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'Every organisation must start somewhere': ACC's Veta T Richardson on diversity in law

IFLR’s Women in Business Law group speaks to Association of Corporate Counsel president and CEO Veta T Richardson on how to tap into the talents of people from different backgrounds and why it’s important

IFLR’s Women in Business Law group speaks to Association of Corporate Counsel president and CEO Veta T Richardson on how to tap into the talents of people from different backgrounds and why it’s important.

When employers say they are looking for candidates of 'different backgrounds', they are typically referring to diversity, which includes race, class, age, religion, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, disability status, or even professional background. Why is such diversity within the workforce important, and how should leaders go about fostering it?

Diversity is critical to a company's ability to succeed, especially in today's fast-paced, constantly changing, highly competitive business environment where having your best-laid plans disrupted is now a given. To keep ahead and have the ability to find solutions to today's business problems and challenges, you cannot afford to be surrounded by like-minded or like-experienced people – you need a diverse team. Numerous studies conducted over the span of almost two decades by top business schools, management consultants, and corporate analysts all say the same thing – a diverse team leads to more innovative solutions, and will consistently outperform a team that is more homogenous. The research and facts point to a strong business case for diversity, which is why you have institutional investors and shareholder activists pushing for greater diversity where it's lacking.

To foster diversity and inclusivity of people from all backgrounds and experiences, leaders must set the right tone from the top. That starts with genuinely and authentically believing that the company you are entrusted to lead will never achieve its promise and full potential as a high-performing organisation unless it has a diverse team accompanied by a corporate culture that enables team members to feel included, respected, and valued. If you only half buy in, or are simply being politically correct by saying that you believe in diversity – but your execution and actions show otherwise – your disingenuity creates a credibility gap that will permeate through all levels of the company.

More specifically, why is it important to tap into the talents of diverse groups of people, and how do employees – and the overall organisation – benefit?

It's important to seek the views, opinions, talents and perspectives of people who are not like you, because no matter how smart or prepared you may think you are, you don't know it all. And for most business problems there is no such thing as only one absolute, right answer. Problems can be tackled from multiple angles or perspectives, and having people who are diverse from you weigh in assures that your team is looking at issues from more than just your own narrow lens and experience.

To take just one easy example, imagine that your goal is to capture the largest market share that you can for a product that your company has invested lots of money into R&D to finally be taking to market. Don't you want to ensure, as you plan the promotional pitches, that you appeal to the widest sector of your consumer market? How can you do that if you don't have the benefit of input regarding how a variety of people – a diverse group – would respond to different types of marketing campaigns? Sure, you could pay for a bunch of market focus groups, and you probably will do that anyway. But by having diverse input upfront, you produce initial campaigns that offer a stronger starting point.

As a CEO, why is this important to you?

I am a big believer in the importance of diversity. In fact, I spent a little more than 10 years of my professional life heading an association that focused entirely on advancing the business case for diversity and the tools and tactics for advancing it. But in my personal experience as a CEO, I have lived its benefits. The ACC team that I lead, and its board of directors, are about as diverse as you will find, and that is wholly by design.

The benefits that flow from being so diverse and inclusive are ubiquitous – we have consistently achieved results that outperform our peers – like doubling revenue in a span of only eight years, almost tripling our out-of-US market presence, growing our membership base by 45%, and achieving 97% satisfaction rates for our educational programmes.

In addition to organisational achievement, I firmly believe that our diversity has improved overall employee morale. Our team is interesting – people are well-travelled and curious about the world around them, they hail from all over the world, and colleagues enjoy sharing their cultural experiences. When we used to have potluck meals in the office, the variety of foods and spices at the table was a delight.

What diversity strategies have you implemented at the ACC? What has worked well and what hasn't?

When I first came to the ACC, we received significant criticism from members and prospective members based outside of the US that the ACC was too US-centric and globally insensitive. And it was totally true. The organisation had big, lofty goals to achieve a global membership base, but we did little and offered less to appeal beyond North America. The team and the board at that time lacked the diversity to develop the appropriate programmes and services necessary to transform the association.

I thought that if we brought in a diversity consultant to raise global awareness and do multicultural competency work, it would help cure the problem. Wrong! We paid for expensive training of the staff and the board. We sent around articles and lots of information. Those efforts failed to spur the fundamental shifts in our thinking and approach that we needed to make as an organisation. It took rethinking how we recruit talent – both for the board and for staff.

Leading this effort also meant enduring sharp criticism from staff who did not agree with my directive that we prioritise candidates who not only bring strong skills and experiences, but are also multilingual and can offer a global perspective, especially to member-facing roles. I was continuously cautioned by American members that I should not lose track of ACC's largest group, and quizzed about board selection criteria on numerous occasions. Those short-term challenges were all worth it of course, as prioritising greater diversity has helped to transform our association.

Today, my staff come from around the world – just like our members who we strive to connect with and serve. We do a much better job at fighting the tendency to be US-centric because there are more diverse voices at our table, including at the board level, where we have been very purposeful to assure board members span multiple continents and cultures.

What advice do you have for other leaders looking to do more in the area of diversity and inclusion within their organisation?

I am fortunate that in my prior CEO role, I helped Fortune 500 executives and law firms kick off their diversity programmes and evolve them over time. But despite my deep prior experience, when we sought to establish a staff Diversity Council at the ACC, I was smart enough not to try to do it all ourselves. We hired a top-flight professional to help direct and refine our efforts: someone I knew from my prior work to be excellent, and who is current and conversant on what the best thinking and best approaches are for today.

If you already have an existing set of diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives and programmes in place, my advice is not to be complacent, and be sure to rotate different people onto your committees or affinity groups to infuse fresh thinking and new blood. Also, don't be afraid to admit when something you tried just did not work out – do not allow your pride or bravado to get in the way; but do seek to learn from the failure and have the courage and resiliency to keep going. Let's face it, sometimes D&I work can cause fatigue. You work so hard, make progress, and then encounter a setback. You must stick with it. Your people and the results are worth the effort.

How do we move beyond superficial attempts to promote diversity and inclusion simply to check a box? What metrics should we look at to indicate real progress?

Let's first remember that every organisation must start somewhere. So I consider companies that initially take a box-checking approach to their programmes and initiatives to be making progress, so long as those efforts yield consistently meaningful results and expand their ability to continually usher in more diverse talent.

When a board of directors or executive team consists solely of members of the most privileged group in a society, the demographics of these groups of course vary in other countries and cultures around the world, and a check-the-box approach brings men and women with a range of diversity into those groups over time, then that approach yields significant results, and cheers to the organisation for implementing it. It is clear that the previous approach resulted in its own narrow checklist that bypassed lots of talented people because of biases favouring a specific demographic while excluding so many others. If use of a checklist interrupts whatever caused and perpetuated a lack of diversity, we should be all for it, as well as any other tactics that work.

I will point out, however, that instances still occur where organisations or groups within them hire or add a few diverse people to check a box just for the external optics. There is no buy-in from the leadership; no shift in corporate culture that embraces and values diversity, inclusion, and empathy; and no commitment to long term change. Organisations that engage in this type of behaviour should be held accountable by their stakeholders and the public in general when necessary.


Veta T Richardson

Veta T Richardson is president and CEO of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), a global legal association that promotes the common professional and business interests of in-house counsel who work for corporations, associations and other organisations through information, education, networking, and advocacy. With more than 45,000 members in 85 countries employed by over 10,000 organisations, ACC connects its members to the people and resources necessary for both personal and professional growth.

For more information, visit www.acc.com and follow ACC on LinkedIn and Twitter: @ACCinhouse.

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