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Most progressive companies embrace the notion of diversity. The difficulty is in making it work – ensuring all people feel welcome within the organization, and have a chance to rise to the level their abilities allow.

Boris Groysberg, a Harvard Business School professor who teaches a course on how star women succeed, and Katherine Connolly, who works in the organizational behaviour unit at the school, decided to search for answers by speaking to 24 leaders of diverse organizations. From those interviews, it was clear that success depends on chief executive officers firmly pushing for diversity.

"The CEOs we spoke with did not see diversity as a once-and-done initiative, nor did they hand off the responsibility for it to others. Rather, each of the 24, in his or her own way, approached inclusivity as a personal mission," they wrote in Harvard Business Review.

In an interview, Prof. Groysberg stressed that it is important to make a distinction between the words "diversity" and "inclusiveness." Diversity is about counting the numbers, to see that women and minorities are progressing to leadership posts. Inclusiveness is about making the numbers count – about all individuals feeling cherished and equal.

They lay out eight practices that can make a difference, according to the CEOs they interviewed:

1. Measure diversity and inclusion

What gets measured, gets done. Bank of America puts questions about diversity and inclusion in its biannual employee engagement survey and has built a diversity-and-inclusion index based on responses to seven questions. It's not just sheer numbers that count – how many people have risen to top posts – but how people feel: Do they believe they are valued for their contribution? And it's important to dig into the numbers for individual departments to ensure diversity is widespread.

2. Hold managers accountable

Many organizations are making diversity part of the performance objectives managers must meet. And not just managers at the top – managers throughout the organization. Even in bad times, better companies stick with the theme. Tim Solso, CEO of engine manufacturer Cummins Inc., told the researchers he fired someone who suggested they give up on diversity during the recession of 2000-2003 – and it was made clear to other managers why that individual was pushed out.

3. Support flexible work arrangements

The better companies developed flexible work arrangements to help staff with young children. Many companies talk a better game in this area than they deliver. "CEOs must model it – for example, leaving work early for their own family obligations. They must show there are times when family considerations take precedence," Prof. Groysberg said in the interview.

4. Recruit and promote from diverse pools of candidates

Companies have to find a way to measure not only how diverse the pool of candidates is for promotions but also for various openings. It's also important to look at who stays and who leaves. Do your retention statistics suggests you are losing the very members of minority groups you recruited? Most companies fear diversity quotas, but Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn told them he has used quotas to push for women in areas where they are low, such as engineering, and makes sure in succession plans that managers consider a specific number of female candidates.

5. Provide leadership education

Companies need to make sure women and minority candidates have access to leadership training, so they will be eligible for promotion. "The lower ranks of organizations tend to be more diverse," Ms. Connolly noted in an interview. "By allowing them access to leadership training you are allowing them to grow." In these programs, they can also build internal networks, which Prof. Groysberg found in other research to be lacking for women compared with men.

6. Sponsor employee groups and mentoring programs

The importance of mentoring is well known but the researchers also highlight employee resource groups, when various subgroups who share an affiliation get together, such as women or people of the same ethnicity. Top managers should express support for such groups. "It gives them a voice, a sense of community, and a place where they can discuss the undiscussables," Prof. Groysberg said.

7. Offer high-quality role models

If the other steps are done well, then there will be some women and minorities who can be role models for others following in their steps. "It's important for companies that high potentials find their role models inside rather than outside the organization. If none are inside, it says something about the culture of the organization," he said.

8. Make chief diversity officer position count

Increasingly, companies are naming chief diversity officers to oversee their initiatives. It is important they have the ability to get things done – and are backed by the CEO. "If diversity is not a priority for the CEO, you can have 70 chief diversity officers and it won't make a difference," Prof. Groysberg said.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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