Anthony Coletta is CFO of SAP North America. Views are the author's own.
Pipeline issues are frequently cited as a hurdle to fostering diversity and inclusion (D&I) in finance organizations. The term refers to the availability of people trained to do the work you need.
A quick search online, however, surfaces volumes of research showing why this is a flawed and incomplete explanation for D&I shortcomings. Given recent data from The Wall Street Journal about the value D&I brings to organizations, it's incumbent upon us as CFOs to leverage our role as strategic leaders in the boardroom to try solving it. In its research, the Journal found five- and 10-year returns of the top 20 D&I performers outpaced companies lagging in this department.
It’s inspiring to see this study clearly outlining a reality I’ve seen as a global finance executive working in different regions of the world throughout my career: D&I is a driver of transformation for businesses striving for sustained success.
This is certainly true in finance. Our team is a great example. Ever since SAP began measuring its performance against the Economic Dividends Gender Equality (EDGE) workplace gender equality initiative launched at the World Economic Forum a few years ago, my North American field finance team has had tremendous success with customer engagement thanks to our push for a team that reflects the diversity of our customers. More than half of our team are women with clear management trajectories. This isn’t just window dressing: the results for our business underpin how pushing ourselves past industry standards has produced a real impact for us.
Here are best practices I've collected over the years to help you, as a CFO, find similar success at whatever stage of your D&I journey you're on.
Venture outside your traditional talent pool
For SAP, diversity means a multidimensional, intersectional workforce reflecting our diverse, dynamic customer base across more than 180 countries. To help us move closer to achieving this goal, we've tackled the pipeline problem myth head-on by rethinking our approach to recruitment and, in many ways, creating new talent pools. The key is to conduct talent outreach beyond historical recruiting channels.
Our Autism at Work program is an example. To compete in the innovation economy, companies need employees who think differently and are able to find unique solutions to challenges. Launched in 2013, the program helps individuals on the autism spectrum flourish in IT roles at our company, empowering them to succeed and fuel innovation. For example, a Buenos Aires-based member of our finance team who came on board through the program developed an entire procurement solution that we are now embedding in our intelligent suite. This is digital finance innovation at its best, and it stemmed directly from a commitment to D&I.
We offer resources for companies interested in starting similar initiatives, but you don't have to launch a full-fledged program. Relatively small steps, such as reexamining the group of colleges you traditionally recruit from, or getting involved earlier with high school programs, can go a long way toward solving the pipeline issues people talk about so much.
Having worked in many countries across the world, I can tell you there are emerging markets replete with capable management and finance leaders ready for organizations to recruit them. You just need to be out there, building bridges and offer compelling roles in a flexible environment where young talent can benefit from mentoring or development opportunities.
Make technology an ally
As with so much of what we do today in finance, technology can help you. Well-intended education initiatives simply aren't enough. At SAP, we're increasingly using machine learning and artificial intelligence embedded in human experience management software to alert us if job descriptions or management behaviors exhibit inherent bias.
Cultivate is an AI software created in our SAP.iO startup accelerator that alerts managers when they're giving disproportionate time and attention to some employees over others. Why is this important from a D&I perspective? Long-term outcomes such as when employees are promoted or receive top assignments are affected by day-to-day manager decisions, which are often affected by favoritism, an unconscious bias. The takeaway for you is to get creative with your technology tools to identify opportunities to cultivate D&I, and make this a consideration when it comes to partnering with your CIO or evaluating technology partners.
Show up early and often
SAP recently partnered with The Associated Press to produce a study examining the impact D&I has had on employees across industries and areas of the U.S. One striking finding was that while a majority of those surveyed believed that things are improving for underrepresented communities thanks to greater support and investment in D&I, significantly fewer respondents thought this has had an impact in their own workplaces. For me, there's at least one explanation for this insight: Morale and optimism in your workforce — both factors that can make or break your organization — start at the top. If your company's leadership isn't participating in these initiatives, people see that, and progress will stop in its tracks.
We see this all the time. Executives sponsor company and team D&I initiatives, but when it comes time to attend workshops or invest time to support the effort, they don't follow through. As a CFO, you can lead by example to change this pattern.
As we're pushed to go beyond traditional financial and governance responsibilities to take a hand in corporate strategy, finance circles frequently discuss our changing role as CFOs. This includes your company's D&I practices. For me, that has meant becoming a member of SAP's North America Diversity & Inclusion Council and Early Talent Advisory Board, taking an active role in recruitment and working with HR to write guidelines and explore ways to uncover fresh talent.
Ultimately, diversity is a fact of modern business. Inclusion is a choice we must make. As a CFO, ask yourself how you can start making an impact on your team and your greater organization's D&I focus. There are plenty of meaningful steps you can be taking today.