How workforce diversity can empower your business.

Published in Fairfax Business on May 21, 2015

When I was appointed CEO and Managing Director of a major listed company five years ago, I was the only CEO on the ASX 200 that identified publicly as a gay man. Surprised? I had no gay role model in the corporate world.

Being openly gay and publicly talking about what was seen as ‘gay issues’ like marriage equality was generally seen to be a career impediment.

Five years on, sitting at a business breakfast I’m encouraged to see several CEO’s both gay and straight openly talking about why marriage equality is important. The conversation naturally progresses to the importance of diversity in the workplace. Yes, these views may have been held privately by many, but the ability to talk about such topics openly without fear of discrimination is a momentous positive change and vital to progress in this area.

Allowing people to be themselves - to be authentic and hence productive - is not only good for the individual, it’s good for business. Leadership is the essential part of the solution.

Diversity ranks high on the agenda of good corporate leaders, here are three key reasons why:

1. DIVERSITY DRIVES INNOVATION. Innovation drives growth. When setting about transforming David Jones, a 175 year old department store, into a contemporary omni-channel retailer, this was only achieved by having a diverse team of people. The transformation was do or die and saved the company and kept it relevant.

2. DIVERSITY DRIVES SALES. Good corporate leaders understand that they have a broader role to play in creating a fair and functional workplace. They understand that their company may not be around in the future if they do not adjust to swift social changes. They understand that people have choices, from their employer to what they buy. They will vote with their feet.

3. DIVERSITY IS ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY. The next generation will not tolerate the current generation’s bias. It would be fair to say that each generation has left their legacy and continue to become much broader in their thinking. It is likely the next generation will become more egalitarian rather than less. The power of information is breaking down barriers. The next generation will realise there is less to fear and more to gain.

Although change is slow, diversity in the workplace is taking an increasingly important position on the senior leader radar. Leaders who step up to be counted, who disclose their own differences, are being good role models for the next generation and this in itself is driving change.

I’ve noticed that people that don’t sit in the dominant group all have similar stories of exclusion. In appointing women, LGBTI, indigenous, people with a diverse cultural background or people with a disability to senior positions, your business immediately gets less of the same. As a result, business performance is strengthened and there’s an actual reduction in business risks.

So while Australia may end up being the last country to legislate for marriage equality, I believe that equality in the workplace is just as fundamental a right. Modern and productive work places have diverse teams and are inclusive and the Australian workforce has a lot to gain from that inclusion.