Diversity and Equality During Leader Transitions

January 21, 2021

Diversity and Equality During Leader Transitions

Rubin Ritter, co-CEO of Zalando, a top online fashion platform, announced in December 2020 that he will step down from his visible and well-earned role in 2021. Even though he had two more years on his contract and had the best financial year of his career in 2020, why did he make this decision? 

He said his decision to leave was based on the need to put his wife’s career first, which meant he would be required to remove himself from his current duties to best support her. Zalando is a growing, dynamic company with 30 million customers and over 14,000 employees that requires the majority of Ritter’s mental and physical energy, as most CEO roles necessitate. 

Will more men in top positions take the lead in setting examples for diversity and inclusion, and in charting a company path for real progress in those important areas? It doesn’t always require departing the top spot but bringing meaningful equality to the workplace does require equal parts awareness and action.

Equality in the Workplace

It takes men, especially white men, standing up for women and other minorities to move the needle to increase the numbers in all roles. Women and minorities are making strides toward equality, but we are moving backward in some cases, especially through the pandemic, where more women are leaving the workforce or downgrading their roles than men. The solution for change is complicated, specific to each company, and requires a long-term strategy driven by the C-suite.

I have talked with many organizations and consultants about why companies that focus on diversity and inclusion haven’t hit their goals, because most haven’t. I also have asked about the initiatives in place to reach their goals of X percent of women and Y percent of minorities in all levels of the company. The steps of conducting a bias seminar here and there, or teaching leaders how to hire more diverse candidates, aren’t working. Many don’t have true initiatives in place and are just verbalizing a vague desire to change their percentages, without any concerted plan or measures to do so. 

We must stop talking about it and work aggressively to change the culture of these companies; to not only accept differences, but to establish a culture that employees seek out and to which they seek to belong. That only happens with intentional emphasis by top leadership, and with meaningful diversity and inclusion initiatives included as part of a company’s strategic plans.

Successful Transitions

Many companies find themselves in a position where they lose a key executive and they haven’t planned for the transition. Without a succession plan for all key roles, companies are at significant risk of not accomplishing their goals. Succession planning is a critical area to incorporate diversity and inclusion efforts. Successful transitions require:

  • Starting sooner. Companies must identify critical roles and document key knowledge, skills and abilities for success in each role. They must document the current state of each role by identifying individuals currently filling the position and others that could potentially take the role now or in the future. Lastly, they can identify support and development needs the possible replacements would need to become ready and focus on implementing that plan. And they must do this before transitions happen so they can be prepared with qualified replacements. It can take three to five years for a company to have prepared employees ready for their next move. 
  • Looking at all key roles. Sometimes succession is upheld only for the CEO role. Succession planning and execution involves a plan for all key roles and a broader development plan for every individual in the organization.
  • Sharing the plan with leaders. Many companies worry that if their plans are known by the individuals slotted for upcoming senior roles, other people who are not chosen will leave. Sharing the plan shows employees that the company is thoughtful about their future plans, is willing to invest in employee development, and that there are opportunities to work toward. Outlining all roles, with expectations for each, will help others aspire to gain the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to fill them in the future.
  • Use objective tools. It is tough to create a succession plan without objective data about the future open roles and the employees that could potentially fit those roles with the right development. Using assessment tools and coaching resources can help with proper evaluation and development of next talent. 

Companies that follow these steps will be more agile during unforeseen disruptions and will be able to pivot with more certainty of success. By starting at the top, companies can build a culture that embraces and sustains diversity and equality. It’s not only achievable, but desirable.

The Authors: 

Jennifer Mackin is author of Leaders Deserve Better: A Leadership Development Revolution, CEO of Oliver Group, Inc., and President and Partner of Leadership Pipeline Institute US.