call home.


For leaders, this harnesses humility and recognition. It's about celebrating differences and promoting a culture in the workplace where these differences can thrive.  Values are fundamental, everyone should feel respected, engaged, supported, listened to, encouraged, and be given the opportunity to develop their skills to the best of their ability.

Over the past decade we have experienced a more proactive approach in organisations, the evidence of diversity and inclusion strategies emerging across the business world is long overdue and the quality is significantly improving.

In the words of Verna Myers, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance”.

Believe it or not diversity in the workplace was being discussed and debated back in the 1940’s in fact in America President Truman issued the first order to desegregate the army.  In the 1960’s the topic is more front of mind and organisations are starting to respond to the pressure of civil rights movement.

The main barrier to development even right up to 2010 was being able to understand the real value of such initiatives.

So does diversity add commercial value?

Well, McKinsey’s 2014 report Diversity Matters was one of the first to provide solid commercial evidence to support the undeniable “moral initiative” that leaders should embrace.

It showed that highly diverse companies are 35% more likely to enjoy above industry average returns than their less diverse competitors.  Should that really be a surprise because in the same report it identified that women and minority groups make the majority of consumer decisions, therefore logic suggests that companies that better represent these groups will be better at understanding the customer and therefore growing their business.

Other research by Boston Consulting Group indicates that more culturally diverse and inclusive companies have greater creativity and innovation characteristics.  Diversity jolts us into a more cognitive state of action because it creates an environment of more alternative and unexpected points of view.  The report determined that more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation.

In a survey by PWC interviewing 410 CEOs from 62 different countries the commercial argument could not be more powerful.

The chart below shows that in the opinions of these executives a strategy to promote diversity and inclusion would potentially improve company performance by between 64% and 85% on these seven measures.

So, if we have firmly established the moral requirement and now the financial impact, how can we deliver a more effective DE&I strategy? Where most organisations go wrong is that they misunderstand the complexity of the programme itself and the difficulty of overcoming the challenges of unconscious bias. Let's consider why DE&I strategies fail to achieve the progress that companies normally expect in the commercial world.

1. It requires an empathetic leadership style.
2. A vision statement from the top is just not enough. It needs the why, what, how and when. 3. The business or team fail to create a “sense of belonging” to the programme.
4. It is not aligned to the values or the brand.
5. Establishing quotas does not “automate” the inclusion and diversity process.
6. One off training is not the answer it's an ongoing process of change.
7. It must be about joy, freedom and making connections. It comes from the heart not only the mind.
8. It’s not about “fit” and “process” but about focusing on help and support.
9. Teams hold neither the courage nor authority to deal with resistance.
10. The programme becomes devalued by other business priorities.

To understand the complexity of the task let’s consider what we refer to at Uspire as the “diversity and inclusion onion”.

The layers represented in this chart help leaders to understand the detail required and the triggers that can disrupt the effectiveness of your programme. From defining the central core all the outer layers represent the awareness required to ensure that the risks of discrimination and inequality can be avoided.

The challenges of unconscious bias

This is also often referred to as implicit bias and it represents the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that everyone unconsciously attributes to another person or group of people. It fundamentally without realising, affects how they understand and engage with a person in that group. An example would be talking loudly without realising to an old person because you subconsciously assume, they might be slightly deaf. We can identify 12 types of unconscious bias.

Bias is an ever present characteristic and almost impossible to avoid. It is an inbuilt prejudice that can hold you back. It can be harmless because you grew up supporting a certain sports team and you think they are the best even though deep down you know they are not very good.

But unconscious bias can cause significant issues when developing a DE&I strategy. Here is a simple but highly impactful global example. Most people are right-handed and even today designers predominantly create products that are awkward for left-handed people like tape measures and can openers.

Things to consider when formulating your D & I programme.

Uspire recommend using this twelve point checklist for an effective DE&I implementation.

1. Gather information to understand in detail what you are dealing with.
2. Document the micro-triggers that can derail your progress use the “D & I onion”.
3. Now prepare your vision for the future and use language that represents to your audience that you embrace diversity and inclusivity.
4. Challenge and heighten the awareness of unconscious bias.
5. Educate the leadership team. What will be their needs and barriers?
6. Examine the company communication and social media feeds.
7. Implement a programme of diversity training to broaden understanding
8. Remove cultural and potential values conflict, examine the historical company foundations and cultural architecture.
9. Establish the measures and recruitment criteria that will guide the programme.
10. Promote a culture of mentorship where diversity can be coached.
11. Build in feedback mechanisms and encourage open communication.
12. Make the programme fun, embrace diversity by holding cultural events.

As a commercial leader you are on a pathway to deliver success in both human and financial capital. DE&I adds value on all levels and continues the progress we are making in society throughout the world.

Many have suffered to challenge and promote a new and inclusive way of living. One of my old mentors, an athletics coach who helped the Team GB 4 x 400 relay team to Olympic gold, gave me this advice. “We all get a chance to carry the baton through life and when we grip it tightly in our palms, we must focus on handing it firmly and smoothly onto the next person so that they can continue the race”. He went on to be one of the inspirations around the Paralympic movement and was one of the first black sprint coaches.

We began with the inspiration of people who have campaigned and suffered for diversity and inclusion so let's end this blog with their wisdom.

“My parents especially my father discussed the question of my brothers education as a matter of real importance. My education and that of my sister were scarcely discussed at all. Since then I have made speeches urging women to get their voices heard and adopt methods of rebellion such as have been adopted by men in every revolution.” - Emmeline Pankhurst

“An individual has not started living until they can rise above the narrow confines of their individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” - Martin Luther King

“It is great that women are coming out to demand rights, they are marching. My message is for them to keep standing up for those who are oppressed, the poor, the disenfranchised, to never be scared of those in power and give into their intimidation. We campaign for equality and pray for change.” – Veeru Kholi – Present day female activist born into Pakistani Bondage.

For further inspiration try the following books :-

The Memo by Minda Harts

Blindspot by Mahzarin R Banaji

This Chair Rocks by Ashton Applewhite

For those of you with young children or for your own evaluation :-

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold

A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara

Lovely by Jess Hong

Separate is Never Equal by Sylvia Mendez

Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson

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