Defining Success in Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

Published: Dec 16, 2019
Modified: May 20, 2020


Many companies are investing in diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives. The business case for D&I and the potential impact are clear. However, many also are still defining their paths, and they often feel challenged to achieve the outcomes they desire.

Our 2019 D&I Pulse, a survey of nearly 850 executives globally, sheds new light on what distinguishes companies that are successful in their D&I efforts from the rest. Among those surveyed, only about 15% rate their organization’s D&I strategies as “advanced.” Our findings show that these best-in-class companies clearly and consistently approach D&I differently than others.

Key themes gleaned from our survey results include:

  • Metrics and accountability are integral to setting and executing D&I strategy. Best-in-class organizations are about 75% more likely than others to set demographic diversity goals and to hold themselves accountable.
  • The change journey is hard, regardless of the maturity of the D&I strategy, and perseverance is key. What distinguishes the advanced companies is their commitment and intentionality to prioritize D&I and focus on tackling its challenges with small quick wins and big longer-term changes.
  • Progress in D&I has amplified the effects on organizational health. Executives at best-in-class organizations are 30% more likely than others to feel loyal, innovative, and set up for top performance.

Best practices in driving for D&I results

Building an organization in which diverse representation and inclusive leadership are integral parts of the core values and culture is a multifaceted undertaking. Here is a set of simple and yet tangible best practices that any organization can implement today to drive for results:

Define the desired outcomes of your D&I mandate. Top companies start with a well-defined vision for what D&I success looks like in the context of their business. For consumer companies, D&I success means better reflecting the customers that they serve; for biotech/pharma companies, D&I success is bringing the brightest minds around the table to drive innovation; and for financial services companies, D&I success is stronger investment performance. Our data shows that advanced companies are at least 80% more likely than others to define upfront their goals for their D&I investments.

Uncover core problems and double down instead of checking the box. Advanced D&I organizations diagnose their gaps and opportunities and then custom design solutions. They do not apply cookie-cutter tactics or replicate what others are doing. For example, advanced D&I organizations are 76% more likely than others to use customized surveys to measure their employees’ sense of belonging, which helps them home in on which populations feel the least included and get at the underlying causes.

Empower through education and training. Best-in-class companies arm their leaders with the knowledge and core competencies that they need to deliver on their D&I goals. For example, 84% of executives at advanced companies report that their leaders appreciate the difference between diversity and inclusion, compared with only 47% in the other companies. Understanding this basic but crucial distinction is foundational and transformative. Diversity refers to assembling employees with different backgrounds and perspectives. Inclusion is the ethos and environment that empower each employee to show up equally. When leaders are educated and trained, they are more likely to meaningfully contribute to an organization’s D&I goals.

Good intentions are a great start to D&I investments. On their own, they are not enough. To maximize the return on your D&I investments, leaders must work smarter, not necessarily harder. Best-in-class D&I organizations consciously invest in diversity and inclusion as part of a broader mandate of being a preferred employer, serving their customers better, driving more innovation, and outperforming financially.

About The Author

Cissy Young, PhD, co-leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Diversity & Inclusion Practice and is a senior member of the Global Biotech & Pharmaceuticals Practice.