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Diving below the diversity surface for business transformation

Businesses that understand the true depth of diversity that encompasses identity, social status, skill sets and more will see greater success assembling and benefitting from diverse leadership teams.

7 min read


Diving below the diversity surface for business transformation


This post is sponsored by Philip Morris International

Diversity in leadership should not be a simple checkbox on a company’s benchmarks. Businesses that understand the true depth of diversity that encompasses identity, social status, skill sets and more will see greater success assembling and benefitting from diverse leadership teams.

Betty Hudson is a communications industry leader, with 45 years of experience in strategic communications and global media who today consults with business leaders, non profit and for profit entities on a wide array of marketing and communications issues. She is the co-chair of the Washington, DC Chapter of Women Corporate Directors (WCD), and has served on the Board of Directors for AFLAC, Inc. In this Q&A, she challenges corporations to look beyond surface level diversity initiatives to find truly varied leaders who can bring a complex, purposeful approach to better business outcomes.

Organizations talk a lot about diversity.  Why does it seem so hard to achieve?

One of the reasons that achieving diversity may be a challenge is that we often don’t share a common definition of what diversity actually IS, or even agree on why it should be an organizational goal.  Scott Page, a professor of management at the University of Michigan, has done extensive research on the critical role diversity plays in complex social systems, which of course is what a business organization is.  His compelling work has influenced and informed my own thinking. There are a number of different kinds of diversity.  One is identity or social diversity (gender, race, age, etc). Another is cognitive or skill set diversity, which includes both the way one thinks and one’s experiences.  These two types are linked in many ways, but one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. Successful organizations find ways to identify and match their skill set needs with those of a diverse work force. Page makes the case that when problems are complex, purposefully assembled teams that can bring cognitive diversity to bear will deliver better outcomes, and almost inevitably, those kinds of teams will reflect desirable identify/social diversity as well.

In your experience, what is the most common misconception about diversity in leadership?

To me, the most common misconception is around the notion that we should be working to have diverse leadership, or a diverse workforce, because of issues such as “equity” or “fairness”, or more simplistically, because “it’s the right thing to do”. While I am of course all for fairness and equity, it seems to me that leadership diversity should be the goal for any business organization because of the real and empirical evidence that such leadership delivers better results.  The associated rewards of a better performing organization benefit everyone, and of course reinforce the “rightness” of the approach.  But as mentioned before, having a shared understanding and clear definition of what KIND of diversity is needed is critical – and so often misconstrued.

How can corporations ensure diversity goals are properly met, particularly in leadership roles?

An organization needs a shared understanding at the highest level (meaning both the Board of Directors and senior management) of just what the definition of diversity should be for their enterprise, the value proposition of achieving it and what realizing it would look like for them.  Then it must take a clear-eyed look at the current organization and culture. If you’re not where you believe you need to be, why not? What dynamics may be standing in the way of achieving the goal? In my experience, it can be challenging for those sitting in today’s organizational structure, which may have worked well enough till now and reflects what they know, to be able to visualize a different one that can seem to be full of unknowns – and therefore risk.  But if a group commits to leadership diversity- and I believe any right thinking organization should make that commitment – then measurable goals must be set. Make achieving those goals a key component of executive compensation.  Be transparent with the organization.  Share results.  Talk about it.  I’m a fan of unconscious bias training programs, which can really be eye-opening.  We all have them, and it’s not a character flaw.  But the process of recognizing yours and being willing to talk about them can truly transform group dynamics, and the people themselves. Some organizations have embraced the use of “blind resumes”, in which only skill attributes are shown, and different candidate pools are created as a result.  Unconscious bias can mean that Jane, Jose, and John can get treated differently, even on paper, despite having the same skill sets.

Have you experienced workplace diversity, or the lack thereof?

I probably embodied both identity and skill set diversity for much of my career.  When I first started working in local television, the fact the FCC required stations to submit equal employment metrics as part of the broadcast licensing process undoubtedly was a plus for me. A few years later, when NBC brought me to the network in a vice president role at the tender age of 29, I represented several kinds of diversity, including gender, age, geography (I was a southerner in New York City) and I had worked in local television in three different markets, which many of my colleagues had not.  I also happen to be 6 feet tall, which made me stand out in other ways. While I was often the only woman in the room, I was the “only” lots of things.  I hope and believe that over time and in the course of my career, my skill set diversity increased in value to the organizations I served, and that my identity/social diversity contributed to that.

Do you have examples of programs or companies with progressive diversity programs?

There are a number of companies who appear to be doing an excellent job of working to advance meaningful diversity and inclusion for the right reasons, which of course include increasing productivity, innovation and financial performance. We all see the annual round ups of “Best Places To Work” in Fortune magazine, and other publications.  The common denominators seem to be the purposefulness and transparency with which those companies have undertaken the efforts, and the commitment they have made to publicly “walk the talk”.  They create and empower Chief Diversity Officers, who report to the CEO.  They drive accountability through reporting and linking incentives to measurable outcomes.  They offer an array of training and tools at every level, such as unconscious bias training and inclusion management techniques, to make the objectives visible and real on an individual, team and company basis.  In my own experience, some of the most powerful – and empowering – transformation initiatives grew out of creating cross functional and non-hierarchical working groups to tackle specific company-wide issues. These teams had representatives from every corner of the business (finance, marketing, operations) as well as every level (executive assistants, engineers, senior leaders). Wonderful and actionable ideas emerged, and people who had never been in a room together made new and rewarding connections.


Betty Hudson is an award-winning communications industry leader with 45 years of experience in global media, audience building and print and digital content creation, across for profit and nonprofit organizations including NBC, iVillage, Reader’s Digest and, most recently, the National Geographic Society. She now consults with business leaders on an array of marketing and communications issues. Active in community affairs, Hudson has worked with and served a cross section of organizations on a wide range of issues, including education, healthcare, the environment and empowering women in the workplace as well as society. She is the Co-Chair of the Washington, DC Chapter of Women Corporate Directors (WCD), and member of the global WCD Strategy Advisory Committee, and has served on the Board of Directors for AFLAC, Inc.


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