An unarmed black man in Minneapolis knelt on by a police officer until he could no longer breathe. A black jogger—unarmed as well—chased and shot in Georgia. And a Louisville black woman killed in her own home. The nation, already reeling from a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 and thrown millions out of work, is now on fire as protestors rage over how the rights and voices of black Americans are not heard.

The message, unfortunately, is not new, nor is it a complaint directed solely toward public institutions. “This is not a police brutality issue. It’s much broader,” says Ayana Parsons, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who focuses on board and CEO diversity, equity and inclusiveness. But while corporate leaders may not be able to make much headway on large societal institutions, experts say they can push through change in their own organizations. “If there will be long-term sustainable change, it has to come from the power source: that’s CEOs and board directors,” Parsons says. “Those are seats that black people don’t hold.”

For years, long before George Floyd’s death on a Minneapolis street sparked this weekend’s protests, many have been screaming about the lack of diversity and inclusion in the business world. But minority representation at the top of the country’s largest corporations has barely increased. In 2020, there are only four black CEOs leading Fortune 500 firms, and as of 2019, fewer than 10% of the most senior P&L leaders in the Fortune 500 were black.

Even the black employees who have reached high levels of success in the corporate world say they had to take much bigger risks than their peers did in order to advance. In an extensive Korn Ferry study, nearly 60% of the black executives who oversee major lines of business at Fortune 500 companies felt they had to work twice as hard—and accomplish twice as much—to be seen on the same level as their colleagues. “These leaders felt like they had to prove themselves in ways that they perceived their colleagues didn’t have to,” says Michael Hyter, a managing partner in Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice and a project leader on the research report The Black P&L Leader.

Experts say that companies can benefit from tearing down traditional systems of hiring, team building, and leadership development and replacing them with actively inclusive ones. Innovative thinking often happens when people of different backgrounds and perspectives come together to solve a problem. Data shows that companies with ethnically diverse executive teams are 70% more likely to capture new markets than their less-diverse peers and generate 38% more in revenue from innovative products and services. “Purposeful and participative leadership will help address this crisis—now,” says Jean-Marc Laouchez, president of the Korn Ferry Institute.

Doing so likely will not be easy. Early corporate efforts often focused solely on filling open roles with a person of color; there was no effort to make inclusivity sustainable. Diverse teams also can, in the short run, be less productive than homogenous teams because of the disruption and conflict that can result when different perspectives, experiences, backgrounds, thinking, and communication styles are merged.

But even as the rage from the weekend’s protests continues to smolder, experts say that this is a good moment for corporate leaders to commit to pushing an inclusive agenda. Right now, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say CEOs should immediately acknowledge, both to their employees and publicly, how widespread the systematic inequities toward blacks and minorities are. “They have to step up to the plate and acknowledge that the house is on fire,” says Parsons, adding this can be done in a variety of forums still possible under the pandemic, from virtual town halls to Zoom meetings.

From a broader perspective, Alina Polonskaia, Korn Ferry’s global leader of diversity and inclusion solutions, says corporate leaders need to consider a full redesign of many of the company’s systems, including hiring, training, promotion, and other practices. Many of those systems were designed for one type of candidate—a white, able-bodied male—and keeping them perpetuates a lack of representation and voice. “The default person can thrive, but we need to make sure that everyone else can, too,” she says.

To be sure, some D&I experts hold some of the same fears that many of today’s protestors harbor: that change may never come. But many of these same experts say they believe successful company leaders will recognize they must lead the movement themselves, while demanding their firms develop future inclusive leaders. Leaders like these are open to diverse points of view, motivate people from different backgrounds, and reach out to traditionally underrepresented employees and clients. “Listen—really listen—to the underrepresented and often-overlooked populations throughout your organization,” Parsons says. “They are brilliant and if you truly hear them, you’ll find many creative solutions to your most pressing challenges.”

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