“Get on board—the role of non-executives in driving diversity and inclusion”—David Mills interviews Margherita Della Valle, deputy chief financial officer at Vodafone, on the role of non-executives in driving diversity and inclusion (D&I) within their organizations.
What role can the board play to drive diversity and inclusion? How does their role compare to that of the executives?
"An inclusive culture in the boardroom is about opening the door to different people and welcoming different inputs. It is easy to work with like-minded people because we understand each other's language, but to truly be inclusive, the board must adapt to different styles, which ultimately maximizes the contribution of all the board members."
An interview with Margherita Della Valle, deputy group chief financial officer, Vodafone
Margherita holds both executive and non-executive roles in two FTSE 100 organizations—as deputy group chief financial officer of Vodafone and as chair of the Audit Committee for Centrica. She is also a trustee of the Vodafone Foundation.
Vodafone is considered a leader in the D&I space and has launched several truly pioneering initiatives. In 2015, Vodafone was one of the first multinationals to introduce a worldwide mandatory minimum global maternity policy, and in March 2017 the business launched the “ReConnect” program, designed to provide people who have taken a career break, many of them likely to be women who have quit their jobs to raise a family, with a way of returning to work. Margherita and the entire executive team at Vodafone have been critical in driving these groundbreaking initiatives.
Q: What role should the board play in driving diversity and inclusion within the organization?
A: Ultimately, it is about setting the tone for the company. This has to stay at a high level and shouldn’t interfere with day-to-day management. But the board should continuously ask questions, both about the current diversity statistics as well as the strategy of talent management. Through the board keeping the topic on the agenda, it sets the tone for the rest of the organization that this is seen as important.
Q: Are there any instances where the board can have a direct impact rather than just setting the tone?
A: The board has a number of opportunities in which they meet the management of the company at different levels, and often it is these times that can have a more direct impact.
I remember a time when the board went for a tour around one of the gas terminals. There was a young woman who had just been appointed to run the terminal, and all the employees reporting to her were longstanding and experienced. I believe that the way that the board engaged with her helped change the dynamic. It was the board’s role to support her leadership through the way we interacted with her and showed we respected her position and achievements. I believe that this will have an impact on the way that her team will view her in the future.
Q: Any other practical examples?
A: It’s also about listening to the organization and reacting. We once had a senior woman who had decided that once she went on maternity leave, there would not be a role at the organization for her to come back to because of her work-life balance needs. The board was told of this situation, which led to a number of conversations about how we could avoid this happening in the future. We confronted the issue directly, which was very successful, and she now leads one of the biggest divisions in the company. It is about learning from those examples.
Q: How does the board create an inclusive working culture?
A: An inclusive culture in the boardroom is about opening the door to different people and welcoming different inputs. It is easy to work with like-minded people because we understand each other’s language, but to truly be inclusive, the board must adapt to different styles, which ultimately maximizes the contribution of all the board members.
This is clearly about more than gender diversity. Very often I notice, for example, that some environments are more welcoming of strategic management styles but are less comfortable with more operational leaders because of the different communication approaches.
Q: What is the distinction between the role of non-executives and the executives?
A: The board can set the tone and ask questions, but it is the executives who ultimately have to deliver. This is why it is so important that we focus on diversity at the executive committee level as well as on the board.
Despite the difference in roles, it is important for the chair and CEO to be aligned on the importance of diversity and inclusion, and this partnership can make a real difference in terms of progress, as it shows the rest of the organization that this is something both the chair and CEO prioritize.
Q: How do the CEO and board articulate the importance of diversity and inclusion to the rest of the organization?
A: I do think that target setting can be helpful to focus the mind. When there is more pressure, people need to act on it and that does tend to work in driving diversity. But it’s not all about targets; culture has a key part to play and even the small things can have a real impact. For example, if the promotion language is dominated by a “male version” of leadership, it can have hugely damaging implications on the progression of female talent within the organization.
Q: But how do you make people realize that this language can be so damaging? Quite often people appear to not realize the impact.
A: It’s a tricky one … the only real solution is to have more diversity in senior leadership so that these leaders can call people out on the language that they use. It’s also about creating an environment where employees can give upward feedback. But, as you said, the thing that is so tricky about this use of language is that people don’t realize it is a problem.
Thank you, Margherita.