Can L&D help CEOs Deliver on Diversity and Inclusion Promises?

Diane Nowell
May 24, 2021

When George Floyd was killed by a white policeman in Minneapolis last May, millions marched in protest and #blacklivesmatter moved into the mainstream.

The scale and scope of this resurgent global movement represented a powerful catalyst for change, amplified by pandemic-driven privations. As the groundswell of activism collided with a world transfigured by Covid-19, the calls for equity grew louder and more insistent.

It presented an opportunity for corporations and brands to take a genuine (and, some might say, long overdue) stand against racism – not only by voicing their support for those civil rights groups in the eye of the storm but by enacting the bolder, more sustained, policies and programmes necessary to achieve long-term impact.

The high-profile corporate pledges made in the days and weeks following George Floyd’s death certainly reflected the zeitgeist. But momentum matters, too. A year on and there’s still a significant gap between the early rhetoric and deferred action; between the billions promised and the millions delivered.

How can leaders, and their companies, make good on the public pacts they made?

Systemic racism cuts to the heart of corporate culture and there’s no quick fix: tackling the inequities takes time, commitment and resources. Effective learning and development (L&D) programmes can help drive the kind of long-lasting transformation that acts as a catalyst for even greater good. But only if vision is aligned with execution. Simply funnelling recruits through a one-size-fits-all training programme, for example, is a sticking-plaster response to a complex challenge.

Teresa Boughey is CEO of award-winning HR business, Jungle, and founder of cultural transformation consultancy, Inclusion 247. Her book – Closing the Gap – explores inclusivity and is an Amazon bestseller. Teresa believes that there needs to be a significant shift in the L&D space to enable leaders to navigate the turbulent economic times, while supporting a changed workforce.

‘When it comes to equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&I), we have to move beyond the mandatory approach of “sheep-dipping” employees through unconscious bias training or asking all employees to complete online tick-box training,’ she says. ‘We have to raise awareness of the fact that inclusion permeates beyond the traditional learning environment and see it as integral to an organisation’s culture.”

Centring inclusion is a precursor to transformation, but precision is everything – we can’t measure what’s not defined. Talking in vague terms about inclusion – perhaps via a general statement of purpose on the company website – simply doesn’t go far enough. Without the systems and processes in place to track and measure progress, it’s all just so much hot air.

Stephen Frost was Head of Diversity and Inclusion for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games from 2007 to 2012. Author of The Inclusion Imperative, he now works with clients all over the world to help embed inclusion in their decision-making. Stephen has seen a recent rise in requests from business leaders for help shaping a more targeted, meaningful and sustained approach to addressing racial inequality as part of a wider desire to embrace a more inclusive corporate culture.

‘It’s a sensitive area for many leaders,’ says Stephen, ‘as it confronts issues around power and privilege and carries the risk of reputational harm, should things go wrong. It can also be an uncomfortable experience for those in otherwise unassailable positions of influence as it needs to be approached with a certain level of humility – and the willingness to set aside preconceptions.’

Stephen continues: ‘L&D is the starting point for self-examination and learning within a structured and supportive environment. Learning in such circumstances allows leaders to explore, test understanding and become confident in diversity.’

Diversity champion, entrepreneur and author Sheryl Miller spent 20 years working in blue-chips before becoming a coach and mentor. Her debut book, Smashing Stereotypes: How To Get Ahead When You’re The Only ____ In The Room, draws on her experience as a black woman on the corporate ladder.

Sheryl has also noticed that ED&I – specifically exploring anti-racism – has become a more sought-after element of L&D since the death of George Floyd.

‘Large organisations are leading the charge,’ explains Sheryl. ‘First of all through analysis, like the Goldman Sachs Black Womenomics Report and the Lloyds Banking Group Ethnicity Pay Gap Report. But also by hiring D&I consultants and high-profile black speakers to deliver L&D on matters of race.’

Sheryl believes that in order to succeed in its twin aims of raising awareness and educating colleagues, though, L&D will need to effectively partner the delivery of theory with the practical application of inclusion across all protected characteristics.

‘Organisations have to recognise the shortcomings of formalised training, particularly with senior hires, and in traditionally elitist industries, where roles are often filled through existing connections and informal networks,’ she says. ‘In these organisations, L&D needs an approach that works with the culture to eliminate bias as far as possible and drive fair outcomes.’

Sheryl continues: ‘We all filter and curate at work, even straight, white men, in a way that can hinder authenticity. And the best way to counter it is to get the leaders to reveal more of themselves – it starts at the top.’

CEO buy-in is essential, of course, if conversations about race in the workplace and systemic injustices are to shape the corporate agenda in any meaningful way. It’s not enough to lean into the movement; leaders need to set the agenda.

Stephen Frost: ‘There is a backlash to what is perceived as “wokeness” in diversity and inclusion, which can undermine the credibility of programmes of change. Leaders need to grasp this and be able to speak fluently and confidently about why change is necessary. If you put people through training, they need to know why, and understand how, so that they can put their learnings into practice.’

There is evidence to suggest that some leaders are stepping up to the challenge. The recently launched If Not Now, When? campaign represents one of the largest CEO-driven commitments to taking key long-term sustainable actions on black inclusion in UK businesses.

Led by Suki Sandhu OBE, founder of diverse executive search consultancy Audeliss and CEO of INvolve, a global consultancy championing diversity and inclusion, the campaign has the support of more than 80 leaders. The heads of Microsoft UK, Balfour Beatty, O2, Virgin Money, Aviva, Santander, and IMImobile are united in their mission to drive a culture which is fully representative and inclusive.

These brands are, perhaps, recognising that while relevant, timely L&D has the potential to transform workplaces and drive sustainable change for good, there’s also the potential for a strong bottom-line benefit. By supporting diversity initiatives in this way, savvy leaders can capitalise on an opportunity to grow their talent pool and create stronger, more resilient businesses as a result.

Suki comments: ‘Businesses that invest in these opportunities for their staff truly lead by example and show that diversity and inclusion are core priorities. Taking a more conscious, inclusive approach also ensures all employees are learning how to best advocate for their colleagues – and for wider groups. Moreover, organisations that develop and foster their own talent improve staff retention rates while also elevating diverse talent.’

However, the pace needs to be quickened. In June this year, Inclusion 247 will publish its report: Accelerating Inclusion. The report reflects research conducted with 500 companies and offers insights into the key areas required to create an inclusive culture. The L&D statistics highlight the fact that there is still much work to do if organisations are to achieve their inclusion ambitions.

Teresa Boughey comments: ‘Our research shows that under a third (30%) of survey respondents currently provide an inclusive leadership development programme that enables the advancement of underrepresented groups, while more than half (54%) don’t offer mentoring opportunities, including reverse and diversity mentorship.’ She continues, ‘Worryingly, only 37% of organisations in our survey sample provide D&I training to those involved in the recruitment and selection process to enable them to understand the biases they may hold when making decisions.’

Dabbling in diversity won’t bring about the changes we need. Leaders need to fully buy-in to the business case for change, to wholeheartedly believe that it’s the right thing to do for the business, for society and for themselves.

‘Although L&D takes the charge on executing the training, the organisation needs to get to the stage where ED&I isn’t just another initiative but “the way things are done round here”, part of the DNA and something we live and breathe,’ explains Sheryl Miller. ‘If boards aren’t fully bought-in, we may see performative steps towards diversity, but inclusion is much harder to fake.’

With budgets constrained and leaders figuring out how to right-size their businesses in an evolving landscape, L&D is often considered non-essential. However, today, more than ever, organisations need to prioritise investing in their people so they can better navigate the challenges to come.

‘Companies have had 12 months since George Floyd’s death to make changes and, so far, many have only delivered the appointment of a black ED&I officer,’ says Sheryl. ‘My only hope is that we don’t lose this momentum and that the next year delivers real, lasting change – starting at the top.’


To explore how organisations and business leaders globally can be more effective in bringing diversity and inclusion to life, Headspring will be hosting a virtual panel discussion with industry leaders and practitioners on Tuesday 8 March 2022. Click here to register for the event.

Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant