Korn Ferry's Sarah Chorus on the courage needed for D&I change

15 January 2020 Consultancy.uk 11 min. read
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While the importance of diversity and inclusion is broadly agreed upon by the majority of business leaders, many organisations still fall short of living up to their commitments. Korn Ferry ’s Sarah Chorus sat with Consultancy.uk to discuss how leadership investment and continuous process analysis can help companies improve their diversity efforts.

“In a way, diversity and inclusion (D&I) is my life theme,” states Sarah Chorus, a Principal Consultant with human capital consultancy Korn Ferry. “On many occasions I’ve been the odd-one-out. Whether it is because I lived in Belgium as a Dutch person between the ages of 11 to 18, or because I went to a boys’ school, or I studied at the Technische Universiteit Delft [where just 25% of students are women] – even because I’m quite expressive and emotionally intense, which in a corporate environment can be quite a challenge!”

Chorus – who is based in Korn Ferry’s Amsterdam office – specialises in diversity and inclusion and culture transformation. It is an area of major growth in many respects, but in many others it appears to be being held back by the often-unconscious biases of fiscally cautious business leaders.

A mounting body of evidence suggests that improving D&I in the workplace can improve the long-term results of an organisation, while also benefitting the world beyond the office. Addressing issues including pay gaps and social attitudes in the recruitment process, formerly marginalised demographics – such as the LGBT+ and BAME communities and women – could better engage with their work – providing a potential boost to financial performance of as much as 30%.

Sarah Chorus, Principal Consultant at Korn Ferry

However, many corporations continue to drag their feet on the matter. Despite the consensus now being that “diversity is important,” many entities seem to simply be paying lip-service to the matter, with a recent poll of 2,000 workers in Britain finding around half of all employers had failed to make “any progress” on D&I, in the past three years. Indeed, while many organisations might vocally advocate diversity, they can often be quick to lapse back to old ways when the going gets tough.

“I think you won’t find anyone now in this world who will say ‘I don’t think D&I is important,’” Chorus argued. “Everyone agrees on that – but truly invest is a different ballgame. It may even mean going through some pain to change, because investment might mean that you can’t get the short-term growth you were aiming for. The first step to a D&I transformation is therefore to really believe in it.”

As is the case with any culture transformation, leadership is crucial for D&I, Chorus stresses. “They need to believe; they often have the budget, and they can decide, ‘This is what we want to invest in, it is what will be good for our company now.’ If the leadership is not involved in a transformation, we will be very hesitant to take on the programme, because it will not pay off in the end. It makes it a hell of a lot easier,” Chorus confirms.

At the same time, she is also very aware “how very hard it can be to be inclusive.” Due to this consciousness, as well as her first-hand experience as “an outsider,” she says she is able to approach the issue from both perspectives. Knowing what it is like to not fit in, she knows people in that situation tend to “adapt,” which in the long-run means their organisations lose out on the positive sides of their different approaches and backgrounds. Meanwhile, since entering the D&I segment, Chorus has become increasingly aware of her own “unconscious bias” – something she asserts everyone has – and must be mindful of in order to be more inclusive.

Ideal process

Asked to describe an ideal D&I programme; Chorus once again emphasises the importance of a business’ leadership. The process would begin with a session with the board, making them aware of what is being talked about in terms of D&I, and what the business case for it would be at the specific company.

The second step is taking an integral view to how D&I should be embedded across all ranks of an organisation. “D&I touches on several aspects of operations, from recruitment and company structure to team dynamics and benefits & rewards. A holistic approach provides the foundation for an effective transition.”

“After that,” she continues, “we perform a diagnostic – looking at different groups; engagement; certain succession pipelines, and so on – and from that, take the main things you need to work on; whether it’s groups, specific parts of the talent cycle, and only then do you start to talk about solutions, and how you can integrate them in a firm’s processes and behaviours from top-to-bottom.”

However, while summarised in a nutshell like this it sounds a relatively straightforward process, Chorus reasserts that this is actually much harder than businesses might think.

“It is hard enough to change yourself – we all know that. And if then, you want to change a whole organisation of people, it takes continuous effort. The journey consists of learning by doing – trial and error. If you are in the majority, it can be easy to overlook the different needs of others. Sometimes there is a certain ‘world’ which is made in a certain way, for example, if a building would be designed by some men, it might have the same number of male and female toilets, even though women might need and use more toilets. Systemically, things like that do get in the way of D&I change, and it requires constant effort to improve.”

D&I is about much more than simply “making up the numbers” or fulfilling quotas, then. It also requires a sustained effort to enable employees of all shapes and sizes to feel empowered to do their job, and to use their unique perspectives to engage with the company and push for much-needed changes others might have overlooked. In line with this, Chorus believes that D&I work has changed drastically in recent years, with the focus having shifted to a greater emphasis on inclusion than previously.

Dimensions of diversity slide

She expanded, “While diversity is inviting people to the party, inclusion is actually inviting them to dance. Diversity has often been focused on because it can be seen more easily – even though it goes beyond physical traits, and can also include things like having introverts and extroverts both represented at a firm – but alone, it doesn’t unleash its potential, that’s where inclusion is so interesting. It has certainly moved higher up the agenda, so D&I is increasingly recognised as more than simply looking at what percentage of certain groups are in an organisation.”

Broadening this point, Chorus believes that D&I efforts should not only be focused on “visible factors.” Partially, this is because an approach that goes further can take away from the pressure and tension of only looking at diversity in terms of visible factors. When only basing D&I on visible factors, it can even make the people it helps be included feel singled out, or fearful of being labelled as the beneficiaries of ‘positive discrimination.’ At the same time, this can help unleash the full talents of a firm’s staff that would never have been considered as being excluded before.

When asked how a firm might try to address those less visible aspects of D&I, such as introverted personalities or being a single parent, Chorus endorses a holistic approach. Building from management down through to the recruitment process, firms can adapt to compensate for their previous blind-spots.

“This is a little bit where unconscious bias comes in,” she states. “For example, sometimes if I’m facilitating a group, and the group is very quick and asking lots of questions, I can fall into the trap of thinking they are more engaged than groups that don’t do that. If I take away that initial bias, ‘extroversion means they are more engaged,’ and really look at what’s going on, I can see quieter people actually process things. When they ask a question it is really focused, and I suddenly think, ‘Wow, you thought this through!’ That’s the sort of thing we need to train ourselves to be more aware of.”

“At the same time, in recruiting, we have to be careful not to have that same bias – instead of just favouring someone for seeming ‘open’ or ‘energetic’, take a step back and think what is really needed for this role – and if this person fits that, it should not matter.”

Looking forward

It seems that a lot of this process, holistic or otherwise, relies on leadership commitment if a D&I transformation is to succeed. Board members and executives must lead by example, or it sounds as if their firm is unlikely to end up walking the talk on inclusion. However, if leading by example is so important, the most powerful people in the world – such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump – have arguably done the reverse with regards to D&I in recent years. Is this increasingly toxic political climate hindering inclusion efforts in the business world?

“It takes courage and investment; change is uncomfortable, but if you look at it through a bit of a mild lens, it can also be a lot of fun.”
– Sarah Chorus, Korn Ferry

“It might,” Chorus speculates. “But I think the impact of shareholder buy-in and technology is bigger at the moment. Beyond business, I think you could also look to climate activism for example, [the state of politics] doesn’t seem to stop that movement either. People are still motivated to change things, at whatever levels – and while D&I can be macro, it can also be micro. Change can come from the bottom-up as well; organisations are people after all.”

Regardless of the political environment, D&I change can still find a way then, and besides which, business leaders have both a material and moral reason to champion it. According to Chorus, Korn Ferry research has recently found that the business case includes the fact firms with higher inclusivity are 70% more likely to capture new growth, while enjoying 33% higher profitability.

Meanwhile, summarising the human-centred case for D&I change, Chorus concludes, “We all have different obstacles; some people have more than others. To get them to have the confidence to grow their career and improve the overall performance of a company, D&I programmes are essential. Having candid conversations – both among employees and involving management – can help firms realise where they can improve, and what they can do to strengthen their efforts... It takes courage and investment; change is uncomfortable, but if you look at it through a bit of a mild lens, it can also be a lot of fun.”