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Every country has its own legacy of hurt. Every place has its history of exclusion, its discrimination, its web of attitudes and systems that fuel and justify marginalization. Every country has dominant and subordinate groups and unhealthy power structures. As I began work on rolling out diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives globally for Sodexo (the food services and facilities management company), I learned that one of my most important tasks was uncovering and seeking to understand those legacies.
Identity — the way it shows up and even the ways we define it — can differ enormously from place to place. I learned that I needed to strike a balance between rolling out a global initiative with a universal vision while at the same time allowing enough flexibility for that vision to be contextualized and take root locally. By doing this, we were able to open space for effective insider-outsider partnerships — allowing outsiders like me and other leaders to play the role of catalyst, while relying on insider change agents and the local ecosystem to determine the best pressure points and rhythm for change.
To make organizations more diverse, inclusive, and equitable, we need to be willing to disrupt the status quo. Making our work local does not mean backing away from the difficult challenges, but it does require that we develop a global mindset, listen to local diversity champions, and constantly fine-tune our own self-awareness and intellectual curiosity. If we do those things, we will be better positioned to grasp the dynamics of a complex interconnected world and find ways to ensure that our efforts resonate locally and contribute to lasting change.
Natasha Winkler-Titus, President of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in South Africa, told me of an international mining company that set up mining operations in South Africa. They invested billions, negotiated with the local chief to operate in the area, and completed the first two phases of development. But they were forced to halt the project due to local protests about the placement of the mine, corruption by the chief, and the lack of economic and job opportunities trickling down to the community. Although they had done thorough research and mapping of natural resources, what they hadn’t realized was that the local chief was not acting in the best interests of the community. Without taking the time to listen to a broad variety of voices, they stumbled into a trap of reinforcing harmful power inequities. Perhaps they believed that they were respecting local customs by negotiating with the chief and did not probe further to get more well-rounded advice about how best to navigate the crosscurrents and history of the place. At its essence, the company’s approach was top-down: it imposed its overarching objective without taking time to unpack the local dynamics. Ultimately, the mining company tried to be local but failed because its attempt was too superficial.
For me, this story epitomizes the dilemma of localizing a global change strategy. How do we understand and respect local values and simultaneously push for change? To what extent do we adapt to each context? If our initiatives are purely locally driven, might that not perpetuate the unhealthy power dynamics that already exist, as it did in the mining example in South Africa? Is it better then to enact a more universal, centralized approach to inclusion change efforts? So, if an organization comes with a top-down DEI agenda — in the same way the mining company started without true local buy-in — don’t we risk those initiatives being at best ineffective, and at worst sabotaged? And what happens when a global organization’s values come into conflict with local ways of doing things, or even with local laws?
Mustafa F. Özbilgin, a Turkish-born British sociologist and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Brunel Business School in London, talks about three different global diversity management approaches. The first is a universal approach that rolls out a centralized top-down policy across varying countries and contexts. The second is a local approach that is designed in-country and tailored to a specific context. The third is a blend of the two. Özbilgin calls this a transversal approach in which there is a global framework that shapes and guides the work, along with the flexibility and autonomy to adapt it locally.
I found the transversal approach was most suited to implementing a successful global change initiative. Although a universal approach seeks to save time and money by using commonly developed tools and strategies, organizations can struggle to get their initiatives embedded and embraced locally. For example, a global food and package delivery company encountered challenges when the company’s US-headquartered lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) employee resource group (ERG) asked that all employees around the globe be given a Pride rainbow badge to display in celebration and support of LGBTQ staff. This seemed like a powerful way to make allies visible and to create safety zones for employees who may not be open at work about their sexuality. But employees in Egypt balked. Same-sex relationships were illegal there. LGBTQ employees had learned to be discreet for their safety. No one wanted to carry the burden of a visible label that might endanger them.
In contrast, Subarna Malakar told me that when he led global DEI at Ahold Delhaize, they had a very local DEI strategy, in keeping with their overall segmented business model with 22 distinct local brands. Ahold Delhaize, a Dutch company, is one of the largest food retail groups with supermarkets and convenience stores that have local brand recognition —such as Albert Heijn in Europe, and Giant, Stop & Shop, and Food Lion in the US. Subarna said that to appeal to local consumers, the shops hired people who lived within a five-mile radius. They didn’t have global hiring targets; rather, needs were determined with a view toward reflecting the communities they served. The idea was that if the staff reflected the community, the shop would cater better to its customers. This meant that, for example, in a heavily Muslim neighborhood of Amsterdam, most employees were Muslim, and the shops sold halal food that appealed to the community.
This type of local approach is very appealing, but implementation can be inconsistent without broader accountability measures in place. If it is not a part of an overall global strategy, it may not benefit from tried-and-true interventions nor be enriched and stretched by cross-regional exchanges, best practice sharing, and networks.
A transversal approach customizes strategies to local environments while ensuring a consistent global brand and broader accountability. It is a delicate balancing act between not reinventing the wheel and, at the same time, avoiding the imposition of cookie-cutter tactics that risk replicating the very dynamics of cultural imperialism that DEI seeks to challenge. Imposing aspects of a dominant culture onto another less-powerful community is an easy trap to fall into. It takes more time and up-front investment, but ultimately a transversal approach benefits from being informed by best practices without imposing them and thus has the greatest potential for lasting success.
At first the women were slow to speak up, but eventually, as they gained their footing and saw they had leadership support, they began to express themselves- Rohini Anand
A transversal approach provides a frame, but also ensures that any global DEI process is consultative. Barilla Group is an Italian family-owned food company with a presence in more than a hundred countries. In 2013, Guido Barilla, the chairman, made a homophobic comment on an Italian station, Radio 24. He said, “I would never do a commercial with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect, but because we don’t agree with them.” The comments sparked outrage as people accused Barilla of homophobia and called for a worldwide boycott. Harvard University in the US pulled the pasta from its dining halls and celebrities pledged to shun the brand. This was a wake-up call for the company, and it began on a long journey to repair the damage and build a more inclusive culture.
Part of their response included establishing internal employee resource groups that were organized around particular identity groups. These were first launched in the US with great success, and so Barilla decided to replicate the approach in Italy, and then worldwide. “When we wanted to expand our ERGs outside the US, we learned very quickly that you cannot cut and paste,” Kristen Anderson, Barilla’s Global Chief Diversity Officer, told me. When over a hundred employees came to a high-profile launch event for an LGBTQ ERG at Barilla’s headquarters in Parma, the levels of enthusiasm and support made Kristen expect a large core group to sign up to take the new ERG forward. But by the end of the event, only 12 people had registered.
“And we said, uh oh, we have a problem,” Kristen remembers. “When we interviewed employees, we discovered that it was not a problem about not wanting to work on LGBTQ inclusion and be an ally. It was more not knowing what ERGs are. There was cultural insensitivity on my part in not understanding that although in America we’re very comfortable in this idea of forming community to make some change, in other cultures it’s something new. And we took a step back and basically spent a lot of time educating employees about ERGs: the benefit for you as an employee and the benefit for the company.”
Kristen and her team provided clear guidelines and governance structures, but they also ensured that there was freedom to decide the focus and the approach in each context. In fact, while in the US they had had success in developing ERGs along singular dimensions of diversity — such as LGBTQ, Black, or Latino/a inclusion — in some of Barilla’s smaller branches, they decided to form hybrid ERGs that address multiple identities, tackle issues relevant to the region, or rotate areas of focus.
For example, an ERG named Respeito (Respect in Portuguese) in Barilla’s operation in Brazil focused one year on LGBTQ inclusion and the next year on race and ethnicity. In spite of the fact that Afro-Brazilians make up the majority of the population, it is surprisingly rare to find race addressed directly and substantively by companies in Brazil. Russia’s ERG focused on LGBTQ one year and then looked at breaking down hierarchical divisions — encouraging managers to work for a day on the factory line and factory workers to come to the office.
Russia’s example is a reminder that our DEI initiatives can miss important dimensions and that staying open to local adaption can go a long way in correcting that. In “every major economy in the world,” according to Paul Ingram, social-class origin has a major impact on career progression, but it is taboo in some cultures (such as the US) and therefore rarely makes its way explicitly onto DEI change agendas. But some societies, such as the UK and some parts of Asia and Latin America, are much franker about class divides. Flexible ERGs leave room for the very typology of our DEI work to be stretched and strengthened.
Kristen’s outsider perspective allowed her to share and even push for a strategy she believed would work well. Combining her outsider status with a flexible approach that listened to, enabled, and empowered insider diversity champions resulted in some surprising and even radical initiatives. It allowed local changemakers to judge the pulse and rhythm of what transformation might be possible, with a clear platform and firm support from Barilla’s leadership.
Through its ERGs, Barilla introduced a way to address identity, but through collaboration with local staff, they discovered this new flexible and multiple dimensional approach. In recognition of their global progress in DEI, Barilla received the prestigious 2021 Catalyst Award for initiatives that have elevated inclusion.
For a transversal approach to be effective, it’s critical to take the time to understand how identity is expressed in each location, listen to local change agents, build collaboration between those change agents and the organization’s outside influencers, be willing to disrupt the status quo when necessary, and remember the enablers and obstacles in the larger ecosystem.
Barilla’s hybrid approach to ERGs also allowed for the intersectional nature of identities. Identity is “relational and socially constructed, not innate and fixed,” and it can shift depending on the situation. I might identify as Asian American in the US. In India I’m seen as a US American and I see myself that same way. But as soon as I go to France, I am considered Indian — until, that is, I start talking about diversity, and then I am suddenly viewed as a US American again! The truth is, I am all those things and more. Identity is multifaceted — and it responds to the external ecosystem of how others perceive you. Mary-Francis Winters and Andrés T Tapia, two thought leaders in DEI, suggest that DEI work has what they call a “fundamental genetic flaw”, a “one-dimensional view of difference.” This is important to remember when working globally, where a visible identity, such as gender or race, is often closely intertwined with language, region, religion, caste, class, or color.
In every society, we will find dominant and subordinate groups based on identity. Sometimes these power systems travel with people across borders. In June of 2020, a discrimination lawsuit—the first of its kind — was filed against Cisco in Silicon Valley. Two former managers, both upper-caste Indians, were accused of discriminating against a Dalit (lower-caste) employee. In the social stratification system that divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups, Brahmins are the highest caste and Dalits are considered “untouchables”. After the suit was announced, Equality Labs, an advocacy group for Dalit rights, reportedly received over 250 similar complaints from Dalit tech workers in the span of three weeks from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, and more.
While some power dynamics remain fixed as they cross borders, a change in context can also shift identity power relationships. When a colleague of mine travelled to Ghana many years ago to volunteer for a Habitat for Humanity project, she found that being white trumped that of being a woman; she was allowed to work with the men, doing the easier job of bricklaying rather than the gruelling women’s task of carrying water from the stream to the building site. An African American from the US travelling to Europe might be treated poorly out on the street, but in the boardroom, they could be viewed as an instrument of US cultural imperialism, with all its associated privilege and power, and in stark contrast to their marginalized position back home. This means that we may unknowingly carry privilege or disadvantage into a new cultural context, and that can impact our access to decision makers, the receptivity to our messages, and the candor with which local change agents might be willing to share their insights. Doing global DEI work requires that we understand not only the local dynamics, but also how we ourselves are perceived as we cross borders. Those perceptions shape how we are heard and will impact how we can best use ourselves as instruments for change.
One of the benefits of the transversal approach is that it allows outside influencers to serve as catalysts for change while at the same time empowering local change agents to ensure that the work is relevant and has the best chance for success.
Outsiders often have the freedom to raise issues that are difficult to broach from the inside. They can really make a positive difference, but they need to balance their enthusiasm with a careful consideration of where and how to enter the conversation. Outside influence works best when it empowers and amplifies the work of local diversity champions within the organization and in the society at large. When my colleague Alain Morize arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2011 to head up Sodexo’s Energy and Resources work there, he was conflicted. Alain is originally from France but is truly a global citizen — he has lived in Boston, Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, Angola, Indonesia, and even on a ship that travelled around New Caledonia in the Pacific. “I was a guest in the country,” Alain told me as he remembered his time in Saudi Arabia, “so not there to change or judge. But I was not comfortable with what I experienced with women, as it did not align with my values or Sodexo’s values.”
Saudi Arabia is ranked 146 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap report. For years, Saudi women were considered legal minors and subject to a far-reaching male guardianship system that required permission to travel, work, and more. Alain happened to move to Saudi Arabia during a time of great change. In 2011, a royal decree allowed women to vote in the 2015 elections. By 2016, a mass feminist movement was campaigning for the end of the male guardianship system. Although feminist activists have been arrested and harassed, they also succeeded in earning women the right to drive (2017), the possibility of winning custody of their children after divorce (2018), and the right to travel abroad alone (2019). Labor laws began to slowly shift, incrementally allowing women to work in some private-sector jobs.
As Alain noticed things opening, he made a move to hire more Saudi women. He began reaching out — and there was no lack of qualified women. Saudi women have a high education level, and a 95.3 percent literacy rate. He found that many women were eager to advance their careers and to work hard. According to Sharia law, they had to work in a separate room with the door closed. They were not to be seen by male colleagues, and they had to communicate via an intercom. Men could not enter the space where they were working without announcing themselves, and if women were to stray from that area—say for a work meeting—they needed a male Muslim chaperone.
Viewed through a Western feminist lens, these working conditions would be unacceptable. Outside change agents using a universal approach might be tempted to draw the line and insist that women be integrated fully into the workplace but setting such a top-down ultimatum in this context would be counterproductive. With those ultimatums in place, women would not have been able to work for Sodexo at all. Instead, now that he had increased the number of women on staff, Alain used his outsider status carefully, opting for slowly stretching and disrupting the status quo from within, taking care not to impose his own views.
At first the women were slow to speak up, but eventually, as they gained their footing and saw they had leadership support, they began to express themselves. They suggested leaving the door open so they could interact with male colleagues more easily and feel part of a larger team. Soon it became clear that the women would occasionally need to meet with male colleagues. But conservative men on staff pushed back; they felt it was not acceptable for women to have work meetings with men without a Saudi or Muslim man to accompany them.
Alain put the dilemma back to these men, saying, “OK, we have a business; they have to talk to people, how do you want to resolve this? You can accompany them to every meeting if you want, but if that is not realistic, you come up with a solution.” Eventually these conservative men proposed that women could meet with men, as long as they were sitting on different sides of the desk and the door was open. Alain’s approach disrupted the status quo — as an outsider he had the freedom to push for increased hiring of women — and then he invited the insiders, those with local knowledge, even those most resistant, to propose fundamental changes to women’s career opportunities.
“A transversal approach customizes strategies to local environments while ensuring a consistent global brand and broader accountability”- Rohini Anand
In Saudi Arabia, Alain was able to work within the laws and still push for change, but sometimes the local context is extremely hostile. In 2019, homosexual activity was still illegal in 70 countries, including 13 in which it was punishable by death. This means that initiatives promoting the rights of LGBTQ employees can be extremely dangerous for those employees and can sometimes risk organizations’ right to operate in a particular context. Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Kenji Yoshino outlined three models of engagement used by organizations in the face of these restrictions. The first they called the “When in Rome” model — organizations keep their heads down and adhere to the laws.
The second is the “Embassy” model in which companies extend policies and protections to their own employees but do not try to change the society. In Singapore, for example, Aviva — a British insurance company with a presence in 16 countries — has made sure that its employees with same-sex partners have equal benefits, but when I spoke with Anuradha Purbey, Aviva’s People Director for Europe and Asia, she was quick to recognize the limits of this approach. “This is not challenging your belief system,” she said of the policy’s impact on employees’ awareness, “but it is just to make sure that we are aligned with how we show up at the workplace. That’s all.”
Barclays, a British bank, has tried to follow Hewlett and Yoshino’s third “Advocate” model, which seeks to influence the society and laws. Along with Google and several other multinational companies, Barclays was one of the first corporate sponsors of Singapore’s Pink Dot festival, celebrating the local LGBTQ community. These outsider companies used their status, influence, and money to support local insider change agents who were trying to carve out a safe space within their country. By the time the government banned foreign organizations from sponsoring Pink Dot in 2017, enough momentum had built up that more than a hundred local companies came together and were able to keep it going.
The work of localizing need not be too daunting. There are two key ingredients to success. The first is to ask questions and listen to local change agents: who are the dominant and subordinate groups and what is their history? Who are the local change agents and what are their goals and strategies? What are the specific obstacles to inclusion? The answers to these key questions will lead us to finding the best entry points and approach. And they will allow us to tailor solutions to the specific obstacles in each context.
The second tactic, as Wema Hoover of Sanofi said so well, is to find the freedom within the frame. A clear global vision and framework provides the necessary structure for implementation and accountability, but it should never be rigid. Creativity, flexibility, and local ownership are essential elements of any successful DEI initiative.
While a transversal approach allows us to adapt our strategic DEI efforts to the local context, it takes more upfront investment and more time. It relies on the messy work of relationship building between outsiders and insiders. It requires a nuanced understanding that power dynamics and the way people construct their sense of identity shift according to context and the unique cultural, religious, historical, and legal setting.
Leaders too often see diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as a series of incremental initiatives that suddenly become dispensable when faced with competing business priorities or in times of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn exemplify this. DEI budgets quickly evaporated. Later, disparate impacts of the pandemic on women and marginalized groups, and the intense scrutiny of systemic racism nudged leaders to turn their attention and resources back to DEI.
To lead with enduring purpose and passion, leaders need to be intentional about their commitments. Public outcry over the fast succession of killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in the US in 2020 spurred commitments by white male executives who still comprise 90% of all Fortune 500 CEOs in the US. These events thrust leaders into action, but a catalyst for change need not be so dire.
How else can leaders access experiences powerful enough to generate self-reflection and recognize their privilege? The answer lies in leaders bulking-up and flexing the inclusive leadership muscle necessary to take any global organization from performative actions to sustainable progress. This regimen of six DEI workouts will help get you started.
There are common beliefs and perspectives that impact how leaders see diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Beliefs contribute to one’s worldview. It predisposes one to take certain actions, and, ultimately, influences results. Lasting DEI change requires a shift of heart and mind, a shift in thinking and perspective.
It begins with self-assessment of unconscious biases and leaders understanding where they fall on a dichotomous continuum of belief systems between:
Leaders may be anywhere along the continuum. Once they grasp the beliefs or points of view they hold, it becomes easier for them to shift or expand their mindset.
Leaders must next seek out experiences to shift their mindsets. It is essential to internalize the benefit of DEI personally, and to the organization. They can expand their world view by:
Emily Lawson and Colin Price, in a McKinsey article, “The Psychology of Change Management“, suggest that employees will alter their mindsets and enable change only if they understand the rationale for it. Leaders must engage with teams to communicate the rationale or the “why” of their belief that DEI is important to the success of the organization. A proven approach involves:
Core exercises call for leaders to manage DEI as they would any business priority: setting targets, establishing behaviors, measuring progress and fostering accountability. To be effective, they ensure key performance indicators (KPIs):
Good KPIs include lead and lag measures. Lead measures look at activities and behaviors leaders want to encourage and, if done consistently, result in desired outcomes. Lag measures are specific outcomes to be achieved, such as the number of underrepresented staff in management positions. They are retrospective assessments of whether the targets are met.
In the stretching routine leaders are thoughtful about how to work with local country teams, who inform strategic decisions. They find success by avoiding a cookie cutter approach that applies a “one size fits all” mentality to DEI strategy or programming. Instead, they tend to:
Stop. Take a breath. For enduring change, DEI must inform all systems and processes, both internal and external. It cannot be a series of discrete activities operating in isolation. Internal and external stakeholders in the larger ecosystem should be engaged to anchor an inclusive culture deep within the organization and to scale it globally. How is this accomplished?
Leadership is at a defining moment in history. Authenticity and an unrelenting commitment to sustainable progress in DEI will be its hallmarks. Leaders that steadfastly apply these exercises will find themselves fit for the challenges ahead.
This is an extract from Rohini Anand’s book Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: A Guide for Systemic Change in Multinational Organizations (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2021). This book offers five proven principles so multinational companies can advance diversity, equity, and inclusion with a nuanced understanding of local contexts across countries and cultures.
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