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opinion

Neil McLaughlin is group head of personal and commercial banking for Royal Bank of Canada

Canada is one of the world's most diverse countries. Business gets it.

Diversity and inclusion are part of our values. They're critical to the future prosperity of our country. They're a business imperative and key for growth and innovation.

We know this. So what are we doing about it?

That's a growing challenge for Canadian businesses as we come to grips with twin revolutions in the technology we use and the society we serve.

This summer, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and the Institute for Canadian Citizenship surveyed 64 leading organizations – from hospitals to technology firms – that collectively employ 1.2 million Canadians to ask them about diversity and inclusion: how they define it, how they go about promoting it and how they measure it.

The survey results will be released at the 6 Degrees Conference in Toronto on Sept. 26, and the findings are both encouraging and concerning. Canadian business gets diversity, but we're struggling with inclusion – an imprecise and ambiguous word that most employers don't know how to approach. Diversity is often considered to be what we see. It's a fact. Inclusion is what we hear – how we value, respect and involve everyone. It's a choice.

Nearly 90 per cent of organizations in the survey strongly believe diverse and inclusive teams make better decisions. And, as we deal with whipsaw changes in the digital revolution, we realize we need more diverse perspectives than ever.

Here's the rub. Where the majority of organizations see themselves as diverse, and go to great lengths to foster diversity, few have found a way to come to grips with inclusion strategically.

The numbers tell the story: 65 per cent strongly agree that leveraging diversity is fundamental to organizational performance, but only 10 per cent say they're taking full advantage of a diverse work force. Only 20 per cent tie diversity and inclusion results to performance objectives and only 10 per cent measure the effects of diversity and inclusion on innovation.

In roundtables across the country, we heard shared concerns from different and diverse companies. A mining giant saw attracting more women as an answer to the problem of an aging work force – and then realized at its mine sites it didn't have goggles or helmets that fit them properly. A state-of-the-art hospital in a low-income neighbourhood discovered that many of the residents its serves view it as the "castle on a hill" rather than a health-care partner or potential employer.

These firms recognized that while they're surrounded by diversity, they're not harnessing it and, therefore, are not moving at the pace of change of the communities around them. We all know we have more talent, more ideas, more passion, more perspectives than we use. In business, we'd call it a stranded asset.

When you consider that Canada accepts 300,000 immigrants annually, that one-fifth of Canadians are visible minorities and that 60 per cent of Canadian females between the ages of 25 and 64 have post-secondary degrees, the survey numbers tell us we need to do better. Add to that the fact global talent is highly mobile, and it's clear: We need to do better now.

At RBC, we've seen incredible creativity and innovation through a co-op program, Amplify, that encourages students – two-thirds of whom were born outside Canada – to solve some of RBC's most complex business challenges. We're taking that diversity of thought and trying to leverage it for better business results. That's inclusion.

It's not about relying on the "smartest person in the room" but the talent of many. It's about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. As our Amplify program shows, a diverse group of engaged people is more likely to solve a challenge than a genius lone wolf. This diversity of thought is where you get innovation.

If we are to tackle challenges such as climate change and health care, we need to cultivate the talents of all our best minds. We need to see inclusion not as an employee-engagement tool, but a core part of corporate strategy and a way to build stronger communities.

So, how can Canadian employers leverage the country's diversity to come up with new ways of thinking and working? Here are some ideas we heard in conversation with organizations across the country: Get the strategy group to make diversity and inclusion their own priority. Adopt innovation metrics to see how inclusion is paying off. Make it a central part of every leadership discussion. Promote a questioning culture, to engage the minds of the many, not just those who think they've got it figured out. Measure, measure, measure. Compensate accordingly. Repeat.

Canadian business gets it. Now we need to act on it.

Kara Swisher, technology journalist and co-founder of Recode, says that Silicon Valley operates as a "mirror-tocracy" more than a meritocracy and that diversifying staff is the way to tackle sexism. Swisher was in Toronto to speak at the Women in the World Summit on Monday, September 11, 2017

The Globe and Mail