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Jun 4, 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth of 12 essays from the new book, The Rise of HR; Wisdom From 73 Thoughts Leaders. It’s compiled by Dave Ulrich, Bill Schiemann and Libby Sartain, and sponsored by the HR Certification Institute.

By Carole Watkins

The time has come for men to “lean in” and become full partners for increasing diversity in leadership in our corporations.

This requires moving beyond creating initiatives that become window dressing to proactive leadership actions that drive real culture change. And that is just what the men at Cardinal Health are doing.

Current reality in diversity and inclusion

While we would probably all agree we’ve made progress relative to diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the facts stand as a reminder that we still have a long way to go. Today women earn more college degrees than men, and within the next decade, Caucasians will become a minority in the United States.

White men are promoted at significantly higher rates than women and ethnically diverse talent. Articles, papers, and studies continuously espouse the benefits of diversity in our workforce. And, over and over again, the results show that companies that have more women and cultural diversity in their leadership perform and serve their customers better, attract top talent, have higher employee engagement, and are more innovative.

Yet, while women represent more than 46 percent of the U.S. labor force and 87 percent of consumer buying decisions, they represent only 4 percent of CEOs, 16 percent of board seats in Fortune 500 companies, and only 17 percent of U.S. House and Senate seats. And ethnic representation is even lower.

For years the corporate world, various professional organizations, universities, and agencies have offered leadership classes and seminars for women, African-Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and other minorities focused on “improving the leadership” skills of these constituents. Mentoring programs, networking groups, and many initiatives focused on women and ethnically diverse talent are available inside and outside of our organizations.

Yet, why has the number of women and ethnically diverse leaders barely increased? To make real and lasting change, inclusion must be treated and led with the same attention and importance as any other business imperative. And that means men must actively engage to drive results.

The Cardinal Health experience

After grappling with our own diversity and inclusion imperatives, more recently we accelerated our progress and momentum by actively engaging white men and raising the visibility of this business imperative. The impact it is having on our culture, and on them as individuals, is remarkable.

Cardinal Health is a global Fortune 25 health care products and services company. We are the business behind health care. We are working to make health care more cost-effective so providers can focus on their patients.

We, like many others, have had diversity and inclusion programs and initiatives for many years. Recently we took a small but bold step — we not only named our chairman and CEO George Barrett (a white man) to lead our Diversity and Inclusion Council, we named the CEO of our largest segment, Mike Kaufmann (another white man), as executive sponsor of our Women’s Initiative Network.

Our belief was, and still is, that if we FULLY engage our male leaders in our efforts, more progress will be made than when efforts were driven exclusively by women or ethically diverse talent — or, as we say, than when just women talked to other women and ethnically diverse talent talked to one another.

Let me be clear: This is NOT about women or ethnically diverse talent needing help from men to be successful. This is about getting men involved in a cultural shift and building awareness of how unconscious biases and beliefs influences behavior and ultimately organizational culture.

Accelerating culture change

We started somewhat cautiously and began by providing “Unconscious Bias” training across the organization; implementing a women’s leadership program that focused on women driving business projects that demonstrate measurable, significant business results; and setting “bold goals.”

Those goals included requiring diverse slates on all open positions and providing new and targeted assignments for high-potential females and ethnic minorities. We engaged an external expert to be our advisor and to push us to be even bolder.

Our progress was steady but, under our own critical eye, not good enough. The next year, we set goals to promote women at a rate closer to white men. The following year, we launched our broad “Engaging Men for Gender Partnership” initiative — a multi-pronged effort designed to create a more diverse and gender-balanced culture with a common commitment to maximize all talent.

This is truly when we began to see our culture change accelerate.

Partners leading change

One of our most effective moves was to launch our Partners Leading Change (PLC) program. Facilitated by our outside advisor, Rayona Sharpnack, CEO of the Institute for Women’s Leadership, this three-day seminar is designed to move beyond unconscious bias awareness to personal insights regarding behaviors and actions that are “gendered” and create unintended consequences. Over the course of the three days, participating men learn and reflect on their styles; build understanding of how men and women see the world through different contexts; and build skills to leverage the full contribution of both men and women.

Each participant commits to working on a project or initiative that will contribute to transforming the enterprise culture, leading to more women in leadership positions. A few of these projects include:

  • A gender compensation study;
  • A sponsorship program for women and ethnically diverse talent;
  • A program to build support at home for partners of women who work at Cardinal Health; and,
  • Creating a job rotation program for high-performing women in order to prepare them for general manager positions.

The results and impact have exceeded our expectations.

Basic differences between women and men

More than 100 male leaders have participated in this program. The vast majority of participants reported that, while the experience was “uncomfortable” and while they thought they understood issues women face because they have a wife and daughters, they came to realize that they “didn’t know what they didn’t know.” For example, they learned about some of the basic differences in the aspirations of men versus women:

  • Men often see themselves and their skills differently from women. If there are five requirements for a position and a man has two of them, he will ask for the position. But a woman who may have four of the five qualifications will not likely put her hand up because she doesn’t have the fifth. Men who participated in the program now recognize this difference and are reaching out to those women to encourage them to apply for positions rather than waiting to apply.
  • Assumptions are often made about women’s personal and professional desires. In the past, men were making assumptions without consulting the potential women candidates—for example, assuming a woman who is qualified for a promotion wouldn’t want it because she has small children and the job requires extensive travel. Assumptions might seem appropriate and even protective but they are actually self-censoring and limiting. Participants are now allowing potential female candidates to make that call.
  • Decisions made without applying a gender lens often have unintended consequences. Initiating conversations with women on their team about gender differences awakened male participants to how decisions they make may have unintended consequences. For example, a leader in our nuclear pharmacy business was finding it difficult to hire women, who today are the majority of pharmacy graduates, to move to some of our newer locations. When he probed more, he discovered that since the nature of the nuclear pharmacy business requires pharmacists to work during the dark early morning hours or late night hours, women were not comfortable with the current locations. He needed to consider location (in safe neighborhoods), good parking, and proper outdoor lighting before he could attract top female pharmacists.
  • Day-to-day conversations. Today’s business meetings are full of sports and military analogies. After talking to many women, male participants realized many of these were lost on the women in the room. The decision was made to begin a “fine” system. If a sports or military analogy is used, the person has to contribute to a fund donated to a local nonprofit focused on women’s issues.

PLC participants also reported having different, more meaningful conversations with spouses, partners, daughters, and sons about the impact of unconscious bias, asking them questions about its impact on them and sometimes leading to life- and relationship-changing conversations.

Meanwhile, at Cardinal Health, female promotions as a percent of total promotions jumped from 33 percent to 55 percent in one year. We believe this program played an important role in the improvement.


Our sponsorship program has also proved to be one of the contributing factors to our early success.

Sponsorship is different from coaching or mentoring. Coaches talk “to” you, mentors talk “with” you, but a sponsor talks “about” you. Sponsors advocate and help build recognition by others of your skills, abilities, and aspirations.

A sponsor is also the one to close the door and give “real” feedback. Protégés expect sponsors to be their “truth tellers.” Sponsor relationships are not to be entered into lightly. The sponsor has to know the protégé well and be able to see them perform. The protégé needs to trust that the sponsor has their best interests firmly at heart.

We began our program by asking every senior vice president in our organization to select two individuals, one of whom needed to be a female and/or ethnically diverse, to sponsor. This way the SVPs were selecting individuals they could advocate for, give direct feedback to, and promote throughout the organization. HR provided simple and targeted training and toolkits to help these relationships form in a new and productive way.

Again, the results have been positive. Sponsors are intervening to ensure the company is retaining, promoting, and recognizing the contributions of their protégés. Protégés are getting assignments, promotions, and lateral moves at a significantly higher rate than others. And the sponsors are learning more from their protégés than imagined — an unexpected bonus.

The program has been so successful that a few of our PLC participants developed a project to expand the program to lower levels in the organization. Another 70 more leaders, at the VP level, have been trained as sponsors and each selected two protégés, again with at least one being female or ethnically diverse.

Widen the Circle

Our focus is not solely inside the walls of Cardinal Health. Our chairman and CEO, George Barrett, championed the launch of Widen the Circle — an initiative to make Central Ohio, where we are headquartered, the best place in the country for women to grow their careers. To engage more companies in this work, Cardinal Health partnered with The Columbus Partnership, an organization made up of CEOs of major Central Ohio corporations.

To launch the Widen the Circle initiative, we hosted actor Geena Davis, whose foundation works to change how women are portrayed in the media, as the keynote speaker at a community-wide event attended by hundreds of leaders. Davis praised the initiative, saying that she believes Central Ohio “will become a model for the whole country.”

Work to date includes creating a benchmark of data on the current state of women in leadership in Central Ohio; creating a council of HR leaders in the community who are sharing best practices; conducting cross-company unconscious bias training; and launching “Lean In” circles across gender and companies. Columbus Partnership CEOs have also agreed to sponsor women leaders to serve on public company boards.

Tangible results

While we are far from claiming victory, we are convinced that actively engaging men in our diversity and inclusion initiative is effectively driving the right conversations, awareness, and accountability for this critical business imperative. It has also provided other tangible results:

  1. In 2010, Cardinal Health had no female presidents. By early 2014, four of nine presidents were women.
  2. We hold dedicated “diverse talent reviews” focused solely on discussing diverse employees, their talents and capabilities, and the next steps for their careers. This allows sponsors to advocate for and recognize their protégés so others are aware of their talents.
  3. The inclusion index, which is part of our annual “Voice of the Employee” survey, has increased 10 percentage points.
  4. In 2014, turnover for females at the manager level and above is 5.2 percent — which is lower than it is for their male counterparts (6.3 percent).

The business case for inclusion has been proved. But continuing to deliver on the benefits in our ever-more diverse business environment and engaging ALL our leaders in the process — especially white male leaders — will  be critical. Moving beyond the comfort of just “helping” women or ethnically diverse leaders to driving culture change that allows everyone to thrive and do their best work every day is the key.

Culture change takes time. At Cardinal Health, we believe we are accelerating the necessary change — and hope that many other companies will join us in this important work.

Compiled by Dave Ulrich, Bill Schiemann and Libby Sartain, and sponsored by the HR Certification Institute, The Rise of HR: Wisdom from 73 Thought Leaders is an anthology of essays addressing the critical issues facing business and talent professionals today. The full eBook can be downloaded @ Reprinted with permission of HRCI.