I am many things: I am a Black woman who came of age during the height of apartheid in 1980s South Africa; I am MD at a company whose leadership team is majority female, in a company whose gender balance skews female; and I am a person who has experienced firsthand the tremendous benefit to a company when it achieves diversity in the senior management team.
That phrase ‘diversity and inclusion’, or EDI, as it’s frequently referred to, has become a touchstone in management echelons. Ever since Nembhard and Edmondson coined the term ‘inclusive leadership’ in 2006 in reference to taking purposeful action in connecting leaders with unique personal backgrounds, whether in ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender, the term has found its way into the playbook of every company, big or small.
Just last month, Harvard Business Review, in its insightful article ‘What Makes an Inclusive Leader’, found that inclusive organisations are 73 per cent more likely to reap innovation revenue, 70 per cent more likely to capture new markets, up to 50 per cent more likely to make better decisions and up to 36 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability.
But what really caught my eye was the finding that leaders play a particularly critical role and can reduce employee attrition risk by 76 per cent.
Diverse leadership creates space for empathy
What I’ve learned as an African female leader in senior boardrooms is this: diverse leadership creates space for empathy and servant leadership in companies. In my own sphere of influence, where our people are our greatest asset, the way we choose to invest in mid-level and senior management and the personal skills each of those managers brings to the table, is absolutely what our success hinges on. We cannot underestimate the business value of diversity in the workplace, or in the boardroom.
Far from being a tick-box exercise, adding diversity to a team is an incredible opportunity to gain the benefits of a fresh outlook and new skills that will impact any management team for the better.
Of course, I bring my unique story and diversity to any team I am a part of. Having experienced the challenges of apartheid South Africa where I was educated in a language that wasn’t my home language, in a country where my skin colour marked me as ‘other’, the end of apartheid in 1994 isn’t a history lesson to me – it’s a lived experience.
Today, I live in a wonderfully multicultural melting pot of a country, where people of so many diverse backgrounds live alongside each other, with a constitution that has enshrined the rights of many, including some of the most progressive LGBTQ+ legislation in Africa. Living in a country that lives and breathes diversity, I’ve learnt to flourish alongside those with different backgrounds and, above all, having had my own experiences of hardship, I’ve learned to empathise with the struggles others may face.
Servant leadership builds trust and respect
My experience, together with research on the subject, leads me to argue that increased diversity in leadership correlates to increased empathy across the organisation. Implementing diversity into management structures is an opportunity to form a management team with higher levels of empathy and understanding for the people they lead.
Gender, cultural, sexual and ethnic diversity brings a leadership that is more understanding and receptive to the opinions of others because of their collective learned experiences. An empathetic leadership at board level helps instil a servant-leader mentality throughout the organisation.
Leaders who choose to consider the personal motivators and goals of the people they lead are more likely to build collective teams that operate in a space of trust and respect.
Gender diversity is something that is close to my heart, yet there is a lot of work still to be done for many companies. I feel fortunate that of our workforce at CCI South Africa, 67 per cent are female and 53 per cent of the leadership team are women. However, our executive management team, once male dominated, didn’t empower women for the sake of an exercise in the name of diversity. Instead, we challenged many preconceived stereotypes and gender biases by leaning into employee performance data. What we saw was that many female employees in our organisation were doing a phenomenal job and warranted opportunities for advancement. By challenging our biases and inclinations, we were able to make data-led decisions that have benefited the business and broadened our diversity and inclusion practices.
Expanding our leadership diversity has had the benefit of improving competency and a range of viewpoints that bring value to high-level decision-making processes. Diversity at a senior management level improves collective problem solving and promotes resilience and adaptability. If that’s not a great reason to lean into diversity initiatives, I don’t know what is.
Shavone Dajee is the managing director for growth at CCI South Africa