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Corporate Diversity: Is the Leadership Pipeline Balanced or Broken?

Updated: May 16, 2023

A black male professional wearing a smart business suit looking at his watch
Diversity and Inclusion is integral to talent pipeline

Talent is the lifeblood of progressive, successful organisations. The importance of diversity and inclusion across the leadership talent cannot be understated.

It helps to establish, and advance, the development of innovative products and services through enhanced creativity and the diversity of ideas and experience.

Developing diverse and inclusive companies is paramount for securing a range of business benefits that enhance productivity, motivation and a range of other positives.

a woman in striped top being interviewed by white male for a job
Diversity and Inclusion is integral to the talent pipeline

Talent Acquisition leaders understand the need to attract highly talented candidates to enable best in class results.

Countless studies show that increased diversity, at both team and leadership level, mean better business results.

In the UK, latest figures show that of a Black and Ethnic total population percentage of 14%, only 6% of top management positions are held by individuals from this group. There are only 6 Black or ethnic CEO's across the FTSE 100 index of leading companies.

Similarly, women represented only 7 positions at CEO level across the FTSE 100 index, as at June 2018.

Reports suggest that diversity is lacking within the senior leadership levels of UK corporate organisations. This is incongruous, with the fact that the talent pipeline suggests that there are indeed, suitable candidates, across industries, that can readily fill these positions.

There is no doubt that there remains, either a lack of understanding, at best, or an unwillingness, at worst, to create meaningfully diverse leadership.

Is Diverse Leadership Really Seen as a 'Must Have'?

In common with society in general, businesses face challenges with diversity and inclusion. The issues of inequality and lack of representation can only be addressed through sustainable means, if leaders are able to take a broad point of view on diversity.

four young diverse professionals
Diversity is part of the 'Best for Business' philosophy

Diversity and inclusion is part of the frameworks of business growth and leadership development.

It is an essential part of people and leadership development, helping to align success with creativity and innovation.

Essentially, it is a component of the 'best for business' philosophy. It is part of the core values that support staff teams, customers and clients.

It is part of the agenda for producing talented, competent and confident leadership, that is able to use its diversity to enhance business results.

Piecemeal activities cannot be allowed to allude towards diversity, whilst evading meaningful and actual and meaningful representation in business.

What is needed is a concerted effort from across the corporate sector to change the situation, once and for all.

No longer can the mantra of 'not being able to find qualified and experienced candidates for leadership roles', be posited as an excuse for the prevailing situation.


The need for corporate inclusion resides here, in our time, in our space. There can be little hope for future generations to address this issue, when the resources and intellect necessary to change this situation are currently available.

Diversity and Inclusion is a must for the corporate agenda and requires high level commitment and endorsement to make it a reality, in our time.

Recently, as the debate on diversity and inclusion heats up again, Eve Roodhouse, Chief Executive of Economic Development at Leeds City Council, said at a Women in Leadership event at Leeds Beckett Business Centre:

"Male dominated environments are already being reflected in the output of artificial intelligence and machine learning."

"We know intuitively that diversity matters. It's also increasingly clear that there is an evidence base for it."

" Its also clear that as we go through the fourth industrial revolution, we need to think about diversity if we don't want to have solutions that are built for us , as a society that have bias built into them." Eve Roodhouse - Chief Executive, Economic Development, Leeds City Council

Diversity and Inclusion is a must for the corporate agenda.

There cannot be a narrow focus on how business develops its human capital, in a fair and equitable way.

Nor can there be any barriers to advancement for any employee, who has the necessary capabilities, and career ambitions, to progress to the highest levels of leadership.

The fundamental purpose of any business is to create, develop and sell products and services to consumers. An integral part of these business activities is to create value for shareholders. It is also important to understand that corporate organisations have a broad, salient purpose in the world... to enact fairness and social responsibility

The point is that to be socially relevant, businesses must develop a purpose that goes far beyond making money for shareholders.

Corporate organisations, spend millions on CSR activities, supporting real social and economic causes across the globe.

What is interesting is that many of these companies lack diversity in any real, impactful way, across their executive leadership persona. This poses a range of interesting questions, related to trust and authenticity.

There is a seemingly an inability for some leaders in the Corporate sector, to foster true diversity and inclusion within. Herein lies the problem.

Diversity - Climbing the Corporate Ladder.

Employees are motivated to work for companies where they can develop and have a fair chance personal development.

The ability to climb the corporate ladder and advance within the company, if desired, is intrinsic to employee motivation. It enhances productivity, and employee trust and satisfaction levels.

Diverse talent acquisition and development processes are inextricably linked to increasing openness and trust with a brand. This is important to both internal and external facing activities.

Advancement into leadership positions

Corporate boards, talent and HR leaders, and executive management must become more proactive in leading sustainable change.

Re-framing organisational culture, to support inclusion, is necessary to advance women and Black employees, into leadership positions.

Making systemic changes to the ways in which talent is sourced, and supported within the business, can provide some redress to current imbalances.

To make the systemic changes that positively impact and advance results, corporate boards, CEOs, and executive management must actively lead change and drive purposeful solutions.

Understanding Bias and Leadership Group Think.

One of the main challenges to advancing diversity across the leadership space, is that of leadership group think. Most corporate boards are comprised of men, often from similar educational and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Lack of diversity in leadership encourages group think

Lack of diversity at the corporate executive level, ensures that leadership is likely to view the issue, and solutions to it, in very similar ways.

This is known as homogeneous group think. It is hard to advance the necessary changes, without the diversity of thought that diversity brings.

The problem here, is that senior leadership is often replicated in its own image. All too often future leaders are honed from an early stage, and come from similar social and educational backgrounds.

Top talent is not the preserve of any particular social, gender or racial background.

It is, evident, through both empirical and quantitative research, that on the whole, corporations in the UK have been shown to lack in diversity in leadership.

Corporate entities are remiss of the processes to procure a robust, diverse and ultimately inclusive leadership.

Is this an issue of closed group thinking, brought on by unconscious bias or some necessity to preserve the status quo?

Corporate leadership often replicates its own image

Whatever the reasons, corporate organisations are missing out on top

talent and an inclusive brand image.

The ability to think creatively and increase innovation, by maintaining an exclusive status quo, is the perverse outcome of maintaining group think and lack of leadership inclusion.

This fact is not lost on some key players within industry.

Theresa McHenry, HR Director at Microsoft UK has been quoted in the Financial Times:

"The point isn't to get people to accept they have biases, but to get them to see [for themselves] that those biases have negative consequences for others." - Theresa McHenry, HR Director, Microsoft UK

Regrettably, unconscious bias would appear to be a pervasive and entrenched reality.

This certainly, is not an image that any corporate entity desires, but is the reality for many corporate brands.

Rather than promoting inclusion to build brand equity, many boards seemingly act to preserve homogeneity. This, at the expense of fairness and the development of diversity and human capital.

Diverse Leadership Supports Added Value.

The value of an inclusive leadership is tri-fold. It brings the following:

  • valuable and varied experience and perspectives, that are different from the management teams,

  • ability to assess the brand through culturally sensitive lenses

  • increased empathy to the nuances brought about through race and gender, which impact effective management

An inclusive boardroom adds value and modern perpectives

The value of an inclusive board is the differences in perspective.

Leadership that is open and engenders trust with employees, adds value to the bottom line.

This is one of the single most important aspects for building inclusion and promoting a diverse corporate organisation.

Leadership, talent acquisition and HR partners must seek to access a wider, deeper and more diverse talent pool, in order to build modern, engaging leadership, that actively embeds diversity.

Diverse leadership promotes adaptability, enthusiasm and will challenge the status quo. It offers different perspectives, providing innovative approaches to problem solving at the highest levels.

It will engender and demonstrate trust to both internal and external stakeholders and observers, communicating openness and transparency on important issues.

By promoting ethical standards in the recruitment, retention and development of Black employees and women, companies are better able to secure a well balanced, highly talented and inclusive leadership.

Creating Fair Opportunities for Inclusion

An opportunity gap exists within business, that acts to stifle the progression of women and Black employees, hindering their ambitions of reaching their full potential.

There are fundamental metrics that dictate the ways in which corporate organisations operate. Diversity and inclusion must be an active part of business metrics for developing fairness and opportunity.

Creating fair and inclusive opportunities for all is important.

There appears to be an inability amongst corporate leaders to have nuanced constructive conversations about the issues that exist within business.

Unfairness, and inequalities in opportunities, that exist in the numbers and variety of opportunities for women and BAME candidates does exist.

Corporate organisations will never develop constructive conversations and sustainable solutions, unless there is a genuine commitment to address the issues. Any commitment must be supported by genuine and holistic conversations that support engagement.

If corporations maximise the diversity of people that they reward for their competence and contribution to the company, the full benefits of corporate metrics to analyse business will fall into place. Rather than being a tick box exercise, diversity will become a business reality.

A change in shift for senior management, talent acquisition and HR partners is required. It requires the understanding that in order to develop world class and sustainable businesses, there must be a recognition that unique and diverse talents bring positive benefits for business.

Gaps in Access to Industry.

Opportunities and access are not always distributed evenly. Opportunity gaps can be present in several forms, for example:

  • Opportunities to education gap,

  • Opportunity to experience

  • Effective access to mentoring

  • Access to the right project experience

Opportunity is created by access. If women and Black employees do not have access to the leaders within the firm who can make or break their careers, their development can be stifled.

Similarly, without access to the right types of development opportunities, an even situation will occur, where lack of representation becomes apparent.

Successful professionals are the product of access to broader opportunities within the business. There is a lack of mentoring and sponsorship programmes for Black employees and women, that is necessary to be successful in business.

Gaps in fair access to promotion nurtures exclusion

Talent is evenly distributed between all groups. Opportunity and access are not. This impacts greatly on the ability of under-represented groups to excel.

Are attitudes and perceptions towards the inclusion of women and Black employees changing?

Certainly, the conversations are happening around boardrooms, in relation to diverse representation, but there are still challenges faced by executives in this area.

Do Selection Processes Continue to Exclude?

There is an issue with selection criteria that often belies the supposed intent to become inclusive. Very often job descriptions, notably within the professional and financial sectors, make a prerequisite of experience within the industry. What then of transferable skills, gained within different industries?

  • How can candidates who have high value experience of the role, who have been historically excluded from the industry, apply for these positions?

  • How are people who have been traditionally excluded from these industries and levels of seniority enabled to apply?

This type of selection immediately excludes significant numbers of potential women and Black candidates, who do not enjoy the same levels of access within industry, as their usually male, white counterparts.

Maintaining the status quo through inaccessibility, is an ultimately costly and pejorative activity, that embeds exclusion.

Is this a matter of misunderstanding or prejudice? The late Poet Maya Angelou stated:

"Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible." - Maya Angelou, Poet

Opening up accessibility to all, is the only way that corporate organisations will gain traction and embed inclusion. There is not lack of diverse talent. There is, however, either an inability or an unwillingness to open the gates to allow that talent to flourish.

Inclusive Rhetoric vs. Inclusive Action.

Whilst leaders espouse the virtues of diversity and inclusion in public forums, the reality of the situation, as shown in numerous reports, is somewhat different.

Are Black and female employees chasing rainbows?

For most systemically excluded employees, the idea of achieving career ambitions and developing innovative ideas is tantamount to chasing rainbows.

There is still, very much a lack of congruence between the rhetoric of many corporate entities and actual, inclusive positioning.

As the corporate world focuses on attracting women into CEO positions, the same anomaly applies. There are more CEO's with the first name Dave than there are female CEO's. Therefore, if the selection criteria mirrors that, which has been traditionally used to attract CEO's, then talent acquisition leaders are at odds with their stated intent of inclusive recruitment.

There are some positive activities taking place to support businesses to collaborate to address issues of access and imbalance within industry.

PWC UK has recently formalised an alliance with UK BlackTech. The aim is to increase Black and ethnic representation within the UK Technology sector. These kinds of alliances, help to address imbalances and promote inclusive recruitment, through effective partnership.

Investing in Inclusive Corporate Leadership.

Although diversity and inclusion is now an issue for debate at C-Suite level, and some gains have been made, there is much more to be done to move from discussion to strategic planning. Only commitment and action can positively provide redress.

Some leading corporate organisations have made significant strides to advance diversity and inclusion as a comprehensive component, of both business and people development processes.

It is beginning to enter the talent life cycle, driving organisational performance, enhancing employee engagement and brand positioning.

There has been some corporate investment to attract talent from under-represented groups to fill positions to the corporate ranks within UK organisations.

There remains a glass ceiling that excludes women and Black candidates from leadership.

However, reports show that the advancement of people from Black backgrounds and women, is still limited across the corporate sector.

Yes, there is still a veritable glass ceiling that exclude certain employees from leadership positions.

The numbers attaining CEO positions suggest that the concept of the ‘glass ceiling’ is very much embedded into the psyche of the leadership of corporate organisations.

Indeed, the recently published Hampton Alexander Review, uses the phrase 'One and Done' to describe the attitude of some Chairs and CEO's who think they have achieved diversity by recruiting only one female Board or executive leader!

It would appear that being a woman or from a Black community, is still very much an impediment to securing and executive level position. The mantra of the 'sky is the limit' does not appear to be widely applicable for women and Black candidates!

Whilst clearly, there are people of all backgrounds at CEO levels, their numbers remain low and there remain significant impediments to climbing the corporate level.

The likelihood of promotion into the higher levels of corporate organisations, for people from Black backgrounds and women, suggest that inequity, is still very much part of corporate identity as a whole.

Do We Really Need More Data on Diversity?

Corporate organisations must conduct robust and in-depth analysis on their current demographic breakdown and use the resulting information to address the issue of misrepresentation.

However, whilst data is important, it makes no sense to gather data, if it is not utilised to effect change. There are so many studies available that show that minority groups and women are continually marginalised within the corporate sector.

It is incomprehensible that progress has been so limited.

Do we need really more diversity data?

Across gender and race, in particular, there has been a huge amount of studies and reports, some going back decades.

These reports have measured, analysed, and reported on marginalisation across the corporate question.

Notwithstanding the usefulness of these studies, it begs the question that if the information is already available, why are organisations, so slow to move to develop talent acquisition and other processes that ameliorate the problem?

Where is the blockage in the talent pipeline for BAME employees and women?

  • What are the regional differences in promotion of underrepresented groups in leadership position?

  • Does unconscious bias corrupt the talent assessment process?

  • Are there any systemic issues, such as, group think that affect inclusive recruitment?

  • Do organisational culture issues affect talent management?

Yes, all these questions have already been answered, and can be found within the pages of countless reports.

From Status Quo to Inclusion.

C-Suite executives must move away from unfair status quo positions and act to develop equitable, inclusive environments.

The business case for diversity is a compelling one, for developing strong, inclusive organisations. So is the fact that it is, morally, the right thing to do.

Black and ethnic women, and other under-represented employees, can make an immensely positive contribution to business success. By making a genuine commitment to culture change, senior executives can harness the benefits of inclusion.

Changing the status quo is a MUST

Let’s be clear, every employee, regardless of difference, contributes to the business bottom line.

Each employee, regardless of background, contributes to the productivity and innovation that make a corporate organisation a success, often in the global sense.

It is not a hard ask, that these employees, are able to progress to the highest levels of the business, if the position is available and they are talented and experienced enough.

There are steps that corporate organisations can take to move away from the status quo and truly embed inclusion. Current leaders must be willing to challenge the status quo in order to bring about change and create a positive, more inclusive future.

The only way this will happen is through the modernisation of leadership and the destruction of unproductive, exclusive habits.

Corporate Culture - Modernising the Inclusion Agenda.

Many corporate organisations have simply not been proactive in analysing the data and assessing their current situation to build strategic solutions.

There remains significant imbalances, and an inability to attract and promote women and BAME candidates. There remains exclusion to positions within leadership and the executive. There remains the status quo.

It belies reason that corporate entities, that employ some of the brightest talent, and produce some of the most innovative products and services, find themselves in a situation where they are not inclusive.

Corporate leaders must accept culture change and modern processes.

Corporate leaders must do more to embed diversity. That's the bottom line.

Modernising processes and re-framing organisational culture is imperative if these organisations are to increase diversity and develop fair and equitable processes.

Diversity is a business imperative, not a nice to have!

There is no one-size fits all solution. Every organisation is different, but seeking tailor made solutions to embed diversity and inclusion, is surely something that CEO’s and talent leaders should engage with.

It's Time for Real Change.

Talent is not defined by race or gender. It is full time that organisations accept this reality and move to make the opportunity to progress, an equal reality for all employees.... regardless of background or gender.

Diversity and inclusion invigorates business. It provides new and creative perspectives that not only builds better businesses but attracts high value talent and positively promotes business brand.

By actively, and genuinely, promoting diversity and inclusion within leadership development programmes, corporate organisations can create opportunities, through effective systems and processes, to enable diverse leadership through equal opportunity.

The leadership pipeline is not so much broken.... rather unbalanced. It is within the power of the C-Suite, talent acquisition professionals to effect a change.

For diversity and inclusion to be embedded into the corporate sector it must be owned as a business and people development value. Leaders must be the change that they state they want to see.

The ex-president of the United States, ( then Senator) Barack Obama, conceptualised this idea succinctly, on 5 February 2008. It is remarkably simple and is quoted here:

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or some other time. We are the ones that we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." - Barack Obama

So come on C-Suite.... Yes you can!

The future of business depends on your success!

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