A plaza with many people symbolizes diversity.

A reality check for the diversity debate

Working at Vontobel

Published on 01.06.2023 CEST

Diversity has been a focal point for companies for many years. The discussion about diversity has since expanded and now also encompasses inclusion and equity – based on the understanding that “Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix work” (Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry) as well as the recognition that circumstances differ and not everyone is in the same position.



Collaborating effectively


Companies never take action merely for the sake of it. Everything they do is designed to constantly improve their ability to solve their clients’ core problem. In our case: We strive to help investors protect and accumulate wealth in a global world in order to build their better future.

To solve this core client problem, to do so convincingly and to ensure that we can offer advice to our international client base, we require diverse teams that can collaborate effectively. That is the Why component of our topic. Of course, not every client problem or every industry or every business objective calls for the same type or degree of diversity. Nevertheless, an adequate causal link between diversity and the client problem is always essential for it to gain acceptance within the organization and to achieve success.



Sharing a system of values


Let’s now consider the How. Like many others, our team has also encountered the following fact, which has often been dismissed as an uncomfortable truth: There is no direct link between diversity and a company’s financial results in the sense that more diverse companies perform better. Rather, companies can strive to achieve an optimal balance between too much and too little diversity (learn more about the research). And that is not all: If diverse teams are managed poorly, they underperform compared to more homogenous teams. And good, progressive leadership can only be achieved in the context of diversity if the company has a shared system of values and a mission, the same vision, or a common purpose.

So, what is the recipe for successful diversity? I believe that the “conditio sine qua non” is having a shared system of values. Every diverse group needs a bond to hold it together – a connection that unites all its members, regardless of their differences. At Vontobel, it is our values; first and foremost, Ownership – each individual can and should think and act as if they own a share in our success. In recent years, we have invested a lot of time and effort in developing a long-term strategy for the next decade and in embedding it within the company. In a further step, we have focused the training and development of our management team – starting with me – more strongly on this challenge. This includes developing a critical awareness of our own strengths and weaknesses in order to address our own prejudices and inclinations, listening, leading by asking questions, and showing willingness to improve ourselves.

However, we also believe that we know which factors do not lead to success on this path: An ever greater public and corporate fragmentation of society, as well as misinterpreted political correctness that has led to a ‘sacrificial cult’ and to a cancel culture that opposes better arguments. After all, “We do not fight discrimination with discrimination” (Dr. Dambisa Moyo, Economist).



Understanding the challenges


Let’s now look at social parallels. Diversity has become a reality in many parts of the world, driven by old and new migration, open borders, and ever broader family and personal networks. Establishing parallels between this phenomenon and the still dominant nation state represents a huge challenge. Those who dismiss or trivialize this matter are challenging the theories of Sahra Wagenknecht (in her book "Die Selbstgerechten") or Peter Sloterdijk (”Die schrecklichen Kinder der Neuzeit”). Those who understand the challenges invest in inclusion and equity. The guiding principles behind many constitutions and founding myths show the way forward: “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit”, “All men are created equal” – or simply the idea behind the Willensnation (nation-by-volition) of Switzerland – a nation born with the desire to live together; a nation that embodied diversity from the very start with its different languages, communities, and religions. Despite all these differences, Switzerland has enjoyed peace and prosperity for well over a century.

As always, I remain optimistic. I am convinced that diversity that is geared towards the client problem will make us more successful as a company and richer as individuals. I also believe that societies that have developed and implemented a common set of values and are committed to them will preserve wonderful modern achievements such as equity and individual ways of life.

I hope you share my optimism about the future. As always, I look forward to your comments, whether you agree or disagree with the ideas presented here.