The tumultuous global events of the past year have arguably crossed diversity off most organisations’ agendas. Despite this, it is clear that innovation and multifaceted approaches will be required to continue to overcome market challenges and ensure profitability and sustainability. Businesses will need to attain the best sector talent and focus on creating flexible and resilient teams. As such, gender diversity should always form an integral part of any company’s ongoing strategy.
According to Mercer’s “When Women Thrive 2020 Sub-Saharan Africa Report”, 88 per cent of respondents stated that their organisations are already prioritising inclusion and diversity. With that being said, it is more important that real change and action is achieved; fundamentally transforming organisational culture and norms. With the stability of financial institutions being one of the key aspects to accelerating economic growth post the Covid-19 pandemic, how do we ensure that diversity and inclusion penetrate the core of these organisations across Africa?
Start at the top
It stands to reason that company leaders have to commit to action and subsequently drive employees to engage. Change is always uncomfortable. However, if it starts at the top and filters down, statements and pledges can result in actual implementation and accountability.
For instance, Absa, representative teams were a critical component to achieving success when separating from Barclays. The project, led by a woman at the time, was one of the largest and most complex undertakings in the financial services industry.
Task teams needed to have varied skillsets and experiences, and be agile and open enough to broaden their competencies through exposure to new disciplines and ways of working.
Having several women in leadership positions ensured that organisational and project teams consisted of members with different experiences and ideas.
For organisations across the board, there needs to be a specific organisational and leadership mindset, consciousness or awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusion as part of the overall business strategy.
Diversity creates a more dynamic and innovative company culture, bringing different points of view to bear on challenges and discouraging groupthink while allowing an organisation to better adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. This was essential when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and businesses were severely stress-tested.
A key foundational block of turning this vision into a reality is the need to build a leadership bench strength that is representative of the markets and the people we serve and their deep or lived experiences.
Looking at Absa, the numbers reflect a strong trajectory in the right direction – 25 per cent of the Board is comprised of women, three Managing Directors across Africa are women and five Exco members across the Bank’s Africa Regional Operations are women.
Therefore, diversity is especially vital in the banking sector where many transitions are happening at a rapid rate. Banks can no longer be traditional in the face of agile and innovative new market entrants in the form of fin-techs and other start-ups which speak directly to the needs of discerning and less brand-loyal consumers.
It stands to reason that different perspectives, world views and opinions can only positively contribute to problem-solving and resilience building. Diverse teams spur collaboration and assist with anticipating and meeting the evolving needs of banking customers. Company strategies and executive leaders need to ensure that teams comprise varied backgrounds, points of reference, and skillsets.
Diversity and inclusion should also be more than just a tick box exercise, it should bring meaningful value to an organisation. When attempts are half-hearted, some goals can be achieved, but when real diversity is attained, it results in exceptional performance.
One critical aspect to successful transformative processes is mentorship and building organisational resilience across all spheres of the business so that the drive towards gender equality can withstand changes in leadership and remain sustainable over time.
It is up to management to ensure that teams comprise members from different backgrounds, genders and races, with varied experiences and opinions. Diversity should be a reflection of society, as well as the organisation’s customer base.
For effective transformation to take place, organisations will need to “own” the process. Just like technology advancements are prioritised to improve customer experience and efficiencies, these same tools can be used to enhance diversity and inclusion.
Data-driven decision making is essential to analysing salary disparities, performance reviews, unfair policies, as well as opportunities. Additionally, it develops evidence-based strategies to correct them. This also applies to recruitment and talent retention practices. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Be prepared to strategise, plan and effect real change to address organisational imbalances.
Use data and information to make informed decisions and be brave enough to acknowledge and address discrepancies. Set achievable objectives, where success factors can be measured.
An organisation and its employees should be a reflection of its market, its peoples, its values, cultures and aspirations.
When looking at organisational approaches to diversity and inclusion, a shift in culture needs to be fully embraced by leadership – only then can sustainable organisational behaviour change be achieved.
The writer is the People Function Director at Absa Bank Uganda