Beyond the hard numbers, it is the intangible benefits of diversity - improvements in culture, diversity of thought and new streams of innovation - that is luring CEOs in droves writes Alexander Speirs.

New Zealand business leaders have been relatively quick to recognise the benefits diversity can bring to a business.

Companies like Spark, its prime rival Vodafone, cloud accounting firm Xero and all of our major banks are among the New Zealand corporates spear-heading more diversity within their companies to drive innovation, meet emerging new markets and ensure a fairer working place for all.

Many - including Fonterra, Bell Gully and GlaxoSmithKline - have signed up as members of DiverseNZ Inc to show their commitment to progressing diversity and collaborating within the space.

DiverseNZ Inc and the 25 per cent Group - which includes well-known corporate figures like ASB chief executive Barbara Chapman, Vector chairman Michael Stiassny and Goldman Sachs NZ chief executive Andrew Barclay - are among the leaders wanting 25 per cent female representation on boards by 2015. The group also includes Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf.

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They have focused their efforts on improving diversity within management ranks, where women in particular still remain severely under-represented.

Chapman says, "Within our business we have a gender diversity target. We want improved representation of women among our senior leaders. The best way that can manifest and we can gain traction is by doing the simple things.

"For any senior role in the business, there has to be a man and a woman on the interview panel. That does two things - it makes women think 'okay maybe I'm going to get a fairer hearing and they'll understand where I'm coming from', but it also makes us as a leadership team really figure out where the talent is and have the right conversations."

The NZX has required NZ companies to include diversity reporting in their annual reports, including a breakdown of the gender composition of their boards of directors and officers, as well as an evaluation of the company's performance with respect to their formal diversity policy, should they have one.

Deloitte Top 200 Chairman of the Year for 2014, Tony Carter, has been a vocal supporter of diversifying talent at the top table, explaining that "the purpose of a board is to challenge ideas in a positive and constructive way. And it's the person who can think differently and make others say 'I hadn't really thought of that' who can challenge in a way that gets a better outcome."

Carter chairs both the 2014 company of the year, Air New Zealand, and Fisher and Paykel Healthcare which was last year's winner. "Boards work best when there's a range of views. To me, diversity is really about diversity of thought and you only get that from a diversity of background, experience and skill," he says.

Supporting the diversity drive domestically are other organisations such as the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust (EEO) - our longest-tenured organisation in the space. The EEO works with businesses of all shapes and sizes to reduce barriers to inclusion.

EEO chief executive Beverley Cassidy-Mackenzie explains that "one of the things that we do is help organisations to take up diversity and inclusion and to use that as a tool to recruit, retain and empower. We've got a looming labour shortage, so whatever it takes for businesses to look after their current staff and recruit new ones is a positive."

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Rainbow Tick is a relatively recent addition to the diversity space in New Zealand, but has been quick to make an impact as it strives to make all workplaces safe and welcoming to the rainbow community - lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transsexual and intersex people.

Since replacing pop-culture icon Steve Jobs as chief executive at Apple, Tim Cook has been open about the progressive internal policies and politics he has brought to the world's most valuable brand.

Cook has championed diversity within the organisation, captured by the introduction of the new company mantra: inclusion inspires innovation. "We are making progress and we're committed to being as innovative in advancing diversity as we are in developing our products.

"Our definition of diversity goes far beyond the traditional categories of race, gender, and ethnicity. It includes personal qualities that usually go unmeasured, like sexual orientation, veteran status, and disabilities. Who we are, where we come from, and what we've experienced influence the way we perceive issues and solve problems. We believe in celebrating that diversity and investing in it."

Cook has led from the front - his appointments to the executive team have reflected the public stance the company has taken. But by far the most far-reaching initiative led by Cook has been a personal one - revealing to the world in an essay for Bloomberg Businessweek that he himself is a gay man.

"For years, I've been open with many people about my sexual orientation. Plenty of colleagues at Apple know I'm gay, and it doesn't seem to make a difference in the way they treat me," wrote Cook. "Of course, I've had the good fortune to work at a company that loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people's differences."

That sentiment is being echoed by some of New Zealand's most progressive companies, who have been quick to embrace the power of diversity and capitalise on the benefits.

Barbara Chapman CEO, ASB

New Zealand seems to be world-class at setting up a whole lot of fragmented groups to tackle a perceived problem, a social injustice. I think that over the years that has been to our detriment, I really think we're a small enough nation that the best result we will get will be achieved if we unite, not splinter. I think we spread ourselves too thin and that creates inertia more than anything. It's not through lack of desire or intent, but there's just not enough results. Have we spread ourselves too thin to have a real voice and make a real impact?

Are we seeing massive improvements? No, it's not fast enough. But I think there are simple things and incremental steps which are being taken to remove some of the barriers and obstacles.

At ASB we have appointed two female directors. Great progress is being made here. New Zealand is full of some quite innovative, diverse organisations.

I wonder whether we're looking at diversity through the wrong lens targeting the major, listed companies. Maybe we might see more progress in smaller, non-listed companies. In which case what is it they do, how are they doing it and how can we share the best practice?

Gabriel Makhlouf, Treasury

The business case for diversity is clear. A lot of us adopted it as a strategy to raise performance some time ago, and yet research indicates that across the board, progress has been slow.


Gabriel Makhlouf, Treasury. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A key reason some organisations don't become more diverse is because without knowing it, we're looking for other people like us.

We aren't consciously excluding ideas. We are unconsciously excluding them.

Unconscious bias is a glass wall. It can stop an organisation from becoming more diverse by excluding outsiders who don't fit the mould. Critically, it can also mean organisations don't get the best from the diversity that they do have, because people suppress differences in order to fit in and succeed.

Any organisation that is in the business we are in strengthens itself by bringing different perspectives to its work.

Because as the world changes, it is the new and not the old that matters. We need to look to the future rather than reflect on the past. We want to learn from history, not be trapped by it.

Diversity is the key to bolder, more innovative thinking. If we can deepen diversity, if we can leverage difference and harness it effectively, it will generate a real advantage, in the form of fresh ideas that work in the new New Zealand.