How do I get my CEO on board with diversity and inclusion?

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

A key enabler of any activities that address diversity and inclusion is the explicit support of senior leaders, and none is more important than that of the CEO.  When your organisation first starts to address barriers to diversity and inclusion, there is likely to be some resistance from people who are either comfortable with the way things are or don’t see any problem.  Sometimes a CEO can fall into one of these camps.

It is usually someone in the HR function who is tasked with developing and implementing diversity initiatives, and that person may also need to deal with resistance from senior leaders and others in the organisation.  In this blog post, we will look at how you can help your CEO and others to see first, the issue, and second, the benefit of addressing it.

4 practical ways to bring your CEO on the journey

It’s all in the data

First and foremost, gather, analyse and present data that will support your case.  Most senior leaders, CEOs included, respond well when they see clear evidence that an issue exists.  HR usually has responsibility for staff data, and the staff database is the first place to gather the data you need.  Reports from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Male Champions of Change and other government and non-government organisations can provide valuable background about the overall effect of diversity and inclusion (or the lack of it) on Australian businesses.  These reports also often describe initiatives that have helped to improve diversity, and these can be used to inform your own efforts.

It’s important to present data showing how other organisations in your industry or sector are dealing with diversity and inclusion.  Investing time to look through the reports available on the internet, and reading other organisations’ business publications (e.g. annual reports) and websites to understand how these issues are being addressed, is well worth the effort.

A commercial imperative

Businesses are increasingly becoming aware of the commercial benefits of having a diverse and inclusive workforce.  Research is telling us clearly that diverse and inclusive workplaces lead to improved productivity and profit.  Supply chains are also now being scrutinised for their compatibility with the diversity goals of large organisations.  For example, NAB actively works to include diverse suppliers such as businesses owned by women, Indigenous people, people with a disability and social enterprises in their supply chain.  Once this shift in procurement procedures becomes commonplace, businesses that have not effectively dealt with their own diversity and inclusion issues risk being left behind.

Diversity as a strategic initiative

Addressing diversity and inclusion issues requires more than good intentions and supportive rhetoric.  Without a visible strategic intent to be a diverse and inclusive organisation, the likelihood that initiatives will succeed is low.  Building diversity and inclusion into your strategic agenda signals to internal and external stakeholders that you are serious about fixing these problems.

Have you conducted a review of your public communications, templates, website and recruitment activities to ensure that inclusive imagery and language are included?  If not, it is recommended that addressing these key components of your public face should be an early step towards creating a more diverse and inclusive culture.

Let’s talk CEO to CEO

As most will agree, reinventing the wheel is costly and ineffective when others have already invented and refined it before you.  That’s why connecting your CEO with another who has taken action and made real progress in addressing diversity and inclusion can make a huge impact on your CEOs willingness to engage.  If the CEO you connect with happens to come from one of your clients, then the impact is likely to be even stronger.

A new CEO-led alliance – “CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion” – was recently launched in the US, with 175 companies pledging to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  Participant organisations include a number of Fortune 500 giants such as Cisco, Dow Chemical, HP, Morgan Stanley, and Merck.

In Australia, organisations such as the Male Champions of Change, Chief Executive Women and Diversity Council Australia have programs designed to promote and improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  These organisations can also help to put you in touch with other CEOs who have successfully addressed diversity and inclusion issues and can engage in conversation with your CEO.

The proof is in the pudding

Well known CEOs have this to say about diversity and inclusion:

“CEOs across the country understand this isn’t a competitive issue, but a societal issue, and together we can raise the bar for the entire business community. By sharing best known actions and programs, we are helping to create a more inclusive environment that will encourage all of us to bring our greatest talents, perspectives, and experiences to the workplace.” (Tim Ryan, US Chairman and Senior Partner of PwC)

“We fundamentally believe that we will make better business decisions if we have diversity in thinking … and that requires equal gender participation.” (Jonas Prising, Chairman and CEO of ManpowerGroup)

“You can have the most diverse workforce, but if you don’t have an inclusive environment, you’re not going to get the collaboration and innovations that come from an inclusive workforce” (Cindy Hook, CEO Deloitte Australia)

“In an inclusive culture employees know that, irrespective of gender, race, creed, sexual orientation and physical ability, you can fulfill your personal objectives by aligning them with the company’s, have a rich career, and be valued as an individual. You are valued for how you contribute to the business.” (David Thodey, former CEO of Telstra)

“Like many industries, creating an environment where everyone can thrive – not despite of who they are but because of who they are is important. The more we embrace diversity at work, the more people from different groups will be able to be their authentic selves. Companies need to realise that or they’ll lose out significantly. I also believe we need to fight against the stereotypes by challenging bias where we see it.” (Pip Marlow, CEO Strategic Innovation – ‎Suncorp Group, former CEO Microsoft)

“By understanding, appreciating, and leveraging the cultural diversity Australia has to offer, we will collectively advance local and global business opportunities for Australian businesses in the Asian century.” (Giam Swiegers, CEO of Aurecon, former CEO of Deloitte)


Explicit support from senior leaders, particularly the CEO, is critical to the success of any initiative to improve diversity and inclusion.  This post details four mechanisms that can be used to help with engaging a CEO – or any leader – in diversity and inclusion:

  • Presenting the evidence (data)
  • Explaining the commercial imperative
  • Positioning diversity as a strategic initiative
  • Connecting CEO to CEO

These mechanisms can help CEOs to understand the importance of diversity to their commercial success, and showcase other organisations that have successfully addressed diversity and inclusion.

Original post published by The Agenda Agency:

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