Why Heidi Klum harms Diversity just as BlackRock or Head-hunters do

This moment, when you discover a trend and you feel it deserves to be promoted by your fame and authority. The next day, everybody else tells you the trend started 20 years ago and you were always part of the problem.

It has happened every single year over the past ten years: Someone with power, potential or possibilities heard about Diversity and intuitively realised the opportunity it presents. Last year, it was BlackRock and the European Round Table of Industrialists. This year, it is Heidi Klum and – again – BlackRock. And almost each year, one of the top consulting firms – mostly strategy consultants or executive search consultants – launch a dossier, a study and a tool for Diversity & Inclusion. These efforts share two main characteristics:

  • The stakeholders don’t realise that they are actually far behind the trend
  • They don’t realise that they have been part of a problem that D&I used to face

When Heidi Klum tries to speak about Diversity …

In rare unanimity, media commented on Heidi Klum’s most recent effort to re-position her TV show ‘Germany’s Next Top Model’ with a Diversity flavour by describing it as pure self-parody. For sure, there is a strong entertaining element, when ‘diverse’ candidates add colour, authenticity or extravaganza to a mould that before had only been famous for its uniformity.

What should concern D&I professionals is the fact that the idea of Diversity is corrupted when it is applied in random contexts and stereotypical ways: Candidates from diverse backgrounds are reduced to their otherness and overexposed in a way that is just as insulting as the extreme normative approach of the show itself.

When Executive Search firms try to speak about Diversity…

When political pressure to increase Board Diversity reached the C-suites and supervisory boards, the top managers turned to the ones they have been relying on for decades: Executive Search Consultants. However, they did not critically ask them why they had never covered the complete talent market and only supplied one type of candidate, ideally from their networks. They asked for help and rewarded the head-hunters with a new multi-million business. Overnight, they had become experts in finding top female and multi-national talent.

Motivated by so much trust, even head-hunters who used to be famous for their extremely limited and over-confident interview-only assessment approach and who had never thought about any internal D&I framework, started to publish advice about how to manage D&I in a company. Still today, only very few of the executive search firms have robust in-house D&I reflexion-based change programmes. But almost all offer tools for their clients to assess or improve Diversity.

When BlackRock tries to speak about Diversity…

Another type of institution that was traditionally seen as an inhibitor of Diversity are Investment Management Firms. Their industry-specific focus on both short-term and maximised profit as well as increasing stock prices made them the evil eminence in many power contexts. But an increasing body of research, including studies by investment experts, provides evidence that Diversity & Inclusion is good for profitability and performance. This is the language that Asset Management Firms understand and hence many of them have joined partnerships for women in finance and most run the standard D&I programme portfolio internally.

BlackRock, however, by far the largest publicly held asset management firm, started to communicate about Board Diversity to the companies in which they have been invested. Their first message, in early 2018, was not much discussed by experts or media. This year, however, the tone of the Diversity communication changed and consequently created heated reactions. Interestingly, the criticism does not relate to the not-so-supportive role that investment management firms like BlackRock have had to date regarding D&I. BlackRock’s CEO, Larry Fink, had crossed several red lines with his Diversity messages that polarised the field and created cheerful support on one side and hefty backlash on the other.

Read the full analysis of Larry Fink’s messages and the backlash it created

How to speak about Diversity…

Unlike in the early years of Diversity, the public climate has become quite confrontational regarding diversity, equality or inclusion. In many places, it is again accepted to openly (or even harshly) oppose ideas of equal opportunities, non-discrimination or bias mitigation. This has strong implications on how D&I practitioners should design their messages. Obviously, they must be a lot more elaborate than in the beginning, when creating attention and raising basic awareness was appropriate.

More concretely, the backlash on BlackRock’s messages provides a few strong lessons about how to carve out your D&I communication:

  • Back to Business: In a business context, base your D&I story on business arguments only
  • A clear Priority: Position D&I as a dedicated contribution to the business agenda (not a second or support item of another trend or key topic)
  • Choice of Timing: Choose a business context for your (recurring) communication
  • Specific: When you speak about D&I, speak about D&I only and what changes are required going forward

Read how BlackRock could have avoided mistakes