The insurance group CEO, who was the first black person ever to lead a FTSE 100 company when he became CEO in 2009, was speaking at the Women’s Business Forum in London on 7 October.
In a rare public and deeply personal speech that referenced his early life in the Ivory Coast, Thiam said he wasn’t promoting “diversity for the sake of diversity”, but because “it produces the best performance”.
“Diversity and meritocracy go hand-in-hand,” he said. “The benefits are obvious for a global organisation. Diversity leads to better decision-making; independence of mind and diversity of opinion is what you want in any high-performing team. Teams, companies and countries that embrace diversity will win in the end.”
He added that “networking to learn” was crucial and spoke of the importance of role modelling within an organisation. “Don’t always look up for mentoring, look down too,” he said. “Hire great people and learn from them.”
Rather than market cap or share price, he said what made him most proud was “seeing people do things they didn’t think they could do”.
No room for complacency
At the same event, Heather Jackson, founder of An Inspirational Journey and the Women’s Business Forum, called on businesses not to get complacent about diversity, despite the encouraging statistics around women on boards.
“The women on boards figures are reasons to celebrate, but it’s the talent pipeline that’s the future,” she said. “Is this the time to become bored with the issue and look for brighter, sparklier topics? Absolutely not.”
She referred to gender balance in business as a “marathon”. “The first 20 miles are the easiest, the last six will be much harder,” she said. “It’s not about being first over the finish line, it’s about making sure we all work collectively to cross it.”
Jackson also warned that not taking diversity and gender balance seriously will become a talent risk for organisations. “Soon top talent will not want to work for organisations that are not balanced and diverse; it’s that serious,” she said. “Companies that aren’t doing this won't perform well in the future.”