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Tales from the frontline: Melanie Richards

Melanie Richards, partner and vice chair at KPMG, on how businesses can ensure that everyone is represented, both at board and executive level

I’ve been involved in the diversity agenda for at least 10 years and I spent a huge amount of time frustrated by the lack of progress. But, in 2010, the government-backed Davies Review shifted the zeitgeist. It created a very different environment for the conversations around diversity. On gender and at board level it has been very successful. Since the review was commissioned, female board representation has more than doubled. There is now no FTSE 100 company without a woman on its board. That’s a very good news story.

KPMG didn’t create the Connect on Board online platform solely to help address the diversity problem. We wanted to make sure that wherever there is talent, there is a route through which that talent can be identified. This is not just about women, or ethnic minorities – it is about diversity in a range of areas, including diversity of skills and experience. About 40% of those currently using the platform are aspiring non-executive directors (NEDs). It creates an opportunity to enlighten chairmen looking for more diverse candidates.

We don’t want leaders that look like us, we want leaders that can address the entire marketplace

But the Board is not the whole story and we’re a million miles from “job done”. The reaction to Emma Walmsley’s appointment as CEO of GlaxoSmithKline – now just one of seven female CEOs of a FTSE 100 business – is proof of that. The next area of focus has to be around the executive pipeline. We can’t kid ourselves – the board challenge was solved principally through the appointments of NEDs.

There has been very little progress at the executive level. The process will be steered by chairmen who, as long as there is the will to do so, can change the makeup of a boardroom using the re-election of non-executives. Managing the route to the executive level is more complex. The organisations that are getting this right are those learning to be more mindful of how they’re improving diversity, not just at the top, but the diversity of the pool from which we’re fishing.

Most organisations will have a desire to identify the top 10%-15% of personnel, and most will focus on how this talent is being pushed through the organisation. When we talk about talent mapping there are going to be unconscious biases.

As leaders we tend to sponsor people who look and feel like us, and this is something that must be addressed. An effective way of doing this is to ask yourself what you want the future leadership of your organisation to look like. There are definite stereotypes of what good leadership looks like, and that stereotype does not always support the inclusion agenda.

We don’t want leaders that look like us, we want leaders that can address the entire marketplace and bring a range of different skills and capabilities onto the team.

To achieve this I absolutely believe we should be seeking more transparency in terms of reporting and in terms of the goals individual businesses are setting themselves.

I’m a great believer that if you create visible targets – not quotas, I hasten to add – then you will encourage more meaningful discussions about the talent that you’re promoting. It is not just about getting people into the right box, it is about creating an environment in which people can thrive, and the more inclusive an environment you create, the more successful the organisation will be.

A couple of years ago, KPMG published extensive diversity targets covering gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. It became immediately clear to anyone that saw those targets that we have a big hill to climb. By being transparent we felt like we were challenging our organisation to change.

As told to Ellie Clayton

Originally published in Economia, November 2016.