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In celebration of diversity everywhere

Today is International Women's Day and a celebration of women everywhere. No matter what colour, religion, shape, size. Working or not. Today is the day to recognise the talents of women all over the world.

The list of inspirational women is long and motivating, but I'd also like to shout out to wider diversity opportunities - and the blind spots that exist. Talking about diversity - and supporting programmes to increase diversity, only works if the leadership and management teams are truly committed to making the change happen.

Many years ago, I worked for a large electronics retailer - they dominated their markets in the UK and Europe. As part of their succession planning, they introduced an Executive Development Programme (EDP) for middle managers which was based on a rigorous selection process. Unfortunately, part of the selection process included nomination by line mangers - who all shared the same Myers Briggs profile - and who nominated people they thought would do well in the organisation. People like them.

A couple of years of highly competitive Type A applicants, persuaded HR that this was perhaps exacerbating rather than addressing the issues they had identified. And a self-nomination, anonymised selection process was introduced. Very quickly, a more diverse range of personalities was evident as well as the more obvious diversity statistics of gender and ethnicity. These individuals all performed extremely highly on core leadership competencies and benefited from a significant investment by the organisation into their skills and development. However, the core culture of the organisation had not changed, alpha males still dominated leadership and senior management positions and little of how the company operated reflected the future vision being created. Consequently the retention rate of those EDP leaders of the future was very low. And the organisation, having undergone a number of transformations, is no longer the dominant player in its market. There is lots of evidence about how group-think and vanilla leadership teams lead to under-performance and stagnation. This anecdote demonstrates the underlying truth of the research.

Years later, I was working for central government and the same issues were raising their head. The civil service is a great institution, full of bright people working on some of the most complex problems in society. But despite great efforts, diversity and acceptance of difference remains an issue. A collague of mine was asked in her first week which [Oxbridge] college she went to. Policy units were overwhelmingly run by white men in their 50's. But the key difference for me, was that in the civil service there was a recognition that this couldn't continue. And a real desire to make change happen. Apprenticeships were introduced, recruitment was targeted at a more diverse range of schools and universities. It wasn't (and isn't) perfect, but at least the effort was there. And unconscious bias was challenged too - liking people who are like you was seen as a problem not a strength.

Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes. Gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference are in some ways the easy options. In a world that seems to be retreating into the familiar, bringing intolerance and mistrust, we need to drive change and create diversity.

What is important is embracing difference - different personalities, neuro-diverse, backgrounds and cultures. Different is good, different brings challenge and growth. Different brings success.

Happy International Women's Day - here's to continued celebration of the strength women add to society.

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